UNSEE THE FUTURE – EP14: Education – part 2

Last time, we began our look at the place of education in the possible human-planet future, by getting to grips with the fact that while humans are natural learners, and weave meaning into all manner of daily life, our formal education systems don’t seem to be working as effectively as we might hope, with the classroom not easily fitting a lot of its human students around the world. And teachers not always loving their sacred role of inspiring young minds. So how might the classroom of tomorrow work a bit better for us?

LISTEN TO UNSEE THE FUTURE, EP14: EDUCATION, part 2

 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

 

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED2006 talk Do schools kill creativity? has had over fifty million views. And he admits, when people ask him what he does for a living at dinner parties (if he’s asked to dinner parties) “the blood just drains from their face” he says. “But when you ask them about their education, they pin you to the wall… We all care about education” he states. And he may not be wrong there. His talk from a dozen years ago is supposedly the most viewed talk in TED’s history.

“It’s my contention that all children have tremendous talents. And we squander them. Pretty ruthlessly” he says casually up front.

 

I can see why it’s such a watched talk – it’s full of LOLz. Unlike most lessons you’ve ever been in. But his insight seems as depressingly relevant as ever – “My belief is that creativity is as important as literacy. And we should treat it with the same status.”

“Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Doesn’t matter where you go. At the top are mathmatics and languages, then come the humanities and at the bottom are the arts – everywhere on Earth.” And, he says, within the arts, ‘art’, in the traditional sense, and music – probably too, mostly in the traditional sense of learning an orchestral instrument – are normally given higher status than drama and dance. Yet, he says, do we not all have bodies? Why is dance not taught to everyone? Why are you sniggering at the idea – what would your relationship be with your body today if you’d had a natural school career of movement classes? And drama – why on Earth aren’t we all taught drama as core learning? The arts how to express yourself with your universally given instruments – your body and your feelings. Those pretty fundamental things driving all the problems that make up the Global Goals working plan to save humanity. ..Barely make any curriculum anywhere on Earth.

The result is, he says, we have an education system that, according to its evident outputs, is entirely set up around the world to try to make our children university professors. Abstracted academics. A teaching system that is all about the head in isolation, and just one side of it at that. University professors are generally, he said with affection, people who live inside their thinking. People who: “Look upon their bodies as a form of transport for their heads. A way of getting their heads to meetings.”

It’s a product of a global culture driven by industrialism in the 19th century – education only came into being as organised systems to meet the needs of it. “Benign advice” steers us away from creativity in a death by a thousand cultural cuts, and academic ability has come to define our idea of intelligence because, in the end: “Universities have designed the system in their image – the whole system of education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.” And the net effect, he says simply, is that: “Many highly talented, intelligent, creative people think they’re not. because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued or was actively stigmatised. And I don’t think we can afford to go on like that.”

In the foundation of our education system, regardless of smeres of influence here and there over the years from alternative methods such as Steiner and Montessori schooling, there is still essentially only right and wrong. In the exams that really push the grades tables for schools. There is no interpretation in the learning of core subjects – the ‘proper’ subjects. So it looks to me, peering in through the steamed up window of the staff room from outside. I know how much my sister in law loves teaching RE because it’s one of the few places in the timetable that philosophical debate is encouraged to break out. Everywhere else, there’s no great need to teach children to assess interpretation. To equip them with more critical cognitive abilities. Or to take risks – everything has to be right.

But this is not exactly in alignment with the very businessy idea of entrepreneurism, is it? Because, as Sir Ken says: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original.” And we run our companies like this, much like we run our education system. The creativity, and confidence to explore ideas with it, is educated out of us. Arguably leaving us a stunted version of our fuller selves.

More recently, buoyantly successful ex-Googler Max Ventiller’s Alt-School project looked like a suitably hopey-changey entrepreneurial starty-uppy reaction to the criticisms of education without tailoring to minds, teaching without creativity.

“The model we have for educating kids, it is a mass-production model” he says. “It doesn’t provide an individualised experienced to anybody.” Reading text books and taking quizzes on what they read, he says is: “teaching kids how to think like computers. And that’s not going to be very valuable when these kids actually grow up to be adults.” Because, y’know. We have, er, computers to be computers. And to do… increasingly everything. Better than humans trying to be computers.

His advocation of technology being the key to “curating a day-to-day education experience that meets (children) where they are” and not corraling them into boxes like bleating little sheep, will surprise your view of Californian tech culture thinking not one iota. You old rain-sodden cynic. And “allowing a child to decide in what order they do things” sounds like a recipe for making little monsters for expensively trained advanced techlearning strategists to deliver one-to-one permanent high-expectation pandering. But maybe being a rich kid’s personal slave, shackled forever to very well funded capricious whims, is a realistic job for more aspirational teachers to train for in a post-Forty-Five world.

Back at Less Desireable Catchment Area Secondary Modern, you may well be used to the idea of meeting more individual needs in the classroom. But with a plethora of now labelled ‘conditions’ children arrive badged with from toddler years, never mind the different personalities all engaging with your lesson differently, this idea may be a stressful extra level of fantasy in the management of your learning outputs as a teacher. Am I right? Don’t say I’m wrong, just differently outlooked. But I bet I’m right.

“Allowing a child to have agency” for you might mean classes constantly disrupted by especially challenging individuals. You might be feeling that if there’s one thing children need more of in modern life, it’s not choice – good lord, not more choice – but discipline. Spare the rod, mate. Well spare me your spare the rod speech, grandad. There has to be a way to instill consistent boundary steps in exploratory young minds without having to beat children. Apart from at Monopoly. Those little animals will take you for everything you’ve got if you don’t swipe Park Lane first.

It’s an interesting conundrum my generation’s essentially created for itself. We wanted to break out of all the repressed emotions and casual sadism we perceived in the old school classroom, but in wanting to get a lot more feely (and a lot less touchy) than some especially bad school experiences of decades past, we became the worrysome helicopter parent generation, hastening the collapse of a benign planetary environment by nervously and harrasedly driving our children absolutely everywhere in lightly armoured military grade vehicles to keep to a strict timetable of learning opportunities outside school hours. The endless clubs and activities and social engagements imploding our savings and taking more transport management than a minor royal visit. Every day of the week. Until they leave for college. At which point you sell the house to put them through a stratospherically expensive university course they’re not entirely sure about. And which won’t guarrantee them a job like you were always told university degrees would anyway.

Still. At least they weren’t breaking into abandoned buildings and burning tyres on the common. Or getting bored. Eh? Where the bloody hell’s the iPad lead…?

The truth is, of course, we have sort of found ourselves here. Like all parents. Because more parents than ever have more choices to offer their children than ever, even while the poverty divide is widening alarmingly for families across the UK, the US and many economies. Who of us, still functioning within emotional norms, wouldn’t want to give our children every opportunity we can? More than we had. And who wouldn’t want to keep them safe in a very dark-seeming world? But, long years after leaving school, I do wonder. Are some of us still just a little burdened by peer pressure? The competetion of the playground?

It’s a time of strange extremes for children in developed countries; a time of broken homes and material abundance all juxtaposing in our high streets. Of some parents who never learned how to love in their own childhoods, and others who half drive themselves crazy with loving emotional hopes for their children. Somewhere between these weirdly ordinary extremes today, the classroom often seems chaotic with social challenges, as all those little humans try to make sense of it all and express themselves.

 

So is the problem simply that we’re not teaching kids the right things? Should we not be getting more arty-farty-floaty-interpretive-dancy but simply more techy, in the classrooms we already have? Teaching them the tools of tomorrow for an impending new world looking increasingly post-flabby-old-human. Let’s ditch the chalk and slates for goodness sake and get in some VR headsets – come on, man! Don’t embarrass me with your old school. As one person portentously said of coding at a conference I was at a few years back: “There will be whole nations of peoples serving maitais on the beach because they don’t know this stuff”. Thanks, Agent Smith; that is the smell of economic inevitability. And the reassuring old whiff of cultural condescention.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, John Warner takes a reasonably whithering swipe at such ideas. As Vivek Wadhwa bemones the failure of one Next Big Thing In Education, MOOCs – or Massive Open Online Courses – in which everyone was just going to dial in to collossal Skype School in their pants, I think, Warner takes sardonic delight in debunking Wadhwa’s next Next Big Thing In Education: Clifford!, the artificial tutor, plugging into young minds with a refreshingly futury blend of “virtual reality, artificial intelligence and sensors”. No, that’s not your What’sApp reading group getting excited about the new Ernest Cline, it’s your Futury Buzzword Detector pinging it’s little heart out.

Clifford! has a human assistant called Rachel. Who is supposedly and therefore ironically not a replicant. She watches over Clifford! to see he doesn’t terminate the students when they go rogue with his teaching paramaters. Presumably.

Wadhwa’s vision for Clifford! says this: “Clifford has been with the children for years and understands their strengths and weaknesses. He customizes each class for them. To a child who likes reading books, he teaches mathematics and science in a traditional way, on their tablets. If they struggle with this because they are more visual learners, he asks them to put on their virtual-reality headsets for an excursion, say, to ancient Egypt. By using advanced sensors to observe the children’s pupillary size, their eye movements and subtle changes in the tone of their voice, Clifford registers their emotional state and level of understanding of the subject matter. There is no time pressure to complete a lesson, and there are no grades or exams.”

Warner responds by saying: “If this fantasy doesn’t get you sufficiently excited, there’s an even bigger one coming. It’s not going to cost anything: “Clifford, being software and having come into being in the same way that the free applications on our smartphones have, comes without financial charge.” Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t, but looking at the current state of the innovations Prof. Wadhwa is promising, there appears to be a significant gap between what he proposes is possible and what we can actually do.”

He scathes previous mind reading robot ideas and then swipes at the track record of certain other alternative tech school ideas.

“AltSchool, once the darling of Silicon Valley personalized learning which promised to combine high touch teaching with cutting edge software has “rebooted,” closing and consolidating itself from seven to four  physical schools and now selling its software directly to public schools at a rate far below its initial plans, because in the words of ed tech consultant Doug Levin, their initial vision of charging $750 to $1000 per student was “farcical.””

Well, I don’t know what the upshot was on that one. But Alt School was of course very much a Get On And Test it idea, so honestly a worthy work in progress. But Warner doesn’t hold back. “The idea that VR headsets, no matter how much cheaper they get could somehow transform learning because students will be able to see a pyramid being constructed in three dimensions is…I don’t know, naïve if I’m being nice, laughable to be more accurate. I’ll need to hear a more convincing argument for how holograms will be transformative in education before I buy into the hype.”

To be generous to his grumpy old man syndrome, tech solutions can often seem to be sticking plasters on fundamental cultural problems we aren’t tackling – at least in the way politicians tend to buy into them. While new tools and toys to see things differently, like VR, are of course terrific developments with much to explore about them, we know too it’s an easier, whizzier, funner, futurier response to wave about such things in the rare moments you, as a politician, feel you should even mention the future. Much easier than retooling your entire tax spend to convince all parents that exam results are mostly deluding bollocks and schools and learning programms alike would do more by just helping kids read, know where things are in the world, and learn how to come to terms with the disappointments of modernist promises in between extended hours of tree climbing, wildlife tracking, modern & tap, improv rage plays and essential home economics.

Oh. And preferred learning styles are guff too, apparently. We’re all kind of all of it. So all that adaptive lesson planning you’ve been doing? Possibly VARKing up the wrong tree, mate. The key to learning is to not be bored, patronised and assaulted. And made to learn utterly academic information Alexa could tell you if you ever thought you’d be interested. Which you won’t be.

All in all, what is the wall we appear to be all just bricks in?

 

SEEING THE HOPEY-CHANGEY BIT

Douglas Adams. It may turn out to be that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy really does contain more wisdom for humanity’s impending dawn in the wider cosmos than the average national curriculum has given it credit for. Maybe it should be required reading in school. Preparing us as it does for the simple explosive weirdness of real life in the universe, and how it likely co-exists with beaurocracy and a lot of disappointment.

“Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.” Says Magrathean planet designer Slartibartfast, who tells Arthur Dent all about the real story of Earth.

“And are you?” asks, Arthur.

“Ah, no. Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.” responds the old man.

Maybe this isn’t a very hopey-changey lesson for the classroom. But then, English teachers have been making kids read war poetry for decades, so it can’t all be Octonauts marine science experiments and essential rocket telemetry.

Of course the unspoken backdrop to Adam’s story is a spectacularly colourful universe. Whilst technically devoid of life, according to the book, because the sheer scale of the universe makes the actual amount of life in it seem round-downable to nothing, the heavy implication of the whole world of Hitchhiker’s is that the universe is indeed spectacular. And we all still manage to be unhappy, when we’re honest enough to stop pretending we’re happy all the time.

From my point of view, it’s hard to think of something more valuable for teaching kids about the real world than a book combining wit and science fiction. But that’s beaurocracy for you.

 

A fascinating idea tucked away in this part of the story is that of the Earth that Slartibartfast helped to design. Because, according to him, it wasn’t simply a planet – it was a super computer. A giant organic processor – run by mice. Or possibly dolphins. Certainly not humans. Designed to try to calculate the question of life the universe and everything. So we might stand a chance of answering it.

The great joke was, of course, the idea that humans weren’t the point of the whole process. They were more of a biproduct. And a pretty farty, unimpressive one, is the implication. Yet, of course, this rather seems the thing that Adams is delighting in – the absurdities between what humans think matter and what may actually matter. Or be of more interest, at least.

As rather delightfully off-beat education publisher Shmoop says: “Thematically, Slartibartfast makes a nice contrast with the mice. That is, the mice and the programmers are all interested (at first) in big issues — what does life mean, why are we here, blah blah philosophy blah. In other words, the mice (at first) are interested in getting rid of the absurdity of life.” Sounds decidedly mid century to me.

“By contrast,” they go on, “Slartibartfast is interested in the little things and in being happy rather than worrying about the big things.”

Is it even possible to be happy? Should we be trying? My own inference from all this is that we’ve been asking the wrong question all these modernist years – how can I be happy? When maybe the better question for the human brain is: How can I feel fullfilled? Remarkable how accidentally happy you might not notice yourself being in the middle of thrashing out your great personal purpose.

 

Of course, finding your purpose in life isn’t an answer a school of any sort can promise to give you. Your purpose might be to spend most of your life searching for purpose, and who wants to tell a thirteen year old that. Your average education institution the planet over might still be most likely to give you an answer like 42. A nice measurable number. That sounds below average to me. Have that tattooed on your forearm.

If the purpose of education is supposed to be equipping children to cope with the world then it’s a wonder we don’t teach them mindfulness or meditation from the beginning. Communing with the Earth in simple moments of breathing in and out. Focussing on marvels of detail in every day life. But this doesn’t get you a job, does it? Unless you count the wellness industry which is currently valued at $3.4trillion according to the Global Wellness Institute: “Three Times Larger than Worldwide Pharmaceutical Industry”. But that’s just being obtuse, Peach.

The point I would suggest here is that living only in your head isn’t healthy. You might not be sporty. And Lord knows, in school I had to come to terms fast as a very cute little pink-cheeked Peachling that I was a boy who was never going to be able to catch or throw or kick a ball. Thank the Lord I was okay at art and theatre because at least I felt I had A Thing – very important in the wrestle pits of children’s playground tribes. Plus the teachers mostly found me funny. I found my way to survive the school jungle.

But you do have to look after your body. Because you have one. And while you may think it’s just a misshapen thing to carry your head to meetings, the truth is you have a relationship with the poor thing. And how much does it feel valued?

School does put value on physical activity. But it’s currency has mostly always been team sports over the decades. Competition. And ball co-ordination. Your value in a team is to mostly not matter as an individual, unless you can do some really fancy footwork for scoring goals. Leaving some of us hanging around in defence hauntedly. On the other hand, on the handful of occasions you as a football geezer are made to go to Drama class, you are likely to wish you didn’t have to be there. Watching the most obviously gay kid finally enjoy school for a brief shining moment, upstaging your lumbering attempt at being a shoal of fish.

Mae Jemison – astronaut, doctor, art lover and dancer, which is as good an elevator CV as I can think of – said this: “We need to repair the dichotomy between mind and body. My mother always told me: “You have to be observant; know what’s going on in your mind and your body” and as a dancer I have this tremendous faith in my ability to know my body, just as I knew how to sense colours. Then I went to medical school. And I was supposed to go on what the machine said about bodies.”

Back at the start of the 21st century she gave a TED talk in which she said that she was concerned we weren’t passing on much of a legacy in this chapter of history. She points out that so much that built the world around us today was really: “knowledge and ideas that came up in the 50s, the 60s and the 70s.  Whether it’s the internet, genetic engineering, laser scanners, guided missiles, fibre optics, high definition television, remote sensing from space… all of these things without question are really based on ideas and abstracted creativity from years before.” And she says bluntly: “So we have to ask ourselves: What are we contributing to that legacy right now? And when I think about it, I’m really worried. To be quite frank, I’m really concerned. I’m sceptical that we’re doing very much of anything. We are failing to act in the future. We are purposefully, consciously being laggers.”

And she says something interesting. Her childhood spanned the sixties, and she always wished she was old enough to be a hippy, she says. Then she says this: “People talk about the sixties all the time and they always talk about the anarchy. But when I think about the sixties, what I took away from it was there was hope for the future. We thought everyone could participate. There were wonderful, incredible ideas that were always percolating and so much that’s cool or hot today is based on some of those concepts.”

Which is interesting, a decade and a half since she said this. We’ve been still potentially living in such a time of muddling about without clear vision. Is such a general statement true? Kinda feels it. But more than a generation really since the cultural unrests of the sixties, and moving towards the third decade of the twentyfirst century, the upshot of our cultural lack of vision is a new period of cultural unrests. Perhaps ones that dig deeper still, now we have at least begun the wider conversations about identity, equality, representation, opportunity. And what is coming out is a distinct feeling that little has changed – we’ve barely even started.

Is this helped or hindered by the education system?

Gains in education do show themselves. That Global Partnership for Education summary of the current state of the world’s learning found that their own partner nations had faster rising numbers of children completing primary and lower secondary learning, and that more education clearly means: “more gender equality, and better paying jobs”. They also feel the data shows that: “more education means a more democratic world”. As they put it: “Education has a big role to play in making our world safer and more stable. For example, youth without an education are 9 times more likely to be recruited by rebel groups.”.

You could generalise this to include gang culture, I feel sure. And away from the visceral street truth of tribal influence, the human psychological reality surely is that when you feel powerless, or stupid, or unrepresented, you’re going to feel some simmering form of angry. And such motivational and emotive adjectives are the real bits of grim poetry that fuel the minds of people with some very practical physical challenges – poverty, hunger, insecurity, joblessness. Who doesn’t want to find help to reach higher ground? It’s just, where does the trail really lead?

What if we started by injected a better sense of the connection between our bodily selves, our mental selves and our emotional selves? It is, after all, the most fundamental challenge in being born human – trying to reconcile these three into some comfortably functioning complete version themselves is what every child in your class has been dumped on the road to having to do. Just like you. Poor little souls. By which I mean all of us.

And it’s something that boys especially have been abjectly un-equipped to even begin exploring, the world over.

As homework here, I will simply set you the task of watching all six episodes of Queer Eye on Netflix. Go. Watch it. Watch all of it. And if you aren’t weeping at the end of most of it, you may need an emergency visit from the Fab Five. And the future may still currently be a very distant land for you indeed. Squinting through the bubblegum TV format, Queer Eye is a beautifully needed education for so much modern thinking, hemmed in by artifical boundaries.

But finding a balance to this metaphysical headbender, that modern life does so little to help us accept as such a fundamental reality, can unlock discovering what that fourth dimension of our lives might mean for us – spirituality.

Religion, of course, messes with your head. And the more ‘enlightened’ modernist in you will see religious educations as brainwashing. But don’t imagine your own culture isn’t having its own effect in just the same way. Any more than you should imagine that most westernised religous educations and teachings aren’t massively brainwashed themselves by the Enlightenment and the highly academic head-minded view of the world. Learning scriptures to recite is as much about passing on tradition like a story as it is about equipping you to fling holy stingers at Satan. Much like all classrooms, it doesn’t equip you to creatively question such venerated and fascinating historical texts, and it doesn’t connect you to the reality of closing the books and getting the hell outside. Despite someone as religiously iconic as King Solomon himself pausing mid-preach to basically say so:

“The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12.

Don’t question the old blokes, but goodness go out and play. In the ancient world, even someone as interestingly thinkish and comfortably upholstered and waited on as Sol, hadn’t lost emotional connection with the physical world in his learning.

Play is something advocated by some of the alternative education systems of course. And their popularity is not ebbing, fringe as they’ve often been seen. Steiner Schools, for example, as The School Run explains, sound like a rather more holistic alternative.

“If you’ve ever felt that children start school – and start growing up – too soon, a Steiner school could be a good fit for your child. First founded in 1919 by the philosopher and scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner, these schools aim to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment, where children can discover the joy of learning.”

The joy of learning? That’s a nice aim. But maybe it can sneak up on children. Steiner schools put an emphasis on physical play in the early years and don’t start more formal teaching until the kids are six. At which point they tend to focus on subjects one by one, rather than scattergunning all subjects across a fortnightly timetable.

“Steiner education is a holistic education, where we’re looking at the whole child, not just their intellect,” School Run quotes Tracey Lucas, a teacher at York Steiner School. “The curriculum aims to meet the child at their particular developmental stage, and inspires children to want to learn – we’re lighting fires, not filling vessels.” Nice. Presumably the students are praised for their daring creativity if they are ever caught actually lighting fires in the classroom. But this is a more inspiring view of school than double maths.

There’s also the Montessori School, of course. Aimed at the more formative ages of children, also delaying more academic learning, it’s all about freedom.

“Unlike in a typical classroom, where teachers will have a clear plan and timetable for the day that all children are expected to follow, in Montessori schools, a range of activities is set up and children choose what they want to do, engaging with each for as little or as long as they want. ‘It’s up to the teacher to observe what a child is interested in and find other ways to engage them,’ says Barbara Isaacs, Chief Education Officer for Montessori St Nicholas.

The interesting thing here, while you imagine toys and tantrums all over the place, is the emphasis, counter-intuitively, on order and structure. “Although learning is child-led, children need order and structure to thrive. Everything in the classroom has its place, and children take responsibility for putting one activity away before moving on to another.”

And they don’t use such a reward & punishment system, either. Not like training dogs. I tell you, it will never catch on.

Dr Richard House, a Steiner school teacher, says, “Socially progressive schools maximise the likelihood of children growing up to have a responsible and mature understanding of freedom, and therefore being able to exercise it effectively and maturely in their lives. This contrasts with mainstream schooling, which increasingly seems geared towards to churning out people who will preserve the status quo and fit into the existing system.”

 

And a comparative study a while ago seemed to show the benefits, as a Guardian article reported.

“A method of schooling that focuses on personal development rather than exams produces more mature, creative and socially adept children, scientists have found. Psychologists in the US found that across a range of abilities, children at Montessori schools out-performed those given a traditional education. Five-year-old Montessori pupils were better prepared for reading and maths, and 12-year-olds wrote “significantly more creative” essays using more sophisticated sentence structures.Some of the biggest differences were seen in social skills and behaviour.”

There is a big emphasis on mixing ages, sharing and helping, and physical play. All leading not to a sense of entitlement, but of responsibility. And possibility. I think that’s always been their aim.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it.

It’s not like adults are beyond the need for such learning, though. Trisha Lewis and Neil Humphrey are creatives living and working in my neck of the artistic network in Bournemouth, and they set up a project called Explory Story. A name I suspect started as a joke, and like my own name, kind of just stuck. But it’s okay, because Neil has designed a very flash brand style for Explory Story that helps you want to know more. And you should, because Trisha and Neil help businesses and individuals make better sense of how to connect with other fellow humans in their work by working out how to tell their story rather better. And a significant part of their process is improv.

Yep, you heard it. Improv – mucking about physically. As they put it: “We give you a supportive space to throw ideas up in the air and not worry about catching them. We want you to loosen up and see the simple stories. Once shaken up, we calm you down with good solid communication tools. We help you answer the call for a deeper human connection.”

This might sound a world away from your daily working life. But, while I hold back tears for you and for all of us as you say this, and neither of us know who is pitying the other more, this is very far from a world away from business. Because it’s slightly relevant to the business of being human. As Trish and Neil say: “Improv forces you to listen and be real, a core requirement of making a real connection.”

There is simply something freeing about physically walking through something. Viscerality loosens the mind. And for millions of us trying to make sense of our lives, more physicality is something we’re clearly craving in our gym class attendances and outdoor pursuits. But if we could work this thinking into our problem solving – where might that take our wellbeing? And our ideas. What might it do for kids slowly bringing themselves and their insane world into personal focus?

A school on my own doorstep that may be a light of hope, or at least relief to know is out there in all this, is Talbot Heath. A school for girls aged 3-18, it was always the posh girls’ private school across town when I was growing up. Today, under its Head Teacher Angharad Holloway is gaining a reputation as rather an inspiring leader in education, as the school shares its vision for its students. Because the vision they seem to have is one that seems to face the world as it really is, head-on. A world of massive challenges – and significant positive opportunities.

“We are determined to offer our pupils an education fit for the exciting future that awaits them – one of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and global solutions to global problems.” >futury buzzword detector pings< “Instead of regressing back to the 1950s with a curriculum that focusses on rote learning, as so many schools are being forced to do, Talbot Heath will prepare pupils for 2050.”

Well, I can’t help but like the sound of that. And get this for career realism: “The career pathways that 50 % of our young people will follow currently do not exist, that much is sure, such is the speed of change within our world. The skill sets that they will require, however, are known. School leavers will need to be creative, adaptable, resilient, digitally proficient, able to work independently and collaboratively. We cannot afford for our young people to be data rich and skills poor.”

Where the UK government proudly croaks the acronym STEM for its own visionary aims for young people’s learning, Talbot Heath advocates STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics. Yes, the arts. Make no mistake, this is a private school – that’s how it can afford to declare a little autonomy in its aims. And that also means that it must have had its fair share of wealthier parents spending fees with the school that was earned in some pretty old fashioned ways. But that doesn’t mean that such parents’ children have to. And perhaps many of them get this.

“Physicists have to be able to think like artists, students of literature need to have an appreciation of History, Politics and Art. Our pupils will look at the Maths and Physics of the ancient temples in their Classics lessons, learning how to model both digitally and practically, understanding the importance of design, structure, purpose, sustainability and production.”

 

Shuttup and take my money. Which I don’t have much of at the moment because I am following my dream and much of it seems to be enthusiastically unbillable. But anyway. It feels like no meaningless thing that the venue for my first public performance of the creative project behind Unsee The Future will be this school’s main hall. A few different social creative roads lead me here before I knew the venue or the educational establishment offering it for myself. The welcome, from energising marketing front-of-house Hayley O’Shea, and her testimony to being part of the team, was frankly inspiring. Let’s hope I don’t/didn’t embarrass us all in there, eh.

What I can’t help wishing for is a school with this attitude for boys. A school for all identities, perhaps like this, perhaps even more openly structured than that, where the absurd diversity of our minds is the new, wonderful normal, and youngsters are simply equipped to love who they are enough to get out and get stuck into the world. Mindfully, creatively. With a quietly profound sense of connection to the physical Earth.

Learning, of course, is really all about boundaries. Keeping consistent ones as leaders and parents, precisely so our children can grow up with perspective enough to go on to mindfully break some of them. But not in instinctive, painful rebellion – in visionary confidence. Confidence is the ultimate end purpose of all teaching. Surely. Self-posession. Not a sort of ignorant entitlement, but a knowing sense of ambition. An ability to set one’s own goals for success, ignoring everyone else’s. That’s confidence.

 

Confidence isn’t beaten into or out of us. It isn’t chided or brainwashed with repetition. The confidence that changes the world is the sort that doesn’t fear failure, and knows it will happen. The confidence to get up fast after it. Who of us have that? It is a characteristic encouraged and inspired. There ain’t no other way to cultivate it – because it’s all about equipping the pupil to choose for themselves, to stand on their own two feet. Forge their own path. Not yours, Dad. Encouraging this, that’s real parenthood. The sort a whole village can help raise a child with.

And will our children need confidence to face the big stuff we are leaving them to deal with. Enough to make us all sweat.

Because if there is one lesson in education of our times that is to be learned, it is being tought by children and young people. And they are telling us: We need to wake up. We need to have the courage to challenge the status quo. And we must be willing to place our very bodies into the firing line, to stand up for the future we believe in.

The March For Our Lives, in Washington DC and across the US, echoed in some places even elsewhere around the world, took us all to school. Because here are youngsters putting themselves fearlessly infront of the greatest cultural chokehold in America – the gun lobby. Children. Doing what we haven’t had the balls or vision to do yet. And there’s something very interesting to be noted here, as a detail you could miss in the incredible headlines of this story. The championing of cause is not staying within the usual boundaries. It’s not your usual protestors who’ve come to define themselves by their fight. Like Green evangelists not noticing they’ve effectively just become members of a niche religion.

This is change bleeding into the mainstream. It’s not the usual suspects defined by Left and Right.

As Adam Gopnik says in The New Yorker: “The strident contempt that the Parkland kids earned from some quarters of the gun lobby derived exactly from the strength of their witness: they are not the élitist intellectuals or compulsive do-gooders or obsessive gun confiscators of fervid imagination. They are teen-agers who have seen their friends and their teachers slaughtered by a deranged former classmate, using a gun designed to shoot large numbers of people in as short a time as possible.”

While everyone is debating the meaning of the second amendment, and pro gun protestors are organising ranty pro-gun rallies with no-gun policies for safety to acuse children of being political stooges, who is asking what the real pandemic is here? Of mindset. Of outlook. That sees young men – always young men – want to indiscriminately cut down the fellow humans they’ve had around them for years in school. What is the cultural sickness in the root of many young male minds in America? What have they been taught, growing up? And how? What haven’t they?

Is there an actual awakening going on this time?

“Watching the march,” says Gopnik, “it was even possible to think that the movement might point the way toward a more general revivification of democratic action, reconnecting the streets with the legislatures in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time.”

Who, in this scenarios, are the mice, and who are the planet designers?

March For Our Lives has brought the most passionate eloquence and wisdom from the classroom back out into our wider culture. And you can expect the cynical anaesthetic of indifference to smother this eventually, of course. But these kids won’t always be kids. They will, however, always remember what most shaped their lives in the classroom.

If anyone has it, they have the magic to change the world – confidence. And in something that will always testify the loudest to any humanly good education – life shaping values.

I’m not sure there’s been a more genuinely hopey-changey thing half make it to the news cycle in a generation. It quietly dwarfs all the childish prattle and gossip of most of the news bleating in our ears every day. This one, you should take notice of. Because it is not old business as usual.

The purpose of education, in the end, is to help us grow through the natural stages of life, and make something of it. We imagine we are preparing our offspring and an adopted younglings for success, when we have a strong view of education – but I come back to the question: How do we define success for our children? What is the business we think they should be in? Of tending the old family business, or of finding themselves? I think the business we are all in, truthfully, is the management – the encouragement – of life. Not patenting, but parenting.

We’re not here to simply grow into adults, but parents. Self-possessed enough, confident enough, with loving persepctive on ourselves enough, that we know it’s not simply about us. A way of seeing ourselves and all of us in the system of the natural world that isn’t primarily about having biological children or finding romantic love or becoming particular figures in society. It’s about learning to love being part of the miracle of life, and wanting to pass on as much wisdom about such a precious identity as we can. And equip each other to do so.

As I watch my nieces and nephews and children from across our extended family grow up, I continue to feel two things strongly. They are really feeling it – the great underlying disconnect of our times – and they fill me with more hope than anything else for the future. I really do believe in them for it, so emotionally connected are they to Now. But now is a time to challenge confidences like we’ve never known before. And my heart breaks for them, trying to process the massive miss-fit between their instinctive humanity and the world we’re expecting them to fit into. It’s a big reality demanding more grown-up character than I know how to muster.

But. I think they know something. Something only beginning to dawn into their consciousness, our younger people, but something they feel in their bones. And before those bones get old, I think our job as educators – as parents – is to encourage them to embrace it, explore it, and call it out.

When facing the big stuff, the impossible immovable seeming, here’s the reality – our ordinary lives are the big stuff. We’re the great add-up. There are 7billion of us living in this great organic sharing machine, this great human-planet processor. Imagine if we educated them all to think creatively, self-possessively. Imagine if we equipped them in the classroom, fired up their imaginations, to develop new ways of seeing. Everything. The whole cosmos of possibilities. And themselves.

What could we do with 7billion engaged, inspired, confident whole people?

 


DISCOVER THE UN’S GLOBAL GOAL FOR QUALITY EDUCATION >

What is the high level plan for ensuring inclusive and equitable learning worldwide?

Research shows benefits of Montessori Education >

Read the Guardian report on the early years teaching method

Discover Talbot Heath School for girls >

The Bournemouth-based education establishment aims to equip its students for the future.

Meet Explory Story >

Improv for harrased business professionals? You bet it can unlock inspiration.

UNSEE THE FUTURE – EP13: Education – part 1

Teacher. Don’t leave those kids alone.

Wait for it. ..Peach, Don’t make me come back there. Turn your papers over…

>fidgety exam hall<

now.

No more cribbing in the corridor, it’s time to sweat the big stuff. Because the interlocking challenges of our times, as we consider the future of humankind, are just complicated. A tangled mesh of consequences and cultures; conflicting parameters and pragmatic realities. It is beyond mind-boggling, our many-storied world machine. Which is a big part of the equation adding up to a lot of social indifference – on mass, we don’t engage much with the big stuff. It doesn’t connect to our personally complicated enough ordinary lives. I mean, you say you find long division a bit tricky.

We have enough to cope with in our stuffed brains, and most of the stuff school tried to put in there we’ve forgotten. When it comes to daily stuff, we’re already sweating – if not in the office, or in the face of our kids’ homework schedules, then in the gym, trying to forget about the office and our kids’ homework schedules.

But, of course, the big themes of our times always connect with our own little lives – they’re the context our lives are really happening in, and they can crash in on us at any time and reshape us dramatically. War, natural disaster, cultural clash – we’re always in a reaction against something that was nothing directly to do with us. And today, the themes of our times are the biggest imaginable, and threatening to change all our stati quo.

How can we be mentally equipped to cope with all this? How can we be prepared? I think, if there’s one thing we’re going to need to be ready for the future, it’s imagination.

How do we learn? And what can current global education systems teach us about ourselves? Just what do we elect to put into our children as their brains take shape and their personalities sponge up all their experiences and shape around them? What is the success we want for our young ones? And what kind of education are we all going to need to not just survive into the century, but sow seeds of long-term positive hope?

 

LISTEN TO UNSEE THE FUTURE – EP13: EDUCATION, part 1 >

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

 

“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” That’s the headline quote under the UN’s Global Goal for Quality Education. It sounds rather like the UN itself to me – delightfully bookish and worthy. But not exactly a street poetry slam.

And, y’know. Who does love school? Well, it tends to be those who aren’t forced to go to it and face periodic tables and periodic knife crime. And the possibility of your first period happening in a classroom. For millions of people forced to go to state school over many generations, school has always been some combination of boring, stressful, uncomfortable, irrelevant and humiliating. And that’s before we even get to the pupils, poor little tykes. But, whether the staff doing the teaching are despotic blackboard rubber throwers that tried to knock some conformity into your dad, or inspiring PowerPoint dinosaur describers today, school’s chief lesson for most kids has always been a grade from the school of hard knocks. Above all it’s social boot camp. But perhaps that’s because many of us who grew up in broadly western education systems take it so much for granted we find it hard to see, or feel, the point of education – it seems in every sense, accademic. What it so abjectly often hasn’t been, is inspiring.

If you’re growing up in a culture that either doesn’t have reliable state education, or has an especially strong culture of promoting the equipping purpose of education, you might feel differently. You might even trott to school adorably.

“Education liberates the intellect, unlocks the imagination and is fundamental for self-respect. It is the key to prosperity and opens a world of opportunities, making it possible for each of us to contribute to a progressive, healthy society. Learning benefits every human being and should be available to all.”

The UN gets into it a bit more there, and as an adult I finally find this sort of talk all rather inspirational. Because I grew to want to learn things. I think many of us do. Mainly, when I was at school, I just wanted to draw spaceships, chase girls and climb trees. It’s not that I can say that all that much has honestly changed for me today, you understand, it’s simply that I’m also interested in how we might actually build working spaceships, how the social dynamics might work in an extended extra terrestrial mission environment, what types of flora might cope with cultivation in a zero-g arboretum and what all this cultural and scientific investment might bring home to inspire humans on Earth. As well as how fitted everyone’s uniforms are. (Broadly, loose is more comfy and less distracting for getting any actual work done. Thanks for the broken promises, 70s scifi.)

The more you think about how stuff connects, the more interesting it is, I find. So it would be good if school were always a place where this could light up childhood imaginations.

But in any classroom, you are dealing with thirty, or ten, or two, or fifty different imaginations. And the teacher’s skill in conducting all this learning like a discordant orchestra – especially in music lessons – is affected by the pressures of time, funding and culture. And little bleeps who demand all the attention.

The thing to remember is that every component part of the combined challenge we face today, everything the complete disaster plan for the future is designed to tackle – every single bit of the UN’s Global Goals – is tackling the fallout of human outlooks. Stuff coming out of our minds in our actions. So what we put into them is sleeee-ightly important.

The complicated big stuff is never far away for ordinary lives everywhere. And it’s only going to get more complicated, the stuff we’ll need to know about. But if you’re truly going to get an education, the first reality to grasp, when thinking big, is of course that there is no such thing as an ordinary life at all.

 

 

 

ENGLISH LIT

LOL – 404, man. 2m2h, txt = 2crz, yeah? DMNO, but WTAF IEU with that, right? I mean, DQMOT but is txt spk a sign of the end times? It’s easy to feel a 4NR to this and that’s because this relatively recent new language, born unbidden of daily human tech use, may simply have been the best ruse to date for young people to confuse their parents to their face. All the more because their parents might be desparing at this obvious collapse of educated civilisation. Or at least they would be, if they weren’t doing it themselves too. And that’s before we start using emojis.

Shakespearian theatre actor Sir Patrick Stuart took the paycheque to bring to life the poo emoji in a feature film, that got funded apparently, last year. You know, that little coil of brown poo that smiles as we use it to efficiently denote something being a pile of stinking crap. ..So perhaps THIS is the turning point moment historians will use to illustrate to the inevitable decline of our modern human hopes. The moment we came, er, clean about not caring what we know or how we say it.

Of course, while in your higher minded moments you are despairing at all this ignorance and general dumbing down of culture, you probably don’t know what emoji means. So here’s some useless information for you. The word is Japanese and means ‘pictogram’ or more more exactly e (, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”). The first of their like was designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, who took inspiration from weather symbols and Chinese characters and manga comics to inject a little simple play but cleverly efficient communication into the clunkiness of speaking through thumbs, while working with one of the big mobile coms companies in Japan at the time. Being Japanese, I’d guess he had a productive hunch it might go mad as an idea, sure enough taking off first in his native neck of the woods across phones and devices. But it went on rather quickly to become an interesting visual lingua franca globally.

Except when we completely misinterpret them in different cultural contexts, as Cosmo amusingly spells out. That poo emoji means good luck in Japanese. Apparently. So lesson one on cultural exchanges: Always be sure where you’re flinging your poo.

Don’t get emojis confused with emoticons, though, will you. Emoticons are faces made purely out of typographic symbols to hand on the western keyboard – :o). Which some coder somewhere has infected into the HTML bloodstream with an emoji tag for them. Which means I have lost count of the time I have confused correspondents when I imagine I am giving someone a little friendly sideways smileyface when I actually send them a little animated horrified shock face because I like to creatively add a lower case ‘o’ to my emoticon smiley as I think it looks cuter having a little round nose. It’s all the hell of now.

The point here is that even the literally crappest of new things can get laced with nuanced cultural meaning fast when apportioned by humans. Because humans love using things in new ways and always lace everything with frankly sophisticated cultural nuance that you have to be able to contextualise to understand. And they especially love doing this when it’s playful, subversive and rude. We’re ridiculously brilliant as we fart and laugh and put off doing the job we’re supposed to be doing.

We intuit and we pick up and we play and we reapportion and we reinvent for convenience and identity and a little easy money without even thinking. Everyone. All cultures, regardless of formal education. It’s just what humans do – we are natural learners, partly because we’re natural sharers.

Civilisation really took off when we found our shared voices and began to codify the sounds for each other. From cuniform shopping lists to ASCII jokes, Egyptian hieroglyphic propaganda to ???? becoming Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, we seem to have an instinct to keep adapting how we learn – because finding the right language seems to unlock our learning, amplifying our ability to pick things up by passing them on with cultural precision. Language is how knowledge gets spread in ever evolving diversifications across a multicultural human herd and so, over millennia, how we all learn. Being able to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ is precisely how humankind got to the moon. Wernher von Braun didn’t wake up in a field one day, and mid rabbit-bashing look up, dust off his animal skin and go sketch out the basis of the Saturn V rocket. He studied at the Technische Hochschule Berlin and joined the Spaceflight Society before getting his early work sponsored by the Nazis for invasive weaponry. See? Sharing is caring for us all in the end.

When it comes to learning, it always becomes apparent that what we think we know is never as much as all the other stuff we had no idea we didn’t know. There are always very many more ways than one to skin an egg. You see? You were only thinking of boiling it.

For one thing, as the lovely first lady of Momo has said often, everyone knows different things. Everyone seems to have a slightly preferred way of doing the learning too, for it to stick. Finding the preferred personal language. Teachers of various kinds these days often believe that children and adults learn through different methods of perception – y’know, your VARKs: Visual, Auditory, Reading, Kinesthetic. Some of us like to picture things for it to go in, some of us like to just listen, some of us like to read privately and some of us prefer to interpret complex mathematical formulae in short dance stories. So the thinking goes.

Yet in education, behind all the worthy encouragement of individual young minds we hear about from junior education ministers and private school brochures, in cultural practice we have been used to very simplistic ideas of ‘stupid’ and ‘clever’. Which isn’t very clever. Because the cornerstone of traditional education is the ability to recall information – and that depends on being able to read and rub along with the specific language of text books and boffins and dusty old English teachers. Reciting times tables, quoting Shakespeare, remembering the date of the Battle of Bosworth Field. The idea being that if that stuff is drummed in there – beaten in there, nagged in there, scolded in there, humiliated in there – you will always have such mental knowledge abuse scars with you to hand. And so you’ll be equipped. To become another teacher, mainly, and take it all out on the next generation. It was a venerated profession once.

Of course, this rests heavily on the usefulness of what is drummed into your brain. Basic wildlife tracking and firestarting will be of more interesting and practical-seeming use in your recall memory if you have to camp in the middle of Bosworth Field, for example. Much more than remembering how the reign of the Tudors started in 1485, actually a couple of miles from Bosworth, and King Richard III ended up in a car park in Leicester. All very interesting round the campfire, but not as useful as knowing to dig a latrine downwind.

This rote learning and its extended culture can lead to people carrying pyschological hinderances to further learning, of course. It’s one thing to learn lines for a play, or to put in your ten thousand hours of practice to master the classical guitar and woo Argentinian dancers with half a chance, but judging a person’s aptitude for life on their aptitude for processing abstract symbols on a page is not very enlightened. I can’t even remember how many of my creative friends are one kind of dyslexic or other, and many of them my age and older still consider themselves bad at writing and articulating themselves when actually they are wordily some of the richest expressers I know. Daft, right? Stigma of classrooms.

And anyway, after all this, beyond the Information Age what exactly will be the purpose of emptily reciting knowledge? As vital to unlocking learning as reading is considered, more and more users of interfaces the world over will be able to access information without having to so much, thanks to the rise of voice assistants and iconographic navigation – when you don’t get your emojis culturally mixed up, or the legs of your Lack IKEA sidetable on upside down. And however you want to access that information, the point is that you can. We live in a time where we can can cheat in pub quizzes eternally – ask a question of simple fact and your phone will tell you. Richard eschewed the horse, he didn’t monologue for one. Yet, essentially, are our schools still teaching our kids to pretend to be English scollars?

But. Before you go looking for the link for your kids’ Code Club, it’s worth trying to get a picture of just where the world is generally with education. To engage with the world’s possibilities, like its challenges, essential literacy is still the gateway to greater global opportunity. And to limbering up for learning that utterly superhuman organ, your daft brain. How are we collectively doing at enabling youngsters to read and write?

 

GEOGRAPHY

The UN thinks that we need to be finding ways to globally provide free education to primary and secondary levels, boys and girls equally. Half the challenge there is indeed equality. UNESCO published figures for the middle of the decade that had over 260million children out of school worldwide, which does actually represent an encouragingly steadily decreasing number this century – and one that saw a significant closing of the gender gap to almost parity between the sexes. But such average figures mask a still significant gender imbalance, they say.

In the organisation’s report, Leaving no one behind: How far on the way to universal primary and secondary education? – which, be honest, how could you not find yourself picking up and leafing through at your doctor’s surgery – UNESCO splits school age ranges into three, unsurprisingly demonstrating that it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in school. Since 2000 the primary out-of-school rate fell from 15% to 9% by 2014, the lower secondary out-of-school rate fell from 25% to 16% in the same period and the upper secondary out-of-school rate declined from 49% to 37%. Actually a more consistent decline than the other ages. But it all seems to have been slowing, that decline in kids not attending school, which is interesting and concerning. The report sums up the general numbers by saying:

“Today, 1 out of 11 primary school age children, 1 out of 6 lower secondary school age adolescents, and 1 out of 3 upper secondary school age youth are not in school.”

 

The older you are, the more you useful you are at work for the family. Basically. And the greatest number of the under-age out of school are just where you’d imagine they would be geographically – sub-Saharan Africa, southern, south-eastern, eastern, western and central Asia, and north Africa is how the slope towards education decends. And yes, all of the figures jump up significantly at the later secondary school age because, as the report says to bear in mind: “While primary and lower secondary education are compulsory in nearly all countries, the same is not true for upper secondary education. In addition, youth of upper secondary age are often of legal working age and thus have both a right to employment and a right to education.”

If you’d never thought about it before, you might think girls would benefit from not being boys in many of these more traditional cultures, left to learn stuff while the lads were sent out to labour, but of course it doesn’t work as simply as that. Girls get married off. Girls aren’t seen as worth educating, because they will be family tenders. As Girls Not Brides puts it bluntly: “Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 23 girls every minute. Nearly 1 every 2 seconds.”

They state simply that child marriage is driven by an always local mix of gender inequality, poverty, tradition, and insecurity, and it happens all over the world, of course. As the World Bank says, child marriage happens to boys and girls, but overwhelmingly it’s girls that are affected most. They suggest it’s on the decline almost everywhere, from especially high figures in places like Bangladesh and a spread of African nations. But it’s still on the increase, they claim, in Niger above everywhere, but also in Mali and the DRC. It’s far from going away, and they think that of all girls having children under the age of 18, three-quarters of them will be child brides.

It’s a cultural phenomenon they simply put in bald economic terms in the order of trillions of dollars cost by 2030. A staggering and very academic figure derived from the combined effects of lower earnings for girls married off young, their reduced economic productivity and control, the increases in population the whole practice produces and the health costs of more likely problems from children born into malnourishing economic environments, to say nothing of their increased vulnerability to abuse, and greater infant mortality in such circumstances. To flip it, they say: “The analysis suggests that globally, by 2030, gains in well-being for populations from lower population growth could reach more than $500 billion annually.”

They quote Quentin Wodon, lead author of the report: “Child marriage not only puts a stop to girls’ hopes and dreams. It also hampers efforts to end poverty and achieve economic growth and equity,” he said, adding: “Ending this practice is not only the morally right thing to do but also the economically smart thing to do.”

But of course all these figures describe sheer numbers of people. They quote one girl from Niger, who describes the reality like this:

“”I stopped (going to) school in order to marry,” said the young teenager. “It was because of people’s mentality and their prejudices. I was married during a school break and, before I could return, I became pregnant. After that, I never returned.”

A Ugandan parent told Woden’s report: “We are faced with long distances to primary schools. Girls on their way to school meet men. Later, some get pregnant and drop out of school. Also, we have no vocational school that will train our girls after they complete primary and lower secondary education, so we see it as a waste of resources to educate girls.”

Laura Paddison wrote up a little summary of a Guardian round table on the issue, driven by the belief across all the major health agencies that getting girls more equally into education is the key to really leveling up national economic inequalities. And it’s more than just under age marriage that reduces the effectiveness of girls’ educations more than boys. Making the environment comfortable for them is a biggie. From the simple sounding but statistically significant effect of shame and menstruation in many places girls are growing up, actual safety is too often a challenge.

As Nora Fyles Director of the Secretariat for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative put it: “Gender-based violence in and around school is a reality. [Girls] don’t think about learning when they’re trying to figure out what the next exit is or whether they can go to the toilet and be safe.” As Paddison says: “The international education sector has spent so long trying to get children into school, especially in the developing world, only to realise girls are facing dangers there”.

“We know that there are some really, really negative experiences around school” Jo Bourne, an education chief at Unicef, told her. She referred to a report that revealed female university students in Liberia were often harassed and pressured into “sex for grades” – where lecturers pressure students to perform sexual acts in return for good grades cards or passing assignments. “But we also need to remember that schools are also really powerful places to help challenge some of the gender norms and some of the social norms that we see around.”

The Unesco report simply adds up this figure under the personal stories, worldwide: “Girls are more likely than boys to remain completely excluded from education, despite the efforts and progress made over the past two decades. According to UIS data, 15 million girls of primary school age will never have the opportunity to learn to read and write in primary school, compared to about 10 million boys.”

But it’s not like boys are thriving at school. You might have observed a generalism that girls seem more earnestly swotty on average than the boys mucking about at the back of the classroom. But it’s just this sort of oddly universal background view of the genders that often impedes them. From the engagement of the classroom itself for them, to the both legal requirement and cultural expectations of attending school, boys are likely to just not stick at it.

As a Unicef report, Why are boys underperforming in education says: “Students are unlikely to attend school if it is not compulsory, free or useful. Further, the underlying gender dynamics where boys are considered more independent, believed to be less interested in learning, and have the potential to earn money while working mean that boys are more likely to leave school.”

What is it across human cultures today that doesn’t equip boys to engage with their own educational, mental and emotional wellbeing? Because millions of boys growing into men seem to come to all this later in life, and often the hard way. And back in one of the earliest chapters of their lives there is the classroom. Or at least, a perception of it. Hmm.

Because some of these education themes, that seem clear to foreigners parachuting in to developing nations, really don’t sound so disconnected from school students of the richer countries of the world, actually. Engagement is… not what it should be.

So, whoever you are, wherever you are trying to learn some skills to make sense and opportunity out of the world around you as you grow up, what is school doing for you?

 

DOUBLE MATHS

“Go on, tell me,” I said to a chum of mine who’s an early years primary school teacher, “what do you think of the UK classroom today?”

She barely blinked. “It’s sh**” she said.

Unsurprised totally – which says something itself – I asked why.

“Because it’s all about results,” she replied. “It’s not at all about the children. With every little person who walks through the door, you find yourself thinking: Oh, they won’t get us the grades or: Thank God, they might. It’s not right is it?”

Target culture. That’s the whole end effect of the current national curriculum it seems, here in my home country. And as my chum added: “It’s not even a level playing field for schools, because we have to compete with much bigger, much better funded schools with kids who come from much more stable homes”.

What happened to the classroom? But was it ever so much about education anyway, I am tempted to ask.

When you start looking about, there are lots of people saying education the world over isn’t good enough. Isn’t working effectively enough. There seem to be patterns.

You could start by simply stating that everywhere people feel education is underfunded. Global Partnership for Education pulled together some headlines from two key reports at the start of this year, 2018 – one from the World Bank and one from Global Education Monitoring – and their headlines included problems with gender parity persisting and also that the world doesn’t actually monitor its own educational outcomes nearly enough. There’s much we don’t know about how effective global teaching really is, with as they put it: “At the lower secondary level, less than 50% of countries around the world gather data on reading results.”

But the world is going to simply need more trained teachers. “Globally, there are more trained teachers and fewer students per teacher, which is important to improve the quality of education. But a high population growth, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, will result in higher numbers of children in school, and thus a need for more teachers” they say. And they show that numbers of adults leading classrooms in some of these countries have been going down.

Then there is simply the fact that education Official Development Assistance – charity cash – has been going down for some years, where, they claim, other aid sectors like health or infrastructure continues to gain funding support. And at the same time as developing nations have been slow to up their own spend on it. GPE ask their partner countries to aim for at least 20% of their national budgets to go to education for it to be effective.

It is interesting to ponder here how we value education. And the educators. Judging by my primary school teaching chum’s feelings, and those of many people I know well in the sector, they don’t exactly feel valued or empowered. And this sometimes even feels social – because, let’s face it, when a bunch of teachers get together, the rest of us back away. They have LOTS to talk about that… (I’m going to say it…) always sounds a leeetle obsessively inward-looking. ..Sometimes. But that’s because half of them are probably dealing with PTSD. And the rest of us wouldn’t quite understand. And anyway, a school is a whole world in itself and it’s even more socially immersive than trying to start up a business. What boss obsesses over their staff like a primary school teacher does over their kids?

The question remains: Why aren’t we all a lot more inspired by general education? Kids and adults alike? Maybe the word general I put there without thinking is a bit of a clue. Education doesn’t feel very personal.

 

And there we pause our look at Education, to give you time to go run around in the playground before the next period. Play hand tennis. Hopscotch. Hoop and stick. Rooftop parcour – whatever it is you kids do in breaktime these days. Next time on Unsee The Future, we’ll look at robots in the classroom, essential planet design and try to picture what Hopey-Changey School might look like.

DISCOVER THE UN’S GLOBAL GOAL FOR QUALITY EDUCATION >

MOMO:TEMPO PRESENTS: FIVE SONGS TO HELP US UNSEE THE FUTURE

On Sunday 29th April, the bloke from Momo is gathering future-minded souls, creative explorers and the simply curious to share a thing. A first ever share of the project that’s been redirecting Momo’s outlook over the last couple of years. The inspiration behind #Myfi and #UnseeTheFuture and the reason he’s started turning up at things shooting off his unqualified mouth about the human-planet tomorrow. A first test-bed unveiling of his personal response to the Now of fearsome realities, and how it has lead him to meet, involve and learn from some brilliant humans feeling similarly. And you could be there, if you’ve found this.

 

[ CLICK TO REGISTER ]

 

It’s about time. Sort of like Back To The Future II, the bloke from Momo hasn’t been quick to come back from 2015’s Thespionage with a big musical follow-up. But that’s because, he says, it’s become bigger than he expected.

“All I wanted to do was take my amigos into space,” he says. “But as I explored the simple theme of the next LP, I began to realise quickly that it wanted to be more than the third studio album from obscure electro-newave bloke Momo:tempo.”

It is that, of course. With a structural basis simply in the new musical work, Five Songs to help us Unsee The Future is a debut of pieces through a line-up of the Momo:tempo Electro-Pops Orchestra, including first glimpse so far, Behave New World. But the event will also be workbenching a whole event structure that Mr Peach is hoping to scale up, with key contributor, director Andy Robinson, along with a small host of other creatives already involved at this early public stage. All in a one-off show designed to invite a deliberately interesting cross-section of guests to join the conversation afterwards.

“The single most meaningful aim of this daft, risky, work-in-progress event is to get some good minds in the same room and try to inspire them a little” he says. “And I am way past caring how pompous this sounds – the topic we’re exploring means too much to me now” he laughs.

[ CLICK TO REGISTER ]

 

 

A NEON CABARET FOR THE END OF THE WORLD.

Five Songs will be a short sharing of ideas about the future in a very old-fashioned structure – music and spoken word. But, along with a spot of general son et lumiere along the way, it will feature scenes from Andy Robinon’s part in the show – a prelude to a specially commisioned short film, starring Veronica Jean Trickett.

“Andy was the first person I approached about this project, some two years ago now,” says Timo. “And when I outlined what I had in mind, and the kinds of themes I imagine us exploring, he came back with a piece of work that has put the heart into the whole project.”

It’s a piece of a puzzle with a few strands, being co-produced by creative partners like Octopus Farm, with contributions from Treehouse Digital and others, and all set in the imposing hall at Talbot Heath School for girls, as part of Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe. So it sounds appropriate that the face of the whole project is not Mr Peach’s but that of artist, writer and performer Hazel Evans.

“Hazel is indeed the face of the future,” Timo smiles. “And not just because it’s always a pleasure to work with my good art mate. She’s the face of Behave New World and Unsee The Future for good symbolic reason, right in the heart of the show, and so being able to present our world debut of our funny little unfunded pocket epic in the inspiring context of such a progressive educational insitution as Talbot Heath, well, feels resonnant” he says. “Hazel will be with me on stage as our characters sort of step out of the fridge and walk our audience around the quirky universe of our little show.”

“It’s about trying to make more sense of Now than our usual stories seem to” he adds. “In what can we base any hopes for better outcomes for humans on Earth than the ones we’re seeing everywhere that add up somehow to something convergingly bad that feels inevitable? Five Songs is the very tiny beginning of trying to question this.”

 

A NEW STORY OF US.

As Momo has been exploring a more factual view of the human-planet future with podcast and blog Unsee The Future, he’s come to the conclusion that the truth of our times can be found in our storytelling. And it might be time to write some new ones.

“Arty-farty as it sounds, people think in stories. And this project’s made me think that the story we think we’re in influences rather significantly the character we go on to play in daily life. And I’m wondering whether the single most effective thing we can aim to do in our different projects now is encourage a new collective story of us. Something that we’ll no doubt unpack a little on the night.”

On the night the show itself will be followed by a little time to chat back to Timo and the team about the show and its origins and ambitions.

“We are exploring whether this is a project which could be scaled a little as an event. And above all other creative aims in it, I want to see Andy’s full film made. But really, Five Songs is about gathering some thoughtful souls around an idea, and to see if we can make some new connections in all our ongoing work” Timo explains.

“Plus, of course, it will at least start to reveal work from the new Momo:tempo LP and it’s name, at last. Which I can’t wait to do. A po-faced talk on futurism trends and the environment this will not be…” he grins.

FIVE SONGS TO HELP US UNSEE THE FUTURE
A NEON CABARET FOR THE END OF THE WORLD – PREVIEWING THE NEW FUTURISM PROJET FROM MOMO AND DIRECTOR ANDY ROBINSON.

Sunday 29 April 2018, 6.30pm for 7.00pm start.
Talbot Heath School.

 

How can you be at Five Songs to help us Unsee The Future? Simply click this link to register.

 

 

Voice Search: What are we really asking for?

Earlier in March, I was invited by Andy Headington of digital agency Adido to take part in their first ever 20:20 Digital Debate. A format designed to explore aspects of emerging tech and culture through the playful lens of a sort of debating society, with a case for and a case against a statement. So what did this house believe by the end of a very informed presentation by Nichola Stott of Erudite batting for the positives of the next big thing, Voice Services, and grumpy old man for the night, the bloke from Momo?

 

It was pretty unchanged. To cut to the chase. Just a little unnerved, after what I shared. But along the way, we had a jolly time considering whether the tech lovies are right to gush over the encroachment of Alexa into our homes, hailing it as the next big thing in connectivity, and a gateway to making a fully connected home more human.

As hopey-changey as I strive to be, making the futurism curmudgeon job a slightly weird fit for me, my scepticism about this in particular was founded quite instinctively. Then informed further by Ben Scott-Robinson of Small Robot, whose talk at VentureFest South the week before was so good I nicked a pertinent bit of content from it.

A top night, and an intriguing format I’d urge you to enjoy at the next event in the series. A huge thank you to Andy for the debates we’ve already been having about trends in the human-planet future, and handing me a mic for a spot with a warm invitation. And a pleasure to be on stage with Nichola, who basically actually knows stuff. In the questions afterwards, I’d generally answer with a lyrical bit of emotional-space guff and she would come back calmly with data and informed insight. Plus, she was funny.

For a taste of the evening, do watch the highlights film here, ahead of hopefully releasing the whole debate some time soon. And for your interest, below is the article behind my talk on the night, if you’d like to find out what I think we’re really asking for, when we ask Alexa anything.

 

 

 

I have a saying. One you’ve probably heard me say before. One I sometimes have the nerve to present “in quotes” to look more important in presentations. Because I believe that technology always finds its level. Now, new stuff is always exciting, of course. Exploring new stuff is playful – and this can be wonderful, helping to drive change and engagement with it. But technology is often sold as a panacea when in fact it’s always an R&Ded specific response to a particular problem and context, and as such always has it’s intended place. And that place is always, in the end, human.

 

In the progressy-sexy 20th century, there was a burgeoning of materials and uses of them that all signalled NEW AND COOL in their days. Vinyl and wood and paper and plastic – they have all, as I’ve said elsewhere, had falls from prominence in doing certain jobs, and all been pronounced to have had their day at some point or other. Yet all of these materials, y’know, surround us everywhere today and have found their secure roles in lives. We won’t likely ever see the back of any of their use in human life, because we’ve set the template of expectations. You might not imagine putting a record player in your car to attempt to use one on the motorway, but I’ll bet you really fancy a turntable at home now, don’t you? You trendy buffoon. Because the sheer theatre of opening a gatefold twelve-inch sleeve and and carefully sliding out a record and placing it onto a slip mat with the attentive care of a BBC4 documentary archivist is just… yummy. When you have the time.

So here’s the latest hip thing to make you look up from your record dust wiper. Blogging. Ever heard of it? All the kids are doing it.

It’s a good example of something hyped at first then left to clag boringly. It was a whizzy new thing – the Web Log. Then it went away but now it’s back. It went away because the hot hype of self publishing fizzled out when tossed in a sea of online journals that no one wanted to read. But today, the blog is seen as a fairly essential tool in the arsenal of 21st century marketing. Not because it’s new any more, not because it has any novelty now, but because it enables us to do something vital in human relationships, and therefore in business – give regular testimony to what we believe. It’s the simplest public way to become a regular, and so eventually trusted, source of championing something. So it’s kind of a big deal again today, not because of the tech but because of what it helps us do as humans.

The truth is, though, tech tends to actually flourish when it hasn’t simply found its level but found its place in combination with other emerging tech.

I’m not an early early adopter. Because I kind of think, why play at being homeless on Oxford Street overnight to queue to hand over a hefty rental deposit-sized amount of money on a glitchy first edition of something? I’d rather wait for a slightly more shaken-down iteration of whatever that too cool to want to keep warm thing is.

But something I said I was waiting for during the 90s was an omindevice. A pocket-sized something that could handily do all things I need on the move in one shape. And along came the the iPhone 3Gs – what became my own first proper smartphone. The advent of the omni-device as normal. And this new iteration of other stuff that had been around a little while did a bit more than convince us we didn’t want good photography any more, we wanted LOTS MORE photography, easily shareable. It also changed the shape of humanity. Because it transformed us into a truly networked creature.

It’s a revolution in human life on Earth we will spend our lives exploring.

The development of the internet was a revolution perhaps without equal. But it was a kind of grand opening act of the digital revolution, just when we thought we were mainly just getting compact discs and digital watches. What it did was set the stage of the real activation of potential.

When the other developments of touch screen technology and more powerful small processing and 3G rollout combined… that’s when human kind truly stepped into being a networked creature, because it liberated the internet from your dining room. Now you could take it for coffee. A step change that we are barely beginning to understand the consequences of, just ten or so years in.

The problem with the omnidevice, though, is that’s a practical compromise. It’s not excellent at anything – it’s sort of good at lots. So we’ve degraded our tech expectations and gone with convenience. Crappy video quality and petabites of crappy photos through boring lenses and text abbreviations of our rich parent languages are the normal currency for our daily lives as a result of it. But that omnidevice is still a step away from being personal. And it’s annoying.

Using thumbs to communicate is clunkily artifical. Voice, though… voice is personal. We are no longer just watching information in abstract observation, voice gets into your head.

There is just something about hearing. Sound. I’ve always said that radio is the best medium because it’s immediate and not consumed in silent abstraction like reading, but can go anywhere with you. TV and cinema demand suspended complete attention – immersion. And so does reading. Radio, though – radio is your friend, chatting over your shoulder while you’re chopping onions. While you’re driving. While you’re decorating. Painting pictures in your head like a book, but giving you a visceral experience like film. Because it’s making a much more emotional contact with your body than photons hitting the back of your eye from a screen.

 

 

Voice and sound literally ressonate with our bodies. So talking to Alexa is taking a step into a more personally vulnerable world. You may imagine you, or at least trendy millenials, love your/their phone. You may sleep with your phone, you may wrap your hands around it as lovingly as an old vintner’s grip carresses a wine bottle – but you don’t have conscious relationship with it, I’d argue. To such extent, we don’t realise how addicted to it we are, because we don’t actually see it – this thing we’re staring at all day. What we see is, of course, the mirror into ourselves. The smartphone has become a portal into our personal neuroses.

Voice, we hear. And so as creatures of imagination, storytelling and emotional connection, we cannot help but ask: Who is Alexa? This… this is a new level.

It’s a profound step into our future. But it won’t be a thing in itself. Because you quickly realise, Alexa is no one. Not just because what we now call AI is merely unconcious algorithms, but because she is meant to work with a suite of other devices.

We are still in an age where our homes are not connected hubs. For all the connectable devices in your life, you are not yet living the full Google voice ad, distinctly Black Mirror-looking, creepy all-connected fantasy. And this, I think, is partly because the tech firms themselves are a long way from this.

The IoT may be looming, but we still often have crappy WIFI and wouldn’t know what to do with a fridge that judges our cooking anyway. Our TV at home is a nice screen and a good picture but being ‘smart’ it’s reliant on apps to use its real benefits. Apps designed by telly companies like Panasonic, not software experts like Apple. Electronics manufacturers are trying to build software environments for their hardware, sure, but even if you as a tech giant spend a lot of money developing an ‘incubator’ to get in some of that stuff, it takes years to grow a true culture. To be marinaded in outlook and experience that truly crafts your work. And in corporate terms, how the heck do you line up all those different department head objectives? There’s a whole financial firewall mentality that blocks sharing and better development of cross-cultural technology, just within your average big corporate company. So how at ease are such entities with sharing between traditional competitors?

 

 

Alexa may be a cuckoo in the nest of our global culture. Because she will depend on a culture that is practically only nacent today – sharing. But it’s the fundamental shift in outlook that is needed to save the world from its technologically-amplified problems.

I learned ages ago as a music producer that there is no point in spending time trying to learn how to play the drums or the trumpet badly to get the result I want in a song – why blow myself? When I can get in a trumpeter or a drummer to do it much better and quicker. And significantly more than that. Because getting in a trumpeter or drummer means I’m also getting in a different perspective on the music. I can learn from them and maybe get even better results than I imagined. Or certainly waste a lot of time pleasantly yakking about early Chaka Khan records. Much more fun, much better results.

Like the tech of the 80s, we dream of future ways of living that we can’t actually enjoy yet, because the tech isn’t quite there. But Alexa will find her place when my Tado thermostat connects easily to my sound system connects to my TV connects to my lighting grid connects to my electric car charger connects to my PVmicrogen connects to my house battery connects to the outside world… in a breaking down of corporate separate languages into shared experiences. I don’t want an all-Apple house. I did. But it, well, kinda creeps me now. And annoys. I want to choose the best device for the job from who’s ever made it, and slot it into the web of my life at home without blood-vessel-popping pairing problems. It would be nice though if, when any of us bought a new telly, we didn’t soon imagine we’d have to go out and buy another separate box requiring connecting leads to give us a better experience on screen, eh.

We want ease. We want connection. But we also want choice about how we interact with the world around us. I don’t believe we actually want choice to the dizzying, time-sloshing degree that retailers, politicians and swiping apps imagine we do. I think this is zombifying and stressful all at the same time. But we do have different preferences about how we interact with information and different ways of learning. What we want really is the right tool for the job – the right tool for us, in any given situation. The tool that makes it easy, whatever it is, is the tool you keep. Sometimes that’s an omnidevice – the most used tool in my house is a Gerba multitool randomly give to me by my mate Julian for a birthday present many years ago. Discovered only in the last week that my mate Andy swears by the exact same tool on film shoots. It fixes much – but there’s no substitute for a good screwdriver when trying to get a picture hook on the wall. Or an electric drill.

Alexa is a significant new bit of tech thing on her own. Especially if you have sight issues – Alexa opens up the world potentially. And any new tech can help you see the world differently – strap on its goggles and see how things look. But the real potential of Voice is as a useful additional touch point into the web of tomorrow, which we can sort of just begin to explore and play with today.

Plug Alexa into AR, when that’s a more deliverable thing, and wow. Plug it into other bits of wearable technology and it’ll be helpful. It will be more a natural way to interact with technology to do what we want to do.

What we’ll have to do is what we always do with new technology – relearn our boundaries. From the digital market place to falling for AIs.

But you’ll have to have one thing if you want her. A relationship. Because she will have to have access to every aspect of your digital life, and how it directly affects your material and emotional life. Do you trust her?

Of course you do, because she is you. She just mirrors what you want. But is this healthy?

Let’s face it, search assistants are weird out of the box. They come packaged as ‘male’ or ‘female’? This can be problematic. Why should a bot be ‘she’ or ‘he’? And what does it say about the manufacturer preloading that decision? Well, if you think it might be wiser to let the consumer ‘choose’ the sex of their new baby – sorry! – their new slave, is that good for us to ‘play’ God? For twerps like you and me to get used to manipulating the presences around us to our preferences? Philosophy club discuss.

 

 

Maybe, the healthiest thing is to package all voice bots as conspicuously artificial. Make’em bots. Speaking through vocoders or cutesy ambiguous character voices. Much more Jap-toy tech. Either way, our anthropromorphising of this lifeless information connecting device will delude us as to its full programmed possibilities. It’s automatic intentions. For, in order to work, Alexa has to be always listening.

Does information only flow out of Alexa’s speaker? Or does it flow the other way too, through its microphone? Constantly. All around your house.

Think. About. That for a while.

We want ease, we long for companionship. Alexa sounds rather like it. But be careful what you wish for, or ask for. You might be surprised at the answer.

You might be asking for information and find you’ve got company.

UNSEE THE FUTURE – EP12: Land

Borders. Remember when we still thought they were a thing?

“Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall,” waxed American poet Robert Frost. And the truth is, it’s not mischievous elves and sprites mucking up your garden maintenance, it’s the land itself – the outline of your nation might be strong in your mind and your school geography book, but birds, plants, viruses and weather systems are terrible citizen students. Everything of the natural world is sans frontiers, mate. Including the problems.

Because the problems that the land is increasingly yeilding to us as the 21st century unfolds are very much a product of our human behaviours, including our terrible concept of how boundary lines should work – so often drawing arbitrary lines we will inevitably cross, rather than marking out practical responses or enscribing insightful territorial identity.

From the great addictions of business voratiously deforesting our jungled continents, famously whithering the lungs of the planet, to the overfarming of landscapes turning them into deserts, to the relentless hunting of rare animals for prized trophies and medical comforts, our modern view of the land and its abundance as purely a resource to be plundered is eroding our web of biodiversity, and threatening our essential connection to it. As both populations and sea levels threaten to rise in the coming decades, the amount of land we can even viably manage will diminish further.

And as changes in landscapes force whole groups of people to become nomadic, in search of secure fertility for their lives, while rich investors sink global fiscal foundations in dicky times into dependable real estate ever more, and drive up everyone’s cost of living anywhere, on whose turf is the problem? On whose lawn should we park our septic tanks? In the global game of musical chairs, at what point do we question who the hell keeps nicking the seating?

Will earthquake or slow subsidence undermine the human-planet future? Let’s dig into it.

LISTEN TO UNSEE THE FUTURE EP12:

Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

 

While Bobby Frost was swanning around New England gassing with his neighbours a hundred provincial years ago, with nothing but thoughts and feelings in his filofax, of course world politics was demonstrating humans’ inability to stick to agreed borders, as globalising ambitions and fragile egos and transnational agreements spilled conflict carelessly across the map of Europe and beyond. War, and unprecidentedly mechanised, industrialised war, transformed the landscape of northern France in particular into a monochrome lunar landscape. A stripped desert of death.

The land, of course, likes to surrender its secrets every now and then, and the fields of Verdun still sometimes share sombre stories of human suffering long after the birds returned and the trees leafed again. In a flashpoint of history, the human outlook obliterated a normal view of the land with decidedly artificial priorities, and the instant results cost us dear. It’s not hard to picture why the fractured silhouettes of trees on barren horizons became images to haunt the modern world’s artists after the first world war. And to this day, the idea of entrenching ourselves into a position and never being able to wade out of the mud is a chilling one for modern global culture’s relationship with Earth.

Attempting to explore the more hopeful human tomorrow as I am, with Unsee The Future, it’s the UN’s Global Goals that paint the most complete picture of the task in hand – and so provide us with a good working plan to ponder the various parts of, as we consider what may lie ahead for us. And it’s this piecing together some idea of the whole context we’re doing everything in, that I think holds the key to chumps like me and you actually getting inspired enough to work into a personal response. To change the gosh-darned world an actual bit. Spilling over the boundaries of our thinking to see how the various bits of our living really connect.

And it’s obvious, a fundamental thing we’ll need to do is psychologically reconnect with the dirt beneath our feet.

The UN’s Global Goal, Life On Land, aims to: “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”

Okay. And they don’t pull any punches in their introduction:

“A flourishing life on land is the foundation for our life on this planet. We are all part of the planet’s ecosystem and we have caused severe damage to it through deforestation, loss of natural habitats and land degradation. Promoting a sustainable use of our ecosystems and preserving biodiversity is not a cause. It is the key to our own survival.”

There’s more to soil than pulling potatoes out of your allotment plot. Because getting it under your fingers reminds you somehow – that stuff is really under the skin.

 

 

 

 

WE BELONG TO THE LAND

My first trip to the middle east was at the start of the century. Dear creative mates Mark and Sarah invited me to join a team making a short documentary meeting students living in one particular part of Israel. Galilee.

If there’s one bit of land that illustrates the power of geography in human identity, it’s Israel. A country of less than nine million people, it’s landmass is just over 20,000 square km, less than a tenth that of the little old UK, yet it’s impact on world politics has been enormous. Even bigger than its impact on trans-sexual euro-pop. Dana International – oh, Viva la Diva indeed. Tied to the identity of some key groups of humans, Israel is a modern democratic nation that doesn’t simply cross cultural divides like a shimmering showbiz pro, it’s at the centre of many global cultural leylines. And it’s a mashed contradiction of colours. While being one of the warmest, richest nations of hospitality, history and hopes, it’s also, I think it’s fair to say, a country that half sees itself at war constantly. With itself, and over subtly shifting borders. As a result, it currently has one of the most symbolic walls on the planet. But in a little village in the scrubby hills of ancient Palestine, a part of the world so self consciously old it has olive trees casually at the sides of the roads that some believe may have been there since the days of its Roman name, I discovered a different story of the land and its inhabitants. One that taught me a lot about our sense of roots.

What is a land? A country? Is it its government? Its queen or king? Its people? It’s landscape? Its indiginous life? What does a national flag represent? The truth is, of course, it’s an entirely made up entity – the work of the human imagination. A story told often enough, to mark out something definite to work with, while trying to organise tribes of hairy squabbling humans. And, as such, a construct that varies from mind to mind, telling of story to telling of story. Despite all the shared components instinctively drawn from all of the above, different citizens of a country can live in very different lands.

Israel exemplifies this. The ancient site of many a biblical yarn, its slightly weighty role as the Jewish promised land, given to the former Egyptian slaves, Abraham’s kids, by God himself no less, has slightly loaded the conversations about who should live there for two and a half thousand years.

Nicked by everyone at some historic point, including the people of Israel themselves, it’s a location split, morphed and marched over throughout its ancient story to date, and so a place with many claims over it. Defining your personal identity and politcal purpose by a bit of jolly nice real estate may be understandable, especially if it flows with milk and honey and hummus like that balmy end of the Mediterranian. But if the way you define that bit of real estate is fundamentally ethnic, not simply geographical or even idealogical, then you’re defining yourself with a fight.

Mar Ellias school and university in the little Galilean hill town of Ibillin, is founded on a different idea of a fight. As its founder, the former parish priest of the district, now former archbishop of Galilee, Elias Chacour puts it:

“We are not condemned to live together, we are rather privileged to live together — to accept each other and to become a sign of hope for our local people, for the Middle East and for all those thousands who visit the Holy Places.”

He wrote a couple of books about his experiences as a young priest during an historic time that saw Israel in the news a bit, while he was trying to forge a more positive identity for young people who have grown to straddle two worlds in a divided country – citizens of Israel, but families of Palestinians. Arabs, but often Christian. And he founded an educational establishment on the idea of flipping how people saw their place in the cultural landscape.

“The land doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the land.”

It’s impossible for a sauntering post-war European like me to know what it feels like to be quite so location-locked as the many peoples of Israel do. How defined by geography. How committed. Any more than it is possible for me to know what it is like to be all but walled up in the chaotic density of the West Bank when military strikes pound your tiny civilian enclave, or what it is like to not want to let your kids ever stray to the end of the garden in case they are too far to run for cover when an ever-possible rocket attack whistles towards the subburbs Ashkelon or Beersheba. What that does to your mind, day in day out, I don’t know. Which is why I was dumbfounded by the kids at Mar Ellias, and their belief that their identity in the land of Israel was as sacred as their duty to include everyone there like family.

Land wars aren’t always, of course, about the land the wars are happening on. There are many who believe Israel has long been a sort of proxi war between the different axes of power surrounding the Persian Gulf and their respective allies. And then there is the utter desolation of some ancient and modern parts of Syria, as Russia and the West dook out a turf dance at the expense of the children of Eastern Ghouta.

It’s lead to that other great land-linked challenge, refugeeism. Thousands of people fleeing war are still washing up on Europe’s beaches, moving people into Don’t Know What To Do With Them holding camps from Greek islands to French ports. And these people will have a big psychology to deal with embedded in all their trauma and loss – disconnection from their homeland.

Refugeeism is an ache, not simply because you’ve lost your home and security, but because you have been expelled from the bit of geography that shaped you. And changes in land often trigger it before politics gets involved. Changes in land these days too depressingly understood to be brought about by the slightly bigger, complicating issue of climate change.

As Elaisha Stokes reported for Vice News, a drought stretching across the second half of the century’s first decade in the east of Syria was so bad, it may have been the worst for 900 years, according to a study of trees in the area by NASA’s Goddard Institute. The lack of rain precipitated a folding up of rural economy so bad, it: “caused 75 percent of Syria’s farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. The collapse in crop yields forced as many as 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to urban centers, like Homs and Damascus.”

The outcomes of such shifts of land use easily shift the responsibilities. Whether it’s rural to urban, or nation to nation, the poor politics of one government inevitably dumps the migrating problem on its neighbouring government. Those attempting to run healthier, better organised countries are of course where those fleeing the opposite will run to.

“Without land of their own to get these fundamentals of life, they have to rely on others to provide them. A list of factors, like war, famine and drought, complicate what countries like Greece and Uganda can choose to do with their land – an influx of refugees from Syria and South Sudan, respectively, have strained already thinly stretched natural resources.” says Richard Gray in a Future Now piece for the BBC.

And then, of course, the climate crisis is simply a global weather system problem. So land use is inevitably a trans-boundary issue.

Which means we’d better get used to people being on the move, as we plan for the future of land resources management. It might help, of course, if we didn’t keep diminishing the usefulness of land directly ourselves too.

 

THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT

Rainforests. ..Oh, do we have to look the facts in the eye? We’ve all known Wales has been being removed from the planet’s greatest tree systems for decades – great leafy chunks of equivalent-sized verdant land – but to really look it in the eye might be the fact that tips us over the edge of despair, far from the grapple hook of any hopey-changey bit, right?

Well, steal yourself. Because that thing you’ve been aware of since childhood, whether you’re half my age or rather more than my age, is still a thing. A horrible thing. As National Geographic puts it simply:

“Deforestation is clearing Earth’s forests on a massive scale, often resulting in damage to the quality of the land. Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but swaths half the size of England are lost each year.”

So that’s more than the size of Wales. And what they and others all quote is the FAO belief that at current rate of deforestation, our rainforests will be gone in 100 years.

Yuh.

So there’s that.

In a little round-up of past reports from the FAO on rainforests, it’s interesting to track the development of the issue as a global talking point. From the emergence of the need to see forests as more than just a plunderable resource in the 1970s, the conservation story began at that point with a recognition of the need to involve local communities in the management of the ecosystem. By the 80s, it was becoming evidential that the rainforests affected global climate and had a significant role to play in its stability, and by the mid 90s they were seen as human-natural systems that would have an important role to play in sustainable development. In the twenty-plus years since then, the global figures for how much forest life we’re losing have fluctuated a bit, as countries with the major forests have developed their wider economies, decentralised aspects of the management of the environments and grown awareness of the issues and the complexity of those issues on multiple levels. But all that chat hasn’t done much to halt the economic train bulldozing through the jungle over the last half century. As the report says, even at the turn of the century there was: “a greater recognition that policy statements mean little in practice without strong institutional capacity to implement them.”

Where is that strong institutional capacity today? Because the trend is ultimately an up slope on the graph. There are figures aplenty on this, but the WWF simply stand by the figure of some 18.7million acres of global forest loss per year, or as they put it: “equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute”. Eco website Mongabay concurs with this as a 2014 figure, saying: “The usual suspects topped the 2014 list: Russia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia and the United States. But coming in at number six was the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which surpassed a million hectares of forest loss for the only time in the 14-year data set. Annual forest loss in the Central African nation has roughly doubled since the early 2000s, according to the data.”

The simplest way to drop yourself into the story is visually, and Global Forest Watch’s world map will tell you much, depressingly, in less than five seconds when you press play on it’s timeline. A lot of green turns pink.

Much of the above data comes from the latest FAO State of the world’s forests report, which is from 2016. It allies itself with the SDGs by saying: “we can no longer look at food, livelihoods and the management of natural resources separately” before going on to say: “We know that forests and trees support sustainable agriculture by, for example, stabilizing soils and climate, regulating water flows, giving shade and shelter, and providing a habitat for pollinators and the natural predators of agricultural pests. When integrated judiciously into agricultural landscapes, forests and trees can therefore increase agricultural productivity. Forests and trees also help ensure the food security of hundreds of millions of people, for whom they are important sources of food, energy and income, including in hard times.”

But they get to the nub of the main challenge when they add: “However, agriculture is still the major driver of deforestation globally, and agricultural, forestryand land policies are often at odds.”

Clearing trees for logging, farming and planting. And often cash crops. Alina Bradford describes it for Live Science when she says: “Clear cutting is when large swaths of land are cut down all at once. A forestry expert quoted by the Natural Resources Defense Council describes clear cutting as “an ecological trauma that has no precedent in nature except for a major volcanic eruption.””

It’s interesting that while Brazil unsurprisingly tops the list of offenders here, given that the Amazon is mostly in its back yard and is still the world’s largest forest, it’s trend of clearing had been generally down from an especially hideous high of ten years ago, but it’s spiked back up again in recent years and is currently rising again rather alarmingly. Camila Domonoske quotes a report from Brazillian newspaper Estadão that shines a light on the kind of political culture the forests are prey to just in Brazil:

“The policy director of Greenpeace, Marcio Astrini, says among the causes of the increased deforestation were actions taken by the federal government between 2012 and 2015, such as the waiving of fines for illegal deforestation, the abandonment of protected areas — that is, ‘conservation units’ and indigenous lands — and the announcement, which he calls ‘shameful,’ that the government doesn’t plan to completely stop illegal deforestation until the year 2030.”

As a mate of mine said to me the other night, just returned from three years living in the country: “Brazil is brilliant. It’s got everything. It should be one of the richest world leaders. But the government is so corrupted – everyone believes they’re all in the same thing the last president was impeached for”.

If true, how do the trees fight that?

Indonesia, meanwhile, is simply on a steadily rising trend of clearing it’s rainforests for that particularly big cash crop – palm oil.

You know, that stuff. That stuff people sometimes mention testily. That stuff that is so useful and so growable it has become an economic pandemic to forest land – a literal forest fire of clearing trees to plant acres of the eminently sellable vegetable oil crop. As the WWF explains: “Grown only in the tropics, the oil palm tree produces high-quality oil used primarily for cooking in developing countries. It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and, to a small extent, biofuel.” As they go on: “more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil—it’s found in lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream.”

And, as Reuters simply puts it, while reporting a forecasted increase in production of the comodity for 2018: “Nearly 90 percent of global supply is from Indonesia and Malaysia.”.

The forest-clearing plantation firms aren’t companies you’ve heard of, but they supply manufacturers of products that you have.

Of course, this has an effect on biodiversity. Not just from single-crop planting which loses all the benefits of  yield, efficiency and resiliance found in more integrated ecosystems, exploited positively by a more permaculture approach. It’s the wildlife. Rainforest Rescue says heatedly, as their natural habitats are cleared: “endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction.”

As Naomi Larsson reports for The Guardian: “The Leuser ecosystem, which spans 2.6m hectares (6.4m acres) of peatlands and forests, is the last place on Earth where Sumatran orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos coexist in the wild, and is home to more than 200 mammal and 500 bird species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.” And it’s disappearing at an alarming rate, basically.

The human inhabitants suffer too. Rainforest Alliance claims that it’s not just half the world’s animal species that live in and under the great canopies of our tree systems, some 90% of the world’s poorest humans depend on the forests for survival. As Rainforest Rescue picks up: “Smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations” they claim.

Amnesty International released a report outlining much the same. Below minimum paygrades, long hours, child labour, inadequate health and safety – all of it. And they named names.

“Corporate giants like Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever assure consumers that their products use ‘sustainable palm oil’, but our findings reveal that the palm oil is anything but.”

As they conclude: “Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 are unable to do something about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance.”

It’s all a bit of a bugger, eh? And not least because, apart from anything else, as the Rainforest Alliance puts it in easily social media-shareable terms, they reckon: “As much as 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest alone” and: “rainforests are our best defence against climate change. Not only do they regulate global temperatures, they also stabilize local climates and limit the earth’s reflectivity, which in turn stabilizes ocean currents, wind patterns and rainfall.”

And that’s just the forests. We also have to worry about deserts – because we’re making more of them. Out of countryside and, arguably, city centres.

 

MAKING LANDFALL

In theory, there’s plenty of land. Even to accommodate projections of 11billion people by the middle of the century. As Richard Gray says: “there are around 13.4 billion hectares of ice-free land (51.7 million sq miles) on the planet.” But we do rather need our land to do certain things for us, if we’re to live on it. And on top of this, we’re just fussy buggers – we want to base ourselves not just where the resources are, but where we fancy the action is. Or isn’t.

A lot of landmass is simply uninhabitable and or unfarmable. The middle of Australia. The back end of Siberia. Dover. By some estimates, humans already use 30-40% of practical land for farming and the demand for that is, of course, only going to rise. But it’s not simply about numbers.

“The countries where populations are growing the most are actually using the least of the Earth’s resources per person,” warns Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, quoted in the Future Now article. “Those of us in the rich and developed world consume far more than our fair share.”

One of the big problems is that the land we’re already farming is feeling the strain. Desertification. As Conserve Energy Future puts it: “a persistent degradation of dryland and fragile ecosystems due to man-made activities and variations in climate. Desertification, in short, is when land that was originally of another type of biome turns into a desert biome because of changes of all sorts.”

It’s happening in various places. As Simon Speakman Cordall explains: “According to the International Fund for Agriculture Development, no continent, excluding Antarctica, is immune from the combined effects of intensive modern farming, dwindling fresh water supplies and rising temperatures, all of which can reduce fertile soil to desert. However, Africa, containing 37% of the world’s arid zones, and Asia, with 33%, are at acute risk.”

Tunisia, he quotes a local social enterprise founder, is suffering from the evolving desertification of some 95% of it’s arable land. “There is less than 1% of fertile organic material left in the soil”. Meanwhile Gadaref in Sudan illustrates the compounding of human use and climate change, as Hannah McNeish reports. A region nicknamed The Granary previously, a combination of deforestation and erratic rainfall has caused flash floods, finishing off the viability of many farming plots.

“Climate change affected the intensity of rainfall. When it is very intense, you have very quick and very high runoffs, and this is what we are seeing now,” she quotes El Gamri, a project coordinator at the Sudan Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources. “They spoil the soil. Now you see they cannot cultivate such land, because it has lost the levelling.”

In fact UNESCO estimates one third of the planet is prey to typical desertification factors like this. Reducing biodiversity at one end of our macro economic process unknits the integrity of our land, and carbon waste changes the land’s relationship with its climate at the other, now less able to withstand worse weather.

This means: people on the move. Looking for work. And fewer people feeding themselves. Which means great pressures on our cities, where people end up.

Which means… higher property prices in those cities. The challenges of our land uses are not just about dusty villages far away from your Co-Op.

If you want a poster picture of a possible human land future, it might be of Malé in the Maldives. Just go look at a typical aerial shot, like the one on the Lonely Planet page for it. A tiny island clustered with tower blocks almost to the water’s edge, surrounded by sea. It is crowded, man. And it means the rents have been heading as skyhigh as the buildings. And while the Thames Barrier has so far stopped the British capital from looking much the same, you know the score there too – it’s getting so hard to find affordable living, where will be the social biodiversity in coming decades? And who the hell can afford the property prices now?

We value land like little else. We are so addicted to the idea here in the UK where I live that landlords of empty shop units would rather keep them empty and decaying infront of everyone on the high street than lease them cheaply to creative start-ups and so ‘damage their portfolio’. It’s simply called a housing crisis here now, the ballooning property values pricing out more and more home buyers and forcing up rents. In a culture of such easy, safe money, the governement won’t even think about social rent caps or building real social housing – council houses. So we have a growing epidemic of homeless, falling out of the safety nets of work, family and home.

And it’s reflected in the global investments markets. A report from Savilles even a couple of years back put it clearly: “World real estate accounts for 60% of all mainstream assets.” Not so much daredevil speculation after all. Just land banking. They value global property in 2015 at 2.7 times the world’s GDP.

Yolande Barnes, head of Savills world research, said: “To give this figure context, the total value of all the gold ever mined is approximately US$6 trillion, which pales in comparison to the total value of developed property by a factor of 36 to 1. The value of global real estate exceeds – by almost a third – the total value of all globally traded equities and securitised debt instruments put together and this highlights the important role that real estate plays in economies worldwide. Real estate is the pre-eminent asset class which… has the power to most impact national and international economies.”

The clear implication is not just the gentrification of major cities, it is the hollowing out of their central lives, as the super rich buy assets to simply hang on to. In many of the new developments of rapidly expanding, globalising cities, the lights are on, but nobody is home. While the homeless sit on the pavements below.

The land bears the most visible scars of our lifestyles, and its stripes betray how we see the world. As asset to be stripped without living partnership. We dig things out of it to burn, we dig toxic things into it to hide. We bulldoze it bare, we seal it in with concrete. We work it infertile. We hunt its wildlife to extinction to eat, to sell, to hang on the wall. We kill each other to stick a flag in it.

In our views of the human-planet future, the hope gets buried here, doesn’t it?

Oh dear, I think we need to go for a ramble in the woods to clear our heads, don’t we?

 

SEEING THE HOPEY-CHANGEY BIT.

Much as I owe the culture of my home country, much as I loved the view of it through the lenses of Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, there are fewer and fewer moments in our public life that make me feel proud to be British. It isn’t that many things, from the British withering of most crises with humour and tea to the dogged brilliance of our medical workers’ commitment to public service in the NHS, aren’t inspiring. Such things are. And the basic freedoms I grew up with as an average white kid were historically kind of astonishing. But as I get older, the whole idea of the borders of my identity stopping at the channel seems ridiculous. I’ve long seen myself as a European, not just because I love a nice café and bonkers art in the public realm and a rigid commitment to lifestyle, but because I am ethnically that. From the continent of Europe. But I am above all from the province of Terra – I am a human of the planet Earth. And British politics seems cruelly small minded most of the time by comparison.

At no time have I even considered pride in being an Englishman. Plucky as the determined cultural ignorances of a very English Empire were, brewing up with finest china and Rich Tea biscuits in some jungle in India, swanning about as though they owned the place. But this feeling changed in me recently. Wonderfully. Because I discovered a TV programme called Detectorists.

Mackenzie Crook’s half-hour comedy is gentle. Witty, clever, thoughtful, caring. But gentle. Very deliberately so. Because it is essentially a love letter to the English countryside, and the funny boobies who putter around in it.

As Lance and Andy wander the fields and pastures of other people’s land, waving divining wands over the soil to look for treasure, they discuss life amiably. Taking the piss out of each other in the language of love that only Englishmen speak so respectfully. And by the end of all 19 episodes, I felt I had been shown what it really means to be someone of my heritage – connected to the land. This ancient land, soaked with human story and natural wonder. A softly swooning lanscape of sprawling oaks and cocky magpies and flickering butterflies and buzzing bumble bees and bumbling dads and church hall nerds. It is a show delighting in the details of our very very cultivated landscape, shaped so humanly by farming and politics and finicky community into something beautiful. Even around the A-roads. Even in the rain. As Bill Bryson said, Britain is essentially one big garden. And the older I get, the more I feel the folk tales warbling up through the beech trunks, and resonnating in my chest somewhere behind the heart.

Yes, Britishness is usually a hark back to some version or other of a country that never existed so clearly in any present. But Detectorists seems to show us something truthful about us here now, for those of us who might be tuned to feel represented in it. A sense of heritage, to be lovingly located with a beep, and maybe polished up, out of the ground, and placed in a museum to be delighted in and to sing to new generations of the story of those who lived here and shaped the landscape… it’s captivating. Spellbinding, like any concievable pagan magic.

Cue the Mike Oldfield.

The land is never very far away. Especially in a country like mine – it’s everyone’s back garden. And the hope in our future use of the land has to begin in acknowledging the sheer growth of interest in all things natural conservation. The ramblers, the mountain bikers, the blackberry pickers, the horse riders, the Ordnance Survey map collectors, the wildlife reserve volunteers. The new generation of farmers, wanting to connect the story of the land to modern lives. The depth of shared knowledge in forest ranging and national parks. The runaway popularity of Springwatch on the Beeb. And if all this sounds a little unrealistically English to you, betraying my provincial roots, I’d point you at Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The lovely first lady of Momo bought us tickets to Lighthouse Poole ages before Christmas, just because a screen evening of selected shorts from a film fest touring the world from a base in an obscure Canadian town sounded intriguing. And on the night, we discovered just what a thing Banff Mountain Film Fest really is. I’d dressed as I normally do for the theatre, like I’m auditioning for an HG Welles movie. But all the ‘regulars’ had come in their away kit – ski jackets, walking boots, sunblock.

From the first moment on the big screen, I felt more alive. And more at peace. As each crafted short followed someone or other just getting out into the great outdoors – to walk a desert trail for three months with their dog, to cycle the world, to climb some impossible peak, to ski more downhill miles than anyone in a year, to make their own dugout in the Amazon rainforest and punt it downstream… it just made you want to get out of your indoors life way more, and feel okay again. Banff may be a prescription drug. None of these people were doing something worthy in the charity sense, the fixing problems sense – they were tending to their own humanity in the most essential way: communing physically with the Earth.

Don’t tell me more and more people aren’t gagging for this. Which means the basis of our hopes for cultural change is a groundswell.

The truth in main rainforest nations is that understanding of the eco system and the issues surrounding it has increased, and many conservation initiatives have been tried over the years. The fact that all that effort, knowledge and sheer heart has failed to diminish deforestation testifies to one thing: We’ve not made it add up yet.

Noble endeavours to buy up jungle for protection in the past has sometimes backfired as green colonialism, effectively displacing indiginous people. And running new parks and securing their borders is so costly, it is a strain for many poor nations to keep up with. What’s needed is a way to join up the already protected zones across South America, say, with much better economic viability. Mongabay’s excellent article How to save tropical rainforests lays it all out neatly. And a good starting point is their acronym for younger conservationists, TREES:

  • Teach others about the importance of the environment and how they can help save rainforests.
  • Restore damaged ecosystems by planting trees on land where forests have been cut down.
  • Encourage people to live in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment.
  • Establish parks to protect rainforests and wildlife.
  • Support companies that operate in ways that minimize damage to the environment.

In fuller reality, it means firstly finding ways to support local farmers. Helping them tap into more traditional and permaculture ways of doing this that become marketable, while helping them gain legal entitlement to their historic lands. They need much better representation and support. But growing the sense of ‘value’ in a forest’s rich diversity is significant too – developing payments for ecosystem services the rest of the planet needs, like biodiversity maintenance, rainfall generation, carbon sequestration, and soil stabilization. Exploring ways we can fairly compensate the economies of parent nations for their global services. Along with things like eco tourism and corporate sponsorship. Inspiring more spending from those conscy types who find the rainforest inspiring. Because apart from dollars, it will help spread the story – that we are all connected to the rainforests.

An interesting place to look is the island of Borneo. Antipodean to some of the Amazon, right on the other side of the world, the tri-nationed island in the Indonesian archipelago is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, estimated to be some 140million years old. And it’s home to a rich diversity of wildlife, as you might imagine. Mostly part of Indonesia and Malaysia respectively, down in the south west is North Kayong on the western border of Gunung Palung National Park. A city some five times the size of New York, it’s been the nearest place to go for medical help for those living in the forests.

The need for medical help is a significant fear for many communities in such circumstances, as Yao-Hua Law writes for Mosaic. As he says: “The obvious fact is: people need to earn a living to survive. In desperation, many fathers and sons log and burn the edge of the national park for timber and farmland. Conservationists speak of the park’s 108,000 hectares of swamp, lowlands and montane forest, which together house sun bears, hornbills, gibbons and about 2,500 orangutans. But to local people strapped for cash, the trees look like fixed deposits to be withdrawn in entirety.”

One initiative has been exploring ways to make a difference to this, and I think it’s illustrative. As Law explains: “ASRI has been working with communities around the national park to improve the wellbeing of both humans and the environment. It started by setting up a clinic that provides villagers with not just the most extensive healthcare services in the area, but also incentives to stop them from logging in the park.”

Kinari Webb instigated founding the ASRI after first visiting Gunung Palung to study orangutans. With the drone of chainsaws and the shuddering booms of falling trees always somewhere in the aural landscape, she wondered to herself if her orangutans would have any trees left to live in. But when a local friend presented her with a machete wound to his hand in abject fear, she realised how much she’d taken for granted things like tetanus jabs and access to basic medical care. For the locals here, almost any medical problem could be livelihood and therefore life-threatening. It was a revelation that was to chart a course away from her original PhD and into studying ways of combining human and environmental health. A hunch she felt would be crucial to success in this context.

Today, ASRI – Alam Sehat Lestari, or health and harmony – is a clinic in Sukadana that: “weaves healthcare, finances and conservation into one tapestry” as Law puts it. It’s a fascinating story well worth a proper read, because the clinic sees its medical support for locals as inextricable from an understanding of and even influence over the local biome. The team that grew around Webb’s work got to know the endangered species of flora in the neighbourhood and helped develop responses of both conservation and replanting.

The crucial bit, is how Webb set about the beginning of ASRI’s work. As Yao-Hua Law encapsulates:

“Webb and her team went to all of the villages around the national park and conducted formal surveys – or “radical listening”, as she calls them. Leaders of farmers, fishermen and cooperatives, men and women alike, gathered to share their thoughts. ASRI asked the villagers: “You are guardians of this precious rainforest that is valuable to the whole world. What would you need as a token of gratitude from the world community?” The villagers requested two things: training in organic farming­ – meaning they wouldn’t have to buy expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides – and quality healthcare that they could afford.”

The work that grew out of it seems rich in connected knowledge. And also seems, in the end, a small, slow endeavour – but crucially, a humanly truthful one. Responding to the socio-eco-economic context the locals are living in. It’s a project with much to learn from, I think.

As Law says: “Forests are gifts that people give their great-grandchildren. Forest regrowth, even when aided by tens of people planting hundreds of thousands of seedlings, cannot be rushed. When seedlings survive and grow into trees, the shade from their canopies prohibits weeds growing, protects other seedlings and facilitates the forest’s natural regrowth” says Law. In other words, this is really investing in the long term. But I’d suggest it’s a crucial bit of understanding of the roots of our problems that should be embedded in our outlook as we explore multiple ways to mitigate and deal with the crisis of our forests.

At the other end of the island, right up on the north-west coast, is a rather different story of the rainforest, that’s an interesting last reference. Because up there is a third national inhabitant of Borneo. A little Sultanate you will have heard of, but not really. Brunei. Less than half a million citizens, fifth richest country in the world, legend seems to have it. And yes, you’re immediately thinking of it’s ruler and his legendary wealth. Interesting that he’s so obsessed with cars, when most of his country is jungle.

Brunei is certainly two things. Wealthy, and a dictatorship. Made wealthy single-handedly by oil and gas, it’s not unlike some Gulf states in looking after its people enough that folks have essentially been happy with the status quo. And because it’s not had to try so hard economically, its incredible rainforests, covering some 70% of the country, haven’t had the same pressures on them that other similar ecosystems have. There’s been little pressure to open up logging and palm oil plantations, unlike the rest of the neighbourhood, and in fact the well-heeled Sultan felt free to declare some 55% of those forests protected.

It’s interesting evidence that economy is king, when it comes to protecting the environment. Which may prove interesting in forthcoming years because, of course, we’re looking at a an all but petrochem-free future, if we’re looking at a healthy long-term future at all – and oil price drops in recent years have made all O&G tentpole nations think again in a bit of a cold sweat. Including Brunei.

Idiosyncratically, the little country is geographically split, with the Temburong district cut-off from the western rest of the country by an historic encroachment of Malaysia in the middle. So to get around this, the government (the Sultan) wants to build a big bridge, to connect it physically at last with the rest of the country. And their aim is to encourage eco-tourism, as a way to begin to diversify the economy and attract new investment. Culturally used to looking after their rainforest national asset, they’re keen to not lose it and instead want to find better economic uses for it.

As Kate Springer reports for CNN, they want to tread a careful balancing act here. And she quotes Leslie Chiang, founder of Brunei-based tour company Borneo Guide and Sumbiling Eco Village: “We have to prepare for an influx of tourists” she says. But makes clear: “We can only pursue eco-tourism. We can’t afford to have mass tourism — it will destroy the place. Luckily, the government also focuses on eco-tourism. They’d rather have not many people come, but quality travelers who appreciate the nature and the culture.”

Like Singapore, Like Bhutan, kinda like the economic world leader China, it shows what can be done when you can single-mindedly get on with grand plans without the faff of bloody democracy. Of course, Brunei has also become the first East Asian nation to impose strict Sharia Islamic law. So, well… don’t be quick to write off the faff of democracy if you like greater civil freedoms to go with your wind turbines and ecotourism.

I imagine by now the term ecotourism is beginning to just noticeably wrankle with your greeny spidey sense. What the hell will be green about belching CO2 into the atmos with gigantic fans just so comfy middle-class people can be self-righteous on Instagram? Well, this is a whole debate in itself, but it touches on how any of us will have to manage our entire attitude to the connected global crisis we’re facing. What are we prepared to give up, and why, and where are we prepared to engage, and how?

I don’t have the answers neatly. But something in my own spidey sense comes back to the idea of cross-phasing. Green revolutions have taken less ground than they imagined during my lifetime perhaps because they have been just that – attempts at invasion. Anexxing of the planet with forceful argument. And the imperative of the end of the world as many of us have comfortably known it may be the ultimate one for the facts-conscious. But it’s a ruddy depressing one. And far too big to engage with – not like we can engage with cheap flights to the sun to forget about the fears of climate armageddon, global inequalities, the small-minded awfulness of politics and the daily grind of doing purposeless-feeling jobs that prop up all this misery.

We’re not going to switch off the aviation industry any time soon. And, frankly, we shouldn’t neatly hope to – it’s not just our global economics built on the jet engine, it’s our global outlook. One we’ll need, if we’re to save ourselves. The question we should be asking ourselves always when traveling is: Do I need to fly? Is there an alternative? And how often do I need to fly? How much more could be done remotely? With these answered, there will be times when you need to stand on foreign soil and connect the story, and feel it, like only standing there can feel it. Perhaps a deliberately saved-up for trip to visit, support and lern from a well-managed visitor-friendly corner of a breathtaking tropical ecosystem like the Bornean forests. Or to a study team in the Amazon – it could fire you to go home more connected to it in all you do. Maybe.

Thinking of Robert Frost’s poem again, the idea of walls is a sadly regular motif in the news cycle at this point in time. Politicians believing that promising or even endeavouring to erect them will win votes. Do good fences make good neighbours, as his fellow wall mender says? It’s one of the points the American poet is actually raising, as he watches his neighbour for a moment, almost like an anthropologist might watch an earlier version of man.

Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.”

Land is so often in the mind. And we like boundaries. But the truth is, any walls need to be low. Not so difficult to see over, or to step over. It’s relationship that keeps us secure – and will help us combat the true trans-national challenges of being fellow Earth citizens, which is what the lot of us really is.

The people who seem the least enfranchised to the rest of us may be those with no lands. The refugees, the homeless, the traditionally nomadic peoples. Those of us on this road have the biggest challenges the world over with being recognised, exercising rights, living well. But you might say that for nomadic peoples, their territory is simply bigger than ours – whole regions. The whole Earth. There is, I suspect, insight in such long-walked perspective.

In the border wars between the past and the future of our relationship with the planet, I would venture to say at least, let’s not give up listening out for the sound of birdsong. It carries across all boundaries, and can return when you thought you might never hear it again. Because when the turned soil underneath us surrenders its bones, it reminds us of the real truth that brings all our tribes together, on this island we, after all, call Earth.

We all belong to the land.

DISCOVER THE GLOBAL GOAL FOR LIFE ON LAND >

HOW MIGHT WE JOIN UP RAINFOREST CONSERVATION?

Watch Emily Graslie’s Amazon expedition with Corine Vriesendorp:

WHAT IS DEFORESTATION? >

Learn more from the National Geographic article.

HOW CAN WE MANAGE EARTH’S LAND?

Read the complete BBC Future Now article.

HOW TO SAVE THE RAINFOREST: BUILD A HEALTHCARE CENTRE >

Read the Mosaic piece from Yao-Hua Law.

HOW TO SAVE THE TROPICAL RAINFORESTS >

Read the full Mongabay plan.

MENDING WALL >

Read Robert Frost’s full poem.