Cartography of Extremes

Maybe it’s the instinctual part of humans that makes us obsessed with the biggest, the strongest, the highest, the illustrious measurements that dazzle. Whether it’s the highest mountain, the broadest lake, the longest river, we look for inspiration in extremes.

Whether it’s justified or not, we do the same in societies. The biggest economies, the loudest voices, the heaviest sticks get all the attention. The heavyweight nations win the privilege of gathering together and trying to coordinate the world’s economy and, to a certain extent, its immediate future. To the extent that it’s possible during a few short days, a summit like the G20 in Hamburg promises an opportunity for representatives from the largest 19 economies, plus the European Union, to sit down together and talk about the world.

A cartography of the G20 might look a bit like this map from 1849, all the biggest players in the same place, at the same time, a landscape of superlatives.

A combined view of the principal mountains & rivers in the world (1849)
Image: J.H.Colton via David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This Group of 20 nations holds 85% of global GDP, 80% of world trade, and 75% of the world’s population. Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of host country Germany, has promised to put climate change at the top of the agenda as the world’s most pressing issue. In response to the United States leaving the Paris Agreement, she stated, “We cannot wait until every last person on earth has been convinced of the scientific proof.”

But what does that mean? The countries most impacted by climate change, by and large, are not the largest economies, and are not present at the G20. The countries that are at the G20, by are large, are the large economies which – through industrialization, consumer and disposable economies and resource exploitation – are the main contributors to climate change in the first place – and likely ones that will have to contend with climate-based migration.

Even if they’re all in the same room and have the best intentions, are they the top team to undertake wrenching challenges to institutions and economic assumptions in order to avoid further temperature and sea rises? After all, the G20 was created in 1999 to promote global economic stability, not to promote radical restructuring.

Because as we’re seeing with every passing year, there all kinds of new extremes to be charted, and we’ll need everyone at the table to navigate them.

Anti-Dystopian Non-Utopias

Literary, cinematic and gaming dystopias have been all the rage for a long time now, offering generational visions of the world in various states of post-apocalyptic disarray, either due to war, societal collapse environmental disaster or all of them combined.

With a recent history of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster or the Bento Rodrigues dam collapse in Brazil, or any number of environmental calamities  which conspire to damage the environment over decades (not to mention the societal strife they cause in the forms of poverty, terrorism and mass migration), it’s easy to succumb to the dire appeal of dark future visions.

Image from Bladerunner (1982) Source: Wikipedia

Image from Bladerunner (1982)
Source: Wikipedia

I was listening to the BBC this morning when I recognized a familiar voice speaking. Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist, writer and broadcaster who has narrated countless documentaries that have introduced viewers to a deeply respectful view of the natural world.

He was being interviewed at the start of the climate talks in Paris, and the questions posed to him went to the heart of the matter this week: Did he believe that nations could agree to the kind of action that needs to be taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and if so, did he think that action taken now would be enough to slow climate change.

Artworks created by Brandalism, placed in advertising spaces owned by JC Decaux, one of the sponsors of the COP21 talks in Paris. Source: BBC

Artworks created by Brandalism, placed in advertising spaces owned by JC Decaux, one of the sponsors of the COP21 talks in Paris.
Source: BBC

His answer was simple.

He said that effective climate change agreements require something of humanity that it has only achieved on rare occasion:

Seeing beyond all national borders and interests and embracing both climate and the natural world as unifying elements that we all share rather than territories over which we fight.

Paris poster Source: Brandalism

Paris poster
Source: Brandalism

Did he think an agreement could be both reached and then implemented?

Again, he said that although that kind of agreement would be virtually unprecedented, our increasing knowledge of our own impact and reliance on the global climate is also unprecedented. So, in a guardedly positive assessment, he said we might just see unprecedented agreement and action.

Disclaimer: I personally enjoy fictional stories of how humans react to dystopian collapse. Having said that, I feel that at this point, against a backdrop of ever larger challenges, they don’t inspire positive action as they might intend to do.

Image from The Matrix (1999)

Image from The Matrix (1999)

Rather, they prepare the ground for a deep resignation that whatever we do, things are going to get much worse before (and if) they get better.

And if that’s the case, if nothing we do will make any difference at this point, then we are absolved of any responsibility to make real decisions or changes in our lives, or in business as usual.

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road

Dystopia was originally used as a counter-term to utopia, an imaginary non-existent place of near-perfect qualities.

I suppose it says a lot about humans that while many of our most popular stories are dystopian, very few are utopian because most people find utopias to be rather lacking in the challenges we think of as making for a good story.

High City Blowing Away Artist: Jacek Yerka via Saatchi Gallery

High City Blowing Away
Artist: Jacek Yerka via Saatchi Gallery

So, instead of dreaming of boring utopias, or indulging in the melancholy pleasures of dystopias, we can reach for something closer at hand: the very real challenges of our own world, somewhere between the two.

The stories we can create of surmounting our own history of limitations and, as Sir David suggests, taking unprecedented positive action on a global scale.

Let’s create these antidystopian, non-utopian stories as if our lives depended on it.

"Anything can happen" poster in Paris. Source: Brandalism

“Anything can happen” poster in Paris.
Source: Brandalism




What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VII)

According to the website Wars in the World, as of 11 September 2014, there are currently ongoing conflicts classified as ‘wars’ in 64 countries; there are conflicts involving of 567 militias, guerrilla and separatist groups.

The conflicts are based on everything from ideological and religious issues to narcotics to territorial disputes. There are a few very high profile confrontations, hundreds of others that, like dangerous embers, continue to burn and flare into flame.

Armed aggression is immediate, it’s acute, it demands an answer and it threatens force regardless of the answer given. We usually have a good idea of who threw the first stone, or at least, who is throwing stones at one another.

The Consequences of War (1637-38) Peter Paul Rubens

The Consequences of War (1637-38)
Peter Paul Rubens

Of course we pay attention when conflict requires. Conflict demands all our energy, our resources, our media focus, our politics.

This month marks the world’s highest number of refugees displaced by conflict – over 51 million – since WWII. There are entire groups of displaced persons who have not been able to return to their homelands for years, sometimes decades, after the initial conflict has ended.

If we measure the level of conflict by the number of people affected and displaced, we are at a sad high-water mark.

When it comes to people displaced by environmental deterioration, including land loss and degradation, as well as natural disaster, the estimated number of refugees varies wildly. The very definition of environmental refugees is disputed and complicated, because the fundamentals of environmental change are complicated in themselves.

How many people have been displaced due to loss of habitat? It’s estimated that the Dust Bowl drought (1930-1940) in the United States initiated a migration of 3.5 million people. Current estimates around the world place numbers in the tens of millions.

From the photo series 'A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh' Photo: Munem Wasif

From the photo series ‘A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh’
Photo: Munem Wasif

There is no obvious aggressor when rivers overflow and flood – was it a rainy year? Was the water infrastructure poorly conceived? Was land for housing and industry located too close to flooding areas? When water runs out, is it due to drought, or land mismanagement, poor farming techniques, or livestock overgrazing, or all of the above?

And the fix is just as complicated as the problem, maybe more so, because it requires a complete rethinking of how we do things.

But we know how to do aggression, violence, war and we know how to react.

Which is why what we talk about when we talk about war is just one thing: War.

While we focus all our resources on the immediate threat, the bright spotlight of world attention leaves everything else in the shadows.