Friday, 1 May 2009

Changing our attitudes towards change

The Big Bang sparked an awakening from celestial slumber and the Universe was formed. Organisms grew on earth and slowly evolved over millions of years. The mega-continent Pangaea split apart and was slowly forced by tectonic action into the continental arrangement visible on Earth today. These processes are not finished nor fixed in time simply because humanity has arrived and attempted to make some sense of them. The Universe is still expanding at a remarkable rate, the continents still dragging their feet across the ocean floor on their own dutiful journeys and yes, organisms are still very much evolving. Despite shrouding ourselves in culture and stone we must still acknowledge our place as part of, as opposed to separate from, nature. We are a group of people at the fortunate indices of billions of years of natural change; it is the change that has given us life. However, the attitude of human society towards change is wholly unnatural; it is something we often oppose. We are creatures of habit, allowing things to tick over even if obvious flaws are seen to exist in the world around us, ignoring signs that indicate that things should really be done differently. This mentality has penetrated to the centre of the British vocabulary; don't rock the boat, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Instead our society evolves through a number of shocks to the system; we change only when we are forced to. The recent examples are endless; changes in national security following the 9/11 attacks, changes to hazard mitigation systems after the devastation of the tsunami, the inauguration of the first black president of the United States of America following the disastrous 8 years of Bush's Republican rule. Things change, but only when they absolutely must.

The changes that are made in the wake of these disasters are important, but they are entirely, by nature, after the fact. They do not repair the damage done, nor comfort the families of the bereaved. It is the most eye-catching, media worthy of these disasters that instigate the greatest changes, changes that are often emotive and heavy-handed. Think of the 9/11 attacks, the Muslim Fundamentalists driving planes full of civilians into the Twin Towers in the heart of New York. The repeated images shown on the news, the images of the bodies plummeting to earth, the subsequent newspaper opinion pieces and Hollywood movies. Watching the news that day, one could feel the world change; the strength of the paradigm shift was almost tectonic. With those images in mind, think now of the response. Prolonged, bloody wars fought against hardened terrorists rather than national armies, the dubious nature of such invasions, the brutal irony of fighting the very same men that your country armed... The response of the USA has been heavy handed and rash, ill-advised. It has snowballed, causing thousands of deaths and seriously damaging the geopolitical reputation of the United States. This issue is of far too complex a nature to discuss here, but it is a poignant example of how the Western world reacts to disasters, be they natural or human. We fail to notice the warnings and mounting problems, instead letting things reach pressure boiling point and next, we've got chaos. We rarely react but when we do, guns-blazing and out for a fight, we let emotions blind us to the root of the problems, in turn becoming the architects for someone else's disaster, thousands of miles away.

Disasters of any sort are rarely out of the blue, although they may very well seem that way to the general public. You've just got home from a day's work, have put the kettle on and, wait, what! They've done what? New York? Why! Thousands dead? Unprovoked attack! The invaders are at the gate and I didn't even know we were at war! But rarely are these disasters without warning signs. Instead, problems mount over time. They grow, evolve, take on different shapes and forms. The earth's surface shudders before it cracks open, a volcano smokes before it erupts, in 2001 the US Government were aware that Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks were imminent. All too often, society fails to act until it is too late. Buildings were only made earthquake proof in Kobe, Japan, following the death of 5100 people in a 1995 tremor, the dangerous state of British football stadia was only addressed following the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. Why are we so short-sighted that we only act when it is time to bury our dead? The same goes for human attacks. We look for revenge in the wake of devastation rather than to foil the attack in the first place. Thankfully, the intelligence agencies appear to have drastically improved at intervention, and the media regularly leak stories of foiled terrorist plots. All the same, it took a spate of attacks in New York, London and Madrid for the authorities to wake up and realise what they had to do to keep the public safe...

Having established that global society is in general poor at reacting to growing problems until they manifest themselves in the form of a disaster, it is now necessary to turn to the two most prescient global concerns of the day; the economic crisis and global warming. The first thing to realise here is that these two matters are very much interlinked. They are not linked in so much as one causes the other, or vice versa, but the way in which we respond to one can help to address the other. For example, if in restructuring the global economy Governments aim to move towards green solutions and reduce their national carbon footprints, then a huge step towards addressing the threat of Global Warming will have been made. At the same time Global Warming, if pollutant emissions are allowed to continue unchecked, will have potentially catastrophic consequences for the global economy. If you thought the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis was bad, envision hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile land turned to desert, rising sea levels engulfing nations like Bangladesh and the Maldives, millions of refugees clamouring for help, nations closing borders. A mere two degree centigrade global temperature increase could send human tempers to boiling point. Think this isn't possible? Read the many peer-reviewed and Government approved reports and research projects. Think the temperature won't change? Think of the ice ages, the droughts that have occurred throughout the history. But humans weren't even around then! Do you think this matters? We're around now, and have the scientific data to show that the climate is changing. We also have the data to suggest that our carbon emissions are causing the Greenhouse effect, which increases the rate of Global Warming. Whether we are influencing the heating of the planet, or whether it is occurring naturally is irrelevant; it is happening. Two generations down the line, the lives of your future family could be changed by the decisions we make today. People claim that in one hundred years not that much will have changed. Oh yeah? Think back to 1900. Take a stroll down this century's timeline; world wars, lunar landings, tsunamis, the enfranchisement of women, the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Things change, and what's more, things change for the worse very quickly. A Dystopian future is not as far off as most people would like to think. It all sounds doom and gloom, but the wonderful thing about this situation is that it is in our hands. We've got one up on the dinosaurs in that sense.

So, we have problems. We are in the global economic crisis, which is currently being addressed by Governments across the world. Trillions has been lost, and what's more, faith in what was thought to be a secure system has disappeared. However, slowly but surely, day by day, people are working through the crisis. We are a resilient bunch. The scale of this crisis is beyond doubt, however, there have been a lot worse. No lives have been lost, although we are still waiting on Fred Goodwin, and at least we now know that we have a problem. We can rebuild. I am a firm believer that every cloud has a silver lining, and as the fog of the economic system clears and its haphazard, self-absorbed nature is revealed, we can finally look forward. We can re-build, but not only that, re-build for the better. Like a town struck by an earthquake, let us re-build not with brittle old bricks and wood but with buildings that will withstand seismic shock; our society is rife with so many problems that this global economic shake up has provided us with an opportunity to cure the ailments that have long blighted everyday life. I am going to work here through several examples to illustrate my point.

Currently in the UK, one private secondary school is closing every fortnight as parents can no longer afford to pay the fees. This is going to see an influx of previously privately educated pupils enter the state education system, doubtless prompting the parents to worry of drugs and violence that they have come to associate with non fee paying schools. Now is an excellent opportunity for the Government to raise the standard of state education to a level at which these private schools that have closed need not re-open when the economy recovers; show the parents that they do not need to divide their children from the rest of society. A reduction of the number of private schools can be of great benefit to the private sector. Primarily, it will free up a large number of skilled teachers. It will also see wealthier parents sending their children to state schools, and wealthy parents tend to mean investment. It is clear that the majority of private schools will not close in the recession, and the old institutions of boarding schools like Wellington and Eton are always going to attract a certain type of person, and that is fine, there is no need to strive to make everyone the same. However, the economic crisis has presented the Government with a genuine opportunity to raise the reputation and quality of state schools across the country. Education has a major role to play in the social structure of this country. It is an opportunity to put children of more pointed difference together at an early age before their prejudices become set in stone, let them learn that they're not different, don't give them a clearly defined other to fear. We worry not about what we know but what we do not know, and the state / private divide gives children an opportunity to develop prejudices against people on the other side of the wall without ever having met them. Kids love to play games that pit one group in perpetual, violent opposition against another: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. Let's not teach the children to view the rich and poor as groups that cannot live, work and play side by side; as two sides that must be in a constant state of battle in playground games amongst the caterwalls and laughter. In the form of the economic crisis, we now have an opportunity to address this issue and build for the future.

The economic crisis has also presented an opportunity to address the unequally distributed appeal that professions in the UK job sector hold. Until very recently, financial jobs in the City of London were the most attractive jobs for a young man in the UK, without doubt. The benefits of these jobs were plain for all to see; fancy cars, sky scrapers, sharp suits. The wages were all six figure, before they were bestowed with grand bonuses, of course, and everyone knows stories of long, alcohol-fuelled lunches on the company card. Furthermore, these men were seen to be pulling the strings of the global economic system, generating investment and generally managing things that the rest of us couldn't understand. The Government showered in the millions of pounds that the City threw at them in the form of taxes; they wished not to bite the hand that fed them. The financial boys were the broad-shouldered Masters of The Universe, the packhorses pulling at the cart of progress. Then, with the power of a champagne cork popping, the bubble burst, and the steel and grass structures of Canary Wharf began to shake with the frailty of a house of cards. The bankers were left royally flushed. Banking has become a mere profession again, and what's more, a profession that hangs its head in the knowledge of failure. Here is where opportunity knocks. It is time to wrest back the aspirations of youth, remove the pound signs from their eyes and show them the world of employment that lies before them. In the past it has been the best-educated children that wish to work in the City, perhaps because they have grown up in an environment of money and therefore cannot envision a life without it. However, it does not seem right that those blessed with the best education use it simply to further their own self-interests in the Square Mile! Although the recession is bad, the economy will recover, and the Government will need the City to prosper in order to drive this recovery. The City will be back, so the Government must use this window to promote other employment sectors to attract graduates; law, the civil service, teaching. By regulating the wages and bonus system that the financial sector has for so long enjoyed, whilst at the same time increasing the prestige and pay of other professions, a vital step in restructuring this archaic and entirely uneven financial system will have been taken.

Other steps also need to be taken. The financial system must be scrutinized to greater regulation and must be held accountable for its mistakes; a link must be made between the endless zeros on a traders screen and the money that pays for food and hospitals. Furthermore, the immediate global collaboration that international Governments have shown must be used for issues besides the economy; nuclear disarmament, the ongoing wars, climate change. Through an increased international dialogue geopolitical relations will drastically improve. It will bring a closeness between nations; people will realise that we're not all that different, that we all see the same stars by night. With increased closeness the desire to bomb each other to Hell will hopefully recede. As mentioned earlier, we fear what we do not know. That's why the Iron Curtain was terrifying in its opacity. That is why North Korea worries us today. A greater dialogue between nations can only be a cause for good. Here, however, it is important to redress the issue of the environment, for the global economic crisis is an opportunity to restructure, to 'Go Green'.

The examples of ways in which we can reduce emissions through economic restructuring are numerous. In saving the ailing US automobile industry the unnecessary gas guzzlers can be condemned to history, for they are no longer needed. Don't worry America, the West has been settled! All the Indians are dead or drunk, the perimeter fence surrounding your house has been constructed and you no longer need an enormous boot to transport dead buffaloes. Let's move with the times. The same applies for construction, for it appears to have stopped. The employment opportunity for architects is down 760%, but in time, the building will start again. The British Government must pass new regulations to ensure that all buildings are constructed with energy efficiency in mind, now is the time to act. We must try and ween ourselves off non-renewable energy sources and consider the options of renewable energy sources as viable alternatives rather than simple experiments. Even now, the melting Arctic icecap is providing a source of geopolitical debate because of the resources that lie untapped beneath the ice. Nations are making opposing claims to the landmass so as to gain access to the oil, but what kind of message does this send out to the public? Whilst concurrently stressing a need for sustainable energy sources, world leaders squabble over the oil beneath the Arctic! What is even worse is that this oil has only become available because of the melting of the ice caps, which our overuse of non-renewable energy sources has helped cause! This is an example of the mindset that Governments are adopting towards climate change; they are acting pragmatically and are yet to act as if they are aware that they are facing a genuine problem.

Perhaps then, it is a simple matter of language that needs addressing here. We are currently dealing with the 'threat' or 'danger' of Global Warming, or the 'problem' that it poses. It is not yet the Global Warming 'crisis' nor 'catastrophe', and although telltale signs have begun to emerge, we are yet to face the first disaster of a warming world. Is that then what the leaders of the world are waiting for? A disaster! It is currently in our hands, we have been lucky enough to see the pre-historic meteor on the sky line and have the intelligence and power to divert it elsewhere. Before the crisis emerges, before the scales tip with disastrous consequences, let's do something that we've not been very good at in the past; act before the horse has bolted, before our neck rests in the crook of the guillotine. The global economic crisis has opened the eyes of the world and shown us that change was needed, before that President Obama showed us how good change could feel, what we can do if we set about it with our heads and our hearts. We must now extend this desire for change towards our environmental attitudes. In Britain, we currently have the technology to live our lives at 60% greater energy efficiency. The question that should be ringing in the ears of international Governments currently is; what are we waiting for? Have we learned the lessons of the past? Or do we want the guilt of inaction hanging like a lead weight around our necks.

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