In our traditional culture, people have a very different view towards nature than in Western culture. We consider humans as part of nature. But in the West, they talk about protecting nature. That’s a joke because nature doesn’t care; it’s humans who need to protect themselves. – Ma Yansong
I have a folder in my research software with clippings of climate news – and it makes for grim reading. Things aren’t good around the world. Also in the news is a story of a journalist being forced to leave a country that she has reported in for twenty years. And you have the stories related to the ongoing pandemic, not least the issues of going back to normality or continuing to restrict movement.
Geopolitics is complicated. It was just as complicated a few hundred years ago. I’m reading a book that talks about how the Elgin marbles were moved to London to protect them – other monuments around that time were being defaced or being smashed for building materials. The UK became a home for historic artefacts that were at risk around the world. A refuge for history, you might say. And history was busily being blown up for much of the last century.
Arguably much of the problems in the world were caused by people moving to places other than where they came from. Exploration and colonisation followed by economic and social migration patterns have changed the way the world works – people move around, all the time for all kinds of reasons.
All that movement has made the world smaller and helped us understand different cultures, connect far-flung places and show us different ways of living. But the biggest cultural influence has been the growth of the media industry. We see and believe what we see and it creates an idea of what we think is true.
What’s the connection between these things? What is the point of considering these issues? I wonder whether the need for movement no longer exists in the way it did. People keep talking about going back to normality but what would normality look like in a world that accepts the reality of what we are seeing around us now?
Take journalism, for starters. The purpose of journalism, one definition goes, is to monitor the centres of power. Once upon a time you had to go to a place to do your monitoring. Now every citizen is a journalist, able to collect and share media. The dangerous places where journalists went to speak with sources that they had to protect are a remnant of an earlier time. Surely it’s just as easy now to have an encrypted conversation or share information via a low risk secure medium? Do you really need all that old-world cold-war stuff? We already see the effects of media sharing – gaining insights into the practices some governments enact on their people. And the task of your government should be to monitor what is going on and take decisions that are in the best interests of your people.
This can be a complicated discussion – so I’ll avoid going into it further – but the point is that when you have easy ways to share information on what is going on it’s much harder for the bad actors to hide. Shining a light on things makes evil scuttle away into corners – but while you can throw people out technology is now so cheap and easily available that it shouldn’t make a difference – a reporter should find it easier to get the story than ever before.
Let’s take another example – the business of the future. Are we really going to go back into offices or is there a better alternative? Everything you do in the office can be done just as well or better remotely – you just have to know how to do it. We’ve proven, for example, that you can have IT security and a remote workforce. This isn’t even a real issue. For example, I can imagine a new company providing all employees with refurbished laptops that can be fully recycled that has a physical tracker and locked down ports. All company work is done through the machine and it can be made just as safe as it could be in a physical office. The entire operation would be greener, require no travel for the employee and provide them with the tools they need to get the job done. It’s really not that hard and being a physical company is no security these days at being able to keep stuff private, especially if you’re doing anything dodgy. Reporters will be able to find out pretty quickly – see the above argument.
These examples merely preserve the status quo. But the other thing is that the technology we have can help us make things better. You can have experts in one place work with people who need expertise in other places around the world without needing to go there. If you can have a surgeon in London operating on a patient in New York why can’t you have an engineer in Sheffield instructing a technician in Bolivia on how to safely install a machine? We don’t need to have high bandwidth or even real time communications. We need to have the appropriate technology that enables participation instead of creating exclusion.
I learned recently, for example, that many developing countries run courses entirely on WhatsApp – delivering training and discussion groups using mobile phones. Do we really need lecture rooms? This kind of approach can help bring many people into the workforce, including working mums and people with disabilities who may not be able to access traditional venues or resources. You don’t need to go to an Oxford college – you just need a mobile phone.
The world is the way it is because history made it so. The virus doesn’t care about history and the planet doesn’t care about people – it’s just rebalancing its system as the gases in its atmosphere stir things up. If we want to survive we will have to change or we will be forced to.
Just to imagine a dystopian future – I was looking at the trees outside my window and thinking that those things remove CO2 from the air and give us oxygen. Surely we know how that works? Surely we can build an artificial tree? We must have done that already – that’s what they use in space for astronauts as they recycle their air.
The problem, one assumes, is that we don’t do at scale because there’s no money in it. Who would pay, after all, for air – something that’s free all around us? That’s what the machine would make. So we should ask ourselves, do we really want to put ourselves in a position where we have to pay for air? Where you go to a store every week to buy a week’s air for your family? Where air is piped into your house so that you can have it each month – and you pay for it?
And if you think that is outlandish just consider that you pay right now for water – another thing that you couldn’t exist without. We’ve messed up the water around us so much that you have to pay to have clean water delivered to you. What would happen to you and your family if you no longer had access to clean water? Is it really so far-fetched that the same thing could happen with air?
We really have to look at everything we do differently – one person at a time – starting with you and me.