A Hopeful Geography – the story so far – part 1

Placemark-globe.svg

Source: Wikimedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1d/Placemark-globe.svg/768px-Placemark-globe.svg.png

Last month, I put a call out to those involved in geographical education, asking for ideas for how we can redress the negativity present in much of the educational discourse about global affairs, and instead rebalance students’ view of the world towards a more fact-based and progressive one.  Thank you to all who have responded – I have used some of your ideas below, and I have also been pondering and conducting some more research into the issue.

I also have not repeated any of the suggestions/provocations from my previous post, which can be found here. But I have split the articles into two parts: this is the first installment, which contains some practical ideas for educators.  Part two will contain some deeper feedback and ideas for next steps.  I will also use these articles to inform my presentation on ‘The New Optimism and Geography’ at the Geographical Association conference in Manchester in April.

Practical ideas for educators

The original – Gapminder

It has been said many times before, but teachers should endeavour to keep their subject knowledge up to date – and one way of doing this is to take the Gapminder Ignorance quiz yourself (before setting it to your students).  Elena Lengthorn (@ELengthorn) does this with her Geography PGCE students.  There is also a growing list of resources (including videos) at www.gapminder.org.

ignorance project logo

Source: Gapminder: http://www.gapminder.org

Secondly, could you consider teaching ‘factfulness’ as a discrete ‘skill’ – via one or two lessons (using Gapminder resources) or as a scheme of work in its own right – for example the one developed this year by Paul Turner (@geography_paul)?  This would help students to realise that they are subject to misperceptions brought about by ‘fast thinking’ and other biases.

Paula Cooper collated a set of resources about teaching a fact-based world view in 2010 on the GA (@The_GA) website – https://www.geography.org.uk/Gapminder-and-Worldmapper – and her GCSE resource book  ‘Uneven development – for richer, for poorer’ was published by The GA in 2010.  Both resources contain useful and inspiring ideas about addressing misconceptions, but such is the dynamic nature of this area of Geography that the data and links featured therein require updating (I will be approaching the GA to see if I can get involved in this!).

In a personal communication, Ola Rosling (@OlaRosling) has revealed that the Gapminder Foundation will be training Gapminder Ambassadors, who will be spreading the Factfulness message in the coming years.  I have registered my interest in this initiative – watch this space!

A hero for our times – Captain Geography!

Alan Parkinson (@geoblogs) shared the resources from his session on ‘Positive Geographies’ at the recent Scottish Association of Geography Teachers conference.  He covered a wide range of ways which could be used to inspire and teach students about ‘solutions’ to some of our most complex problems.  These include adopting a character called ‘Captain Geography – a hero for the Anthropocene’.  A few questions to consider here are: What missions should your students send him/her on, and why?  What should his/her superpowers be?  Who would his/her fellow superheroes be?

Agents for change – ‘A Better World Detectives’

Another ‘takeaway’ idea from Alan, for KS2/3 pupils, is to use the resources from TUI, jointly developed with the Geographical Association, called ‘A Better World Detectives’: https://www.tui.co.uk/better-world-detectives

Impartial facts – Our World in Data

We should also know where to point older students towards in order for them to gain facts about the world which are as impartial and up to date as possible – for example, www.ourworldindata.org which is led by Max Roser (@MaxCRoser).  The natural disasters graph shown later in this post comes from this website.

Optimistic outcomes – The World We Made

The World We Made cover

Could you encourage your students to look at the future via ‘optimistic’ outcomes, so that they might be able to see the fruits of the hard work needed in the years to come?  For example, at the Practical Pedagogies conference this year, Nicholas Garrick (@lightinguplearn) introduced me to Jonathan Porritt’s 2013 book ‘The World We Made’, which is a history of how the world made responsible decisions, told from the perspective of 2050.

Future archaeologies – digging down to the 2010s

Linked to this, and inspired by another session at the Practical Pedagogies conference, by Caron Downes (@caron_downes), I plan to recreate an archaeological ‘dig’.  When teaching resources/sustainability, I will bury items (like plastic bottle caps) from the 2010s in sand and ask students to pretend that they are archaeologists in 2050.  When they dig up each artefact, they can use them to assess how sustainably we lived our lives in the 2010s.

Textbooks – handle with care!

Textbooks should be updated frequently and issued with factual ‘health warnings’.  You could even set ‘fact check challenges’ to see how quickly the data has changed, or could you reward students who find the most significant mistake in a textbook?

Reframing hazards

When Geography teachers consider the way that they frame their approach to hazards, perhaps there should be more focus (excuse the pun) on the immense progress made in terms of managing hazards (especially atmospheric ones) and reducing death tolls?  (See the graph below.)  Is there a need to reframe the study of hazardous events in a more balanced light: it is indeed a step in the right direction to move on from calling them ‘natural disasters’ (Puttick et al, 2018) – but might a further relabelling be beneficial – ‘hazards and resilience’, perhaps?

Global annual death rate from natural disasters [sic], by decade, 1900s-2010s

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Global-annual-death-rate-from-natural-disasters-01.png 

Watch your words!

A Year 9 pupil recently asked me in my lesson, referring to a sketch in a KS3 textbook, “Why is it that India is referred to being ‘halfway down’ the [development] ladder, whereas China is referred to as being ‘halfway up’ it?”.  When we frame geographical questions, should we endeavour to use language which reflects the overall ‘direction’ of the trend?  For instance, rather than asking ‘why do so many people die from disasters?’ we could instead ask ‘why is the number of deaths from natural disasters falling?’.  We could therefore reserve the more ‘worryingly’ framed questions for those trends which are heading in the ‘wrong’ direction, therefore lending them more import.

Next steps

Please keep those ideas coming, and, building on the manifesto put forward by Hans Rosling et al in Factfulness (2018; summarised here), could you also let me know of some further ‘rules of thumb’ which practitioners could follow for managing and overcoming ignorance and misperceptions?

In my next instalment of the ‘Hopeful Geography’ story, I will also be referencing Bobby Duffy’s overview of the psychology of misperceptions ‘The Perils of Perception: why we’re wrong about nearly everything’ (Duffy, 2018) – it’s well worth a read!

Thank you again.

David

Bibliography:

Duffy, B (2018) The Perils of Perception (Atlantic)

Porritt, J (2013) The World We Made (Phaidon)

Puttick, S, Bosher, L and Chmutina, K (2018) ‘Disasters are not natural’ in Teaching Geography 43:3 (Autumn 2018)

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

 

Optimism assembly

137,000 people escape poverty Breaking News

This assembly was delivered to BGS, 23 November 2018.  Contact me for the full slideshow.

Is the world getting better?

Thinking generally about the world, all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?  You choose:

A: Getting better
B: Neither getting better nor getting worse
C: Getting worse

So, what do you reckon?  Please vote now.

This is surely one of the most important questions that humanity can ask of itself.

Dhaka slum picture Alcock 2001

Photo of slum in Dhaka, 2000 (Author)

My faith in human progress was shaken when, almost twenty years ago, I went on a round the world trip which ended up lasting 17 months.

I had learned about development in school and how some people said that rich countries made poor countries poor.  This trip was part of what led me into teaching – I felt like I needed to show people what the world was really like.

What I saw – for example, street dwellers in Kolkata and slum dwellers in Dhaka – seemed to back up my preconceptions.

Anti WEF Protest Melbourne Alcock 2000

Protests against the WEF in Melbourne, 2000 (Author)

It also led me to take part in protests against what I felt was an unjust situation – of forces, perhaps capitalism, perhaps globalisation – which were dragging the world down – this one happened whilst I was in Melbourne.

But what I didn’t fully realise was that, yes, extreme poverty was real, and yes, humans do have a capacity to harm each other, but what I was seeing was only what was happening at one point in time, and that over time, progress is being made – people are escaping poverty, they are living longer, more and more people are getting an education, there are growing numbers of democracies, there are fewer wars…  In fact, in virtually every social and economic aspect, and in many environmental aspects too, progress is being made.

Poverty % with my travels

Graph source: Max Roser et al (2018): http://www.ourworldindata.org

The theme of this week is optimism, and I would like you to question both your attitude towards the future and why you hold your opinions.

So, back to the question I kicked off with.  I have been doing a little bit of research about your opinions.  Thank you to my Year 8, 11 and 12 Geography sets, and ten members of staff I collared at random.  So what did these groups believe about the future of the planet?

Year Group getting better

It appears that the staff are more optimistic than the pupils, but that the majority view is that the world is going to carry on as it is, or get worse.

Country getting better

Source: Author’s research; Ipsos-MORI

In fact, the BGS average is higher than the results for the UK and similar countries – but it’s still not a resounding victory for optimism.  Let’s see what beliefs about the world might lie behind the lack of optimism.

In the last 20 years the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, worldwide, has…?

A. Almost doubled
B. Remained more or less the same
C. Almost halved

Think about it.

The answer is C: Almost halved

I asked the groups for their verdict.  Here it is:

Poverty survey

You will notice that I have put a column for a chimp on the right hand side, to represent the 33% chance of the answer being chosen at random (inspired by Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness – show book).  So every group here underestimated the true degree of economic progress in the world – their results are worse than random!  But why? We’ll come to that later.  Next question please.

Slide: In all low income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A. 20%
B. 40%
C. 60%

Think about it – what would you have voted?

The answer is C: 60%

How did the respondents do?

Low income girls in primary school survey

Oh dear – we have underestimated progress yet again.  Next question.

Slide: There are two billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100 according to the United Nations?
A. 4 billion
B. 3 billion
C. 2 billion

Think about it – what would you have voted?

The answer is C: 2 billion

How did my group do?

2 billion children in world survey

Well done to the two Year 11s who got this correct.  To everyone else in my survey – never mind, better luck next time.  I will pause to explain this one, because your results were so far out.

The world’s population is now almost 8 billion and it will probably top out at 10-11 billion.  Most of this growth is due to today’s children having children, and to people living longer.  But it’s not due to more births: women around the world have fewer babies than ever before – the global average is only just over two.  In 1960 it was 5.  Family planning and good healthcare mean that the so-called ‘population bomb’ has fizzled out.

Let’s have one more question.

Slide: How many people in the world have some access to electricity?
A. 20%
B. 50%
C. 80%

What do you reckon?

The answer is C: 80%

Our survey said…

Elec access survey

Well done Year 12s!

Here is a summary of just some of the positive trends in the world over the last few decades – it has become more peaceful, more democratic, healthier, better nourished, better educated, more connected, gender equal, and more tolerant.

For example, current UN trends show that the “ending of extreme poverty for all people everywhere” is due to occur by 2026.  The end of extreme poverty for all people everywhere – in only eight years – before some of you even turn twenty – is this a dream?

So at least one part of John Lennon’s lyrics – for ‘Imagine’ in 1980 – “Imagine there’s no need for greed or hunger” – is due to be met within perhaps all of our lifetimes – wow.

Lennon also sang “Imagine all the people living life in peace” – might this happen, barring relatively minor skirmishes, by the middle of the century?  With wealth comes property and with property comes a degree of calm…  Something to ponder.

There are significant challenges facing the world – many of them environmental.  Here are some of these challenges: climate change, extremism, cybercrime, pollution, inequality and recessions.  I am not saying that you should sit back and do nothing.  I am saying that we should carry on striving – and that we should not give up hope.

In summary, many of us underestimate the amount of progress that has been made in the world.  This is explored in great depth in books like ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling et al (in the school library).

But don’t blame yourself for getting things wrong!  Blame these instead: the media, outdated information, mistrust of good news, and human psychology.

Let’s start with the media: be aware that bad news sells, and most bad news comes suddenlyGood news tends to come slowly.

If news outlets truly reported the changing state of the world, they could have run the headline ‘NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY’ every day for the last twenty-five years.

137,000 people escape poverty Breaking News

I acknowledge http://www.breakyourownnews.com for the template (Photo: Author)

Outdated information – this one is quite simple – keep up to date!  Watch documentaries, and follow trusted news outlets.

Mistrust of good news: Steven Pinker says “Those who spread fear about a dreadful prophesy may be seen as serious and responsible, while those who are measured are seen as complacent and naïve”.  Try to prove him wrong!

Your mind warps your perceptions too.  Psychologists talk about anchoring – where we tend stick to the first opinion that we form about a subject, and defend it, often against the weight of evidence.

They also talk about the negativity instinct – negative stories have the edge over positive ones, because of the risks we faced in humanity’s formative years, such as bear attacks.

There is availability bias – a misjudgement where we believe that reality is all we can easily call to mind.

And finally, confirmation bias – where we seek validation rather than challenges to our views.

Adjusting your world view

Here are some rules of thumb so you don’t get caught out again!  Look for more on the Geography corridor.  Why is this important?  Negativity allows seeds of discontent and despair to take root.  Many people today have difficulty imagining, valuing, or even believing in the promise of incremental change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary change.

Is it time to reconsider your answer to the question we started off with?

Slide: Is the world getting better?
Thinking generally about the world, all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?  You choose:

A: Getting better
B: Neither getting better nor getting worse
C: Getting worse

Thank you.

A hopeful Geography?

The argument is familiar to geographers, but it is not familiar to most members of the general public and it bears retelling:

In almost all social and economic aspects, and in many environmental ones too, the world is getting better.  From Julian Simon in the 1980s, to Bjorn Lomborg in the 1990s, and Hans Rosling, Max Roser, and Steven Pinker in the 2000s, there has been a reaction against the largely negative tone of the media, and a desire for a more fact-based, level-headed and optimistic – or at least, in the words of Rosling (2018), a ‘possibilistic’ – view of the world.

MDG : Hans rosling wealth health graph

Hans Rosling with his moving bubble chart: there is a development continuum of countries, and there is a clear path towards a healthier and wealthier future for humankind

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/quiz/2013/nov/07/development-data-population-quiz-hans-rosling

Geography is not immune to criticism in this regard.  Although the discipline often prides itself on its balanced, empirical, and critical approach to the most important issues in the world, the tone of some of its output fails to reflect the global progress that has been made in areas as varied as life expectancy, peace, tolerance, sanitation and quality of life: the full list would justify a blog post in its own right, but see Pinker (2018), Rosling (2018), and Roser.  It might even be said that the themes that we study – disasters, overpopulation, climate change, conflict, pollution and deindustrialisation, to name but a few – give us a handicap to begin with: could Geography be in danger of taking the mantle of ‘the dismal science’ from Economics?

The discipline has a role to play in redressing the negativity present in much of the media and politics, and its practitioners should also be aware of the psychological quirks which tend to predispose humans to look at many phenomena in a negative way (Duffy, 2018).

Negativity can be dangerous – it could make students overly fearful and more willing to think that things are out of their control, and therefore less likely to take action on some of the most important issues in society.  It is also deleterious to the discipline: it may put students off taking the subject, and it can be dull to teach.

It need not be like this.  I would like Geographers, whether in any branch of education, or those who consider themselves to be Geographers in other spheres, to consider the role that the discipline can play in this task.  (Many readers will no doubt disagree with my premise, in which case I also welcome your input and evidence!)  I will draw your comments together and in the first instance I will blog about them; later I will use them to help me prepare my session for the 2019 Geographical Association Conference; and I then plan to plunge my energies into a more formal research project.

The main themes I would like you to consider are the themes we study, the way that we approach the themes that we study, and the learning activities that we undertake.

A few of my first – perhaps provocative – thoughts are below:

  • Do we sometimes fail to communicate the dynamic nature of some of our subjects? Should we reframe enquiry questions to reflect the ‘direction of travel’ of the world – for example, should we ask ‘Why are some countries rich?’, rather than ‘Why are some countries poor?’
  • Do we focus on the ‘worst case’ studies and places, and when those areas improve, do we drop them for the next ‘worst case’, rather than looking at how most places quietly and gradually improve over time?
  • Is enough attention paid to historical successes?  Within Health Geography, for instance, why is the rapid drop in mortality and morbidity due to the collapse of polio and smallpox often absent?
  • In terms of some of the ‘tricky’ themes such as climate change and globalisation, do we accurately convey the relative scale of positives compared to negatives?
  • Is enough attention paid within Geography to the power of the media and politics, and on how psychology affects our perceptions of reality?
  • Is there a need for a radical programme of teacher re-training to enable practitioners to get an accurate world-view?
  • Are we too scared as a discipline to contemplate the promulgation of a more ‘hopeful Geography’, for fear of being labelled reactionary, or even mouthpieces of the alt-right?

Finally, if you have any examples of activities or resources you have come across that either foster an unjustifiably negative world view, or, in contrast, those which gear students up to take a more fact-based view of the world, then please also let me know (one such example of the latter is Paul Turner’s six-lesson scheme of work on ‘Factfulness’).

You will appreciate that these are just some short and basic thoughts on the matter, and they lack polish.

Thank you for your time.

David

Some further reading:

Duffy, B. (2018) The Perils of Perception (Atlantic)

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)

Roser, Max (n.d.): Our World in Data: www.ourworldindata.org

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

 

Reasons to be happy – the real state of the world

Assembly – Reasons to be happy – the real state of the world  – Bradford Grammar School, 13 Jan 2017

What a depressing day – It’s Friday 13th, the days are short, the weather is terrible and term has just started again!  In the wider world, Trump is about to take over at the White House and there is great uncertainty over what exactly Brexit means.  There’s a crisis in Syria and Yemen, suicide bombs and terrorist attacks, and climate change looming over us.  Indeed, virtually every headline shouts out ‘crisis’!

But stop! Shouldn’t we look at these developments in context?  What’s the real state of the world?  If you look at the facts about the world socially, economically, and in most respects, environmentally, I want to show you that there are reasons to be satisfied, and – as befits the theme of the week – even happy.  And I need the help of some of you to do so.

So, let’s look at the direction the world is going in terms of just two aspects – health and violence.

Let’s start with the basics – how long are we living for?  Life expectancy is going up and up, as Hans Rosling is keen to point out.

In 1800, the global life expectancy at birth was between 20 and 30. In 1900 this had crept up to 31, by 1950 it was 48, but what is it today?

68 years old.  And this is a global average!  Even for those who survived the dangerous first few years of life, in 1845, a five-year old in the UK could expect to live until they were just 55, but a five-year old today – someone just starting Clock House – can expect to live until they are 82.  Surely this is a reason to be cheerful?

How many babies are living into childhood?

In 1800, 43% of children died before their fifth birthday.

How has this changed over time?  Well, thanks to healthcare, scientific improvements and so on, by 1900 this had fallen to 36%.

By 1950 it was 22%.

But how about 2015?

The answer is 4%

How about access to education?

Back in 1800, only one in eight people around the world could read and write.  This meant that an almighty 88% couldn’t read or write.

By 1900 it had barely decreased – it was still high at 79%

By 1950 it had nudged downwards to 64%

So what was it in 2014?

The answer is 17% – and it’s dropping fast!

But how often do these statistics make the headlines?  Very rarely.  Why not?  Good news does not sell papers, good news does not entice you to click the hyperlink, good news does not make you watch, well, the news.

One reason why we do not hear about how global living conditions are improving in the media is that these are the slow processes that never make the headlines. The media is overly obsessed with reporting single events and with bad news and does not nearly pay enough attention to the slow developments like these that reshape our world.

Max Roser points out that a media that would report global development could have had the headline “The number of children dying globally fell by 455 since yesterday” and they wouldn’t have this headline once, but every single day over these more than 2 decades.

Good news does not sell papers, good news does not entice you to click the hyperlink, good news does not make you watch, well, the news.

How about the way that we die?  Steven Pinker is a Canadian writer who has noticed more slow-burning good news.

How many people will meet their death in a violent manner?  Let’s start with murder.  You’d have thought that this is an ever-present threat.  But we live in an increasingly peaceful world.  Even at its peak, in tribal societies, your chance of being murdered in any one year was only 0.7%.

By 1800 the world average was 0.003%, by 1950 it was 0.001%, and it has fallen slightly since then. All these figures are over-represented by a Lego man.

So there is less murder nowadays – a reason to be cheerful!  Here is a list of other things which are getting rarer and rarer in the world:

Wars? Rarer? Surely some mistake?

Year 7s and 8s – you will all recognize this man from Geography and History – Otzi the Iceman.  How did he die?

Otzi the Iceman – Source: Thilo Parg [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, and 120 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, both from Wikimedia Commons

From an arrow.  DNA analysis found traces of blood from two other people on one of the arrowheads he was carrying, blood from a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape.  He belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighbouring tribe.  So how many people will meet their death from conflicts and wars nowadays compared to tribal societies?

In tribal societies the rate was, on average, 14%.  NB this includes civilian casualties.

In the early 1600s the rate was about 1%

It did peak again in the first half of the 20th Century – don’t forget, 100 Old Bradfordians died in WW1 – the worst war was WW2 – and the chance of someone dying from this was 1.5%

But how about today? There has been a tenfold increase in war deaths globally since 2005 – but what is the total chance of being killed in a war today – or of being a civilian victim?

It’s actually about 0.003%

The world has always been a violent place.  It is still a violent place – but it is much, much, less violent that it used to be.  The twentieth century was a violent century – more people died in wars in that century than in any previous century.  But most of those deaths occurred in the first half of that century – in one of the two world wars.  Since then, what Pinker refers to the ‘Long Peace’ has spread over the world.

Since 1950 – in the lifetime of everyone here, one number stands out clearly in the history of war: Zero.

How many nuclear weapons have been used in conflict?  Zero.

How many western European countries have fought each other?  Zero.

How many major developed countries have fought each other?  Zero.

How many developed countries have expanded their territories by conquering another country?  Zero.

How many states have disappeared through conquest?  Zero.

You might say – well how about other forms of conflict in recent decades?  There may not have been a world war, but how about civil wars?  Genocides? Terrorism? Surely they are in the news so they must be on the rise!

No.  Deaths from civil wars, genocides and terrorism have all fallen over the past twenty years.  In 1950 the average armed conflict killed 33,000; in 2015 it killed about 4,000.  Terrorist attacks hit a natural barrier beyond which they sow the seeds of self-destruction as potential converts are more exposed to being hurt.

It’s not just violence that is decreasing – tolerance is increasing.  In every issue touched by the human rights revolution of recent decades – interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals – the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than the liberals of just a few decades ago.

But why are these trends happening?

Why are we getting healthier?

  • Government investment in healthcare, sanitation, clean water, schools and science
  • Trade and aid, both of which spread wealth around
  • Private enterprise pushing the boundaries of medical endeavour
  • Individual actions and breakthroughs – we are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants

Why are we getting less violent?

  • Countries are becoming less warlike.  The move to democracies has helped in this: since 1900, democracies have been less than twice as likely as non-democracies to engage in militarized disputes.
  • Strong governments and law enforcement mean that mankind’s baser instincts are held at bay.
  • Belonging to groups of countries like the United Nations and, yes, the EU, means that we are bound by more ties which we don’t want to destroy by fighting.
  • Being wealthier means that there is more at stake – more to lose – if we were to go to war.  Trading with other countries means that we have more to lose – no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other.
  • Social norms in developed countries have evolved to incorporate the conviction that was is inherently immoral because of its costs to human well-being and that it can only be justified when it is likely to prevent even greater costs to human well-being.

There is now more empathy for human life than ever before – thanks to reading and writing, we know more about other people.  So thank you, TV, radio, publishing, travel and thank you, the Internet. Education saves lives.  We have enlarged our ‘empathy circle’.  It is so much harder to kill or hurt someone when you know them, or even know about them.

Similarly, being exposed to more ideas saves lives.  Education saves lives.  The more you learn, the fewer mistruths and inaccuracies you will hold about ‘other’ people.  So read, read, read.  And think, think, think.

We believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart because the media tells us that it is.  David Hume says we are laboring under a “false sense of insecurity”.  But keep your wits about you.  Look wider, look further back, read, listen and ponder the facts.  Let’s try to avoid the state of worry and terror that many people live in today.

Caveat

Avoid the complacency trap – ‘now I know that life in most of the world is getting better, I can sit back and let progress happen’.  Well, progress is built on many small acts, and sitting back would be to avoid your responsibility as a member of society.

Be aware – declines in violence are caused by political, economic and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times.  If the conditions change, these trends could reverse.

I hope I haven’t belittled the victims of violence and ill health who can be found across the globe and particularly in developing countries – there is still work to be done!

There are still threats to humanity – especially with regards to the environment – and especially climate change – that we should be turning our attention to.

Conclusion

I could go on about how the world is progressing in other areas like reductions in poverty… but you get the picture.  So what can you take away from today?

Understand what has led to the declines and it will guide you towards what might work in the future.

Be open to facts, not rhetoric.

Read widely and not just fiction – don’t just trust the first thing you find online – be aware of ‘fake news’ – and be willing to pay for good journalism and writing, whether that is via a magazine or newspaper subscription or via licence fees and taxes

Try to see the big picture – try to set the most recent disaster on the news in context.

Finally, I would say not so much ‘don’t worry, be happy’ as ‘worry less, be slightly happier about the state of the world’.

Thank you.

Source for Pinker: Pinker, S (2011): The Better Angels of Our Nature

Source for Max Roser statistic: Max Roser (2016) – ‘Child Mortality’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality/ [Online Resource]

Credit also due to http://www.gapminder.org

The crime of waste

Assembly – Waste – delivered to Bradford Grammar School, 8 Oct 2015

Feel free to adapt / edit / try out this assembly at your educational establishment.

[Start with ‘crime scene’ on stage]

What’s the world’s most serious crime?

Drug dealing? Murder? Mass murder? Torture? Terrorism?

In Year 8 Geography we discussed this question as part of our studies into where and why crime takes place.

We decided that to classify as ‘serious’ the crime should cause severe harm, affect many people, and its effects would last for a long time.

I received several answers similar to the ones I just gave until one made me stop in my tracks:

‘Overuse of the world’s resources’

This really got the conversation going!  That’s not a crime!  Who is affected?  You can’t go into prison for that!

But we approached it logically, and tested it out against the criteria mentioned above:

The crime should cause severe harm, affect many people, and its effects would last for a long time.

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Firstly, the severity of the harm caused.  Well, it’s not as severe as murder or torture, but let’s consider the waste and the by-products of energy generation used to make the things which end up as waste.  Well, these often cause injury, disease, and premature death.  Just think, for instance, of water pollution from factories soil contamination from the degradation of waste in landfill sites

and air pollution, which leads to asthma, breathing difficulties and climate change.

Secondly, the number of people affected by the waste – well these can be measured in the billions – 7.3 billion in fact – as we’re all affected in some way by the problems that I’ve just mentioned.

Thirdly, we can be affected by waste for a very long time indeed.  Not only are many non-biodegradable items taking up valuable land, but we are still dealing now with the problems caused by toxic metals leaching into groundwater.   In addition, the thermal inertia of the oceans means that there is a 25-50 year time lag between increased levels of CO2 and the oceans warming up by a corresponding amount – the oceans will continue to expand for decades to come, resulting in rising sea levels and coastal flooding.

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I could go on.  But if waste is a serious crime, then who are the criminals?  Who are the victims?  And who are the police?

Who are the criminals?  I’m a criminal.  I buy things I don’t need.  I throw things away.  I fly.  I forget to turn things off.  In a way, we are all criminals.  A sobering thought.

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Who are the victims?  Well, I’ve begun to answer that one already.  The ones who suffer the most are the most vulnerable in society.

People who have breathing difficulties suffer from air pollution.

People who drink water from polluted watercourses in the countries where our goods are made.

And people who live on the coast in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, who are suffering from rising sea levels and coastal flooding thanks to climate change.

But we all suffer in a way.  Consider the financial angle.

Do you know what this represents?  (Point to a pile of waste)  A year’s waste per person in this room.  As a school last year we created 780 tonnes of solid waste.  Much of this is institutional waste like building rubble.  But much of it is food. Paper.  Plastic containers.  That’s 650kg per person – that’s two-thirds of a tonne for every pupil, teacher and other staff who work here.  Two-thirds of a tonne – that’s almost the weight of a SMART car!  The government charges £80 a tonne for putting our waste into landfill – so about £55 of each of your fees disappears into the ground!  We use £100,000 per year in electricity.  And over £100,000 in gas.  Much of this is unnecessary – so we’re pretty much throwing away money!  Money which could be used to invest in new facilities, reducing fees, and going towards new bursaries.  What a waste.

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So we are the criminals and the victims of this crime – a strange situation indeed.  But who are the police?  Weirdly, we all are – or at least we all can be.  We can help to prevent the crime which we commit and which we all suffer from.  What do I mean by ‘we’?

In the broadest sense, ‘we’ can mean the government elected by you and your parents.  OK – they have belatedly brought in a plastic bag charge (on Monday this week!) – and initiatives like the landfill tax I just mentioned.  But we can’t leave it to them.

How about the school?  Talking to the bursar and the estates manager, it’s apparent that some pretty big strides have been made in recent years to reduce waste here.  Most of these ways are behind the scenes.

Did you know that through the fitting of LED lights and motion sensors, the school has shaved £40,000 from its electricity bill in the past year?  That’s fifty PCs.  Or 6,000 textbooks.  Or four bursaries.  There are even some new ‘Dali’ lights which adjust to the amount of sunlight coming in through the window.

We recycled over 30 tonnes of waste last year – saving the school £2,400 in landfill taxes – although this is only 4% of our total waste – can you help to improve on this?

And did you know that heating the water in the swimming pool now costs 12% less that it did last year, thanks to a liquid which has been pumped into the water, which rises to the top when ripples have settled, forming an insulating layer just one molecule thick?

And simple measures have been taken by our head chef to reduce waste in the dining hall, by installing recycling bins and reusing leftovers in soups and other meals?

But we shouldn’t stop there.  How about you?  What can you do to prevent the crime of waste?

(Could show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ptp6JGAF3o0 at this point.)

So, here’s a small checklist of easy things you can do…

  • Turn lights off
  • Turn computers off
  • Recycle your waste paper and plastic containers
  • Refill water bottles rather than buying new ones
  • Only select what you are going to eat at lunch

These may only be small steps, but together we can make a difference – and we can all benefit.  Here and at home.  Now and in the future.

And finally, spread the word.  Waste is costly, waste is harmful – waste is criminal.

Thank you.