Friday, 8 May 2009

Lessons of the past, plans for the future

Learning and experience are two fundamental parts of life. Our youth is bound up with education, we are taught what to believe at such a rate that our opinions can change from one week to the next. This is not surprising perhaps, if we are to be seen as Tabula Rasa, blanks slates of humanity which are to be moulded by the words that society chooses to place upon our backs. I have memories of school curricula that covered the Egyptians one week and explored outer space the next, the Vikings and the Vietnam War. With primary school children studying the Bible in religious studies in one class followed by the rise of Nazi Germany in history after lunch, how is a sustained and constant opinion supposed to develop? It doesn't necessarily, it shifts and transforms, until late into the teenage years it sets like concrete.

This is perhaps why society faces such problems today; a multiplicity of ideas and beliefs, opinions and prejudices that each individual stubbornly clasps as a fundamental piece of themselves. What we think becomes an intrinsic part of who we are; What are you? A Christian, a Conservative, an anarchist. When ideas come into direct opposition, serious problems arise. Such ideas can result from a geographic proximity, such as the Jewish - Arab border of Israel and Palestine. The rise of globalisation and the network society has bought more distant worlds, such as the USA and China, closer together; daily they jostle for access to power and resources. With the connected world that communication technologies have created, we're going to be talking to each other a lot more. With this in mind it seems that we ought to try and see life on the other side of the coin and, most importantly, we better work damn hard at trying to get along.

So, with our opinions set firmly in our minds and a world in which these opinions are consistently going to be heard alongside those of other countries, it seems that a compromise must be considered. Western society is not great at admitting fault, nor at learning lessons, and the guilt of colonial brutality and the arrogance of imperialism is something that, beneath the surface, does not sit comfortably on our well-fed shoulders. The leviathon issues of slavery, racial subjugation, and the financial impact of colonialism are surely ghosts that have not yet been laid to rest, particularly by the victims, but they are too bound in the past and muddied by too many voices to be used as a clear example in this argument. Instead, as an example of how Western mindsets, and priorities, can change pragmatically, I will draw on the example of Global Warming in the wake of the current economic crisis. If you look closely, the situation has taken the shape of a large slice of humble pie that, with gathering speed, is heading towards the mouth of the West. Have we the stomach to swallow it?

The hockey stick graph lines, the Stern Report, the 'Day After Tomorrow'. The Kyoto Protocol, the Rio Convention. Amid scientist's warnings, through the mouth piece of the media, the realisation of imminent peril dawned on the Western world. Doomsday predictions, the meteorite that condemned the dinosaur's to history, Chicken Little's cries that 'the sky is falling!' The idea that humanity is not invincible has circulated for hundreds of years in folklore and religion, but with the threat of climate change, humanity became bound up within its own predictions of doom; the world is effectively committing slow suicide. In a way this is a grand symbolic metaphor for the shrinking importance of religion in Western Society; in the past God would one day judge us all, now with our fate in our own hands we were faced with a problem in which we would have to search for the answer within ourselves. So, the West attempted to mobilize the global community, focusing particularly on the high levels of pollution that were attributed to developing countries; India, China, how dare they?

In the meantime, not nearly enough has been done to lower the environmental footprint of Western society. Recycling has been taken on by many, and companies are increasingly going green, but this appears to be out of a desire to be shown to care, rather than a genuine concern for the safety of the planet. It's a win-win situation; if my company goes green, we are saving the environment. Also, because of the growing concern about the environment, especially in the upper and middle classes, more people will use my company's services if the company is seen to be environmentally conscientious. Unfortunately, people make these small decisions which alleviate their guilt, and then jet off on holiday or leave the tap running as they clean their teeth. The spotlight was turned on developing countries; their huge carbon footprints, their smoke billowing, heavy industries, their exploding populations. The expectation of these poorer nations to stop their agricultural and industrial development is shortsighted and hypocritical; the West has expanded uncontrollably for years without a thought for the environment. Now that this expansion has caused the threat of climate change, the Developing world is asked to stop doing exactly what has made the West such a powerful and successful region. Populations that are faced with hunger, drought, warfare, subordination are not going to worry about rising sea levels in 80 years time; this is the luxurious concern of the rich man that has time to ponder! Moreover, much of the environmental damage being done in developing countries is to feed the greedy mouths of the West! The destruction of the Amazon rainforest to clear cattle grazing land for McDonald's cows, the intentionally relaxed environmental regulations of a town who wish to attract the newest Nike sweatshop. As a global system it all very much interlinked, and to apply the pressure of climate change onto developing countries, particularly when the likes of the USA and Australia were slow to commit themselves to change, was hypocritical and cruel. Another example of Western arrogance and its failure to clear up the mess it has made.

The last year however, has seen a shift in the Western mind. A new fear has emerged, crept up behind us quietly and then pounced, smothering society in the blanket of a failed system which for so long we thought had kept us warm. The failure of the economic system! The people who appeared to be pulling the strings of the grand monetary machine about which very little of us understood were practically ignorant themselves! We were fooled by their expensive cars and swagger into thinking that they were experts, surely for those riches they must be! An analysis an discussion of the current economy is not relevant in the context of this argument, but the impact that it has made on the Western mind is. We have a new fear! No jobs, no mortgage, no prospects! British jobs should be for British people! Is he British? But he's black! Re-emerging tensions in Ireland. Police clash with protestors at the G20 Summit. The heartbeat of history begins to pump out its steady rhythm again...

The media has left the subject of climate change alone, instead the stories of economic despair are plastered across headlines and TV screens. The developing countries are now to be supported in their rapid economic development; we need them producing and buying! India has released the world's cheapest car; brilliant, the economy will swell! In the USA the automobile economy is shrivelling and CEO's are queuing up for a Government bailout. Public opinion has turned against the bankers, however, the bankers will be necessary to start the system up again. Fears turn, opinions change, the threat of Global Warming is no doubt the threat that it always was, but the West, amidst the desperate please of scientific researchers, is not listening at the moment. Thanks though, please call again later.

So our current fear is the global economic crisis, before that it was global warming. The threat of Communism grew and receded, following the defeat of Fascism. Prior we had the sinking feeling of slowly losing the international power of the colonies... the ebb and flow of fears has existed since the birth of humanity. Much as the climate has changed; hot and cold, ice age to drought.

The global economic crisis is huge, but it can, and will be overcome. The threat of protectionism and the sentiment expressed at the G20 Summit highlights now, more than ever, the need for global co-operation on major issues. We must also rise to meet the dangers of Global Warming, using the example of how the collapse of the financial system has so fickly diverted our attention from climate change. Our response cannot be a media fad, nor a short-term strategy, but a sustained collaborative approach that changes mindsets as well as practices. The restructuring of the global economy can be used as an opportunity to promote green business; the example of the collapse of the USA automobile trade is perfect. Get rid of the gas guzzlers, condemn them to history like we have done with slavery and torture. They no longer have a place in society, not with the information that we now hold. The West should set an example for the world to follow, combining growth with environmental concerns, and therefore the global threat of global warming will be dealt with not as an enemy, but as a part of everyday life such as the birdsong or the coming of night. People like to question the meaning of life, to ponder a reason for the complex world that surrounds us and our role within it. Here we are faced with a task of enormous scale, and must face it responsibly with an awareness of our past hypocrisies and a new approach to collaborating to find appropriate solutions. I can currently think of no task more meaningful.

1 comment:

  1. You raised some good points regarding the environment. But I especially wanted to commend your ideas of "a sustained and constant opinion set[ting] like concrete" and how this "concrete" relates to a person's "stubbornly" held beliefs. I agree with you very much—not only with the idea, but the tone in which you presented this idea.

    I have often run into "dead ends" with people as they blindly follow their opinions. This experience can be incredible frustrating.

    One of my mentors says that thinkers should always have a "beginner's mindset." That people should always approach things with fresh eyes in order to preserve flexibility of thought and to combat "concrete" thinking.

    Excellent terminology.

    I look forward to your next post.