A Shape Odyssey – a guest blog by Andy Robinson

“Timo Peach’s idea nearly incinerated my Sunday roast.

As will later become apparent, this is in fact the highest compliment – and perhaps the
benchmark by which I will judge all ideas presented to me in future: is it a roast-killer?
The bar has been set very high by his latest project…

A Sunday afternoon Skype conversation on Feb 14th 2016, would mark the start of my
official involvement on this mission. By this stage I had been blessed to collaborate
with Timo on 2 short film projects. We’d been introduced 18 months earlier by
Illustrator & mutual friend, Simon Brett, who was contributing to a charity anthology of
stories called Seasons of War. It’s editor, Declan May, had come up with the idea of
exploring the character of the War Doctor – the forgotten incarnation of Doctor Who, so
brilliantly played by the late John Hurt in the BBC’s 50th Anniversary story. As we were
only to see him the once, the War Doctor’s presence in the canon only created more
questions than he answered – something that Declan wanted to explore. He assembled
a brilliant selection of writers – some with close connections to the TV series – to
contribute.

Simon contacted me as he had an idea to help promote the book by commissioning an
online promo video. He’d seen one of my short films, which had a strong SF-vein, and
I’d inflicted a rough cut of my Twilight Zone-inspired feature film on him, so Simon
very kindly thought of me for the Seasons of War project.

He’d originally pitched it to me as something that would be 30 seconds long – perhaps
a tracking shot past objects associated with the Doctor. I’m not sure how long I
entertained that idea, but I was already carried away with something much more
ambitious by the time I replied to his original message…

What Seasons of War the promo film became was effectively a 5-min Doctor Who
episode, which the notoriously difficult-to-please fans of the show seemed to have
really embraced. Made for around £350, and the incredible goodwill of the people
involved in Declan’s project, one of its biggest strengths is Timo’s score: Bold,
propulsive, with a fitting other-worldly quality to it. But most importantly, it nailed the
sad emotional core at the heart of this mini-story – of connections made and broken. Of
expectations met then dashed. It did all the things a film on its own can never quite do.

This was the start of what has become for me an incredibly fertile creative partnership.
Sometimes you just click with someone – creatively, or socially – in this case, both – and
it has been truly invigorating. When you ‘get’ what their work is about, and vice versa,
that can be such a sustaining thing – because so many on this journey will not get what
you’re doing. Cherish those relationships, and encourage all those you believe in.

Needless to say, I asked Timo if he would compose music for my next short film.
Based on fellow filmmaker Wend Baker’s brilliant idea, Two Feet Tall, conveys in Groundhog Day-like structure the everyday trials and triumphs of an office worker – told
entirely from the level of her feet. This was in effect pure cinema, where visuals drove
the narrative, and harked back to the silent era in terms of performance. But silent
films were never really silent – they had music – and Timo’s delightfully surprising,
idiosyncratic score perfectly complemented this unusual tale, and again, gave it heart
where it was needed. Part of the score is now the ringtone on my phone – guaranteed
to make me smile when someone calls.

It was towards the end of the scoring process with Two Feet Tall that Timo let me in on
his latest project – that fateful Sunday, while my roast was cooking. Something, it
seemed, had been cooking in Timo’s head too. And over a Skype call he began to
outline his basic thesis: Science Fiction – that wonderfully enjoyable genre that no one
treated seriously, or thought particularly worthy – had in fact been quietly preparing us
for the future challenges now on our doorstep. Timo wanted to explore this in his
unique, playful musical way – not only as the basis for his third studio album under his
music moniker, Momotempo – but as part of a live music event that was also part
caberet, part art installation. He asked me to help create an on-stage short film that
would be interspersed throughout the show.

The name of this album/event? – The Shape of Things to Hum. The wordplay on a
classic SF title was pure Momo, and instantly put a big grin on my face. Of course, he
had me at ‘Science Fiction’, as we and almost all our friends share an abiding love for
the genre – but then Timo delivered the deal-closer. He outlined the subject matter for
the on-stage film – pitched in the form of a simple question:

“Why would NASA send an artist on the first manned mission to Mars..?”

At this point, were I a fish, not only would I have been hooked, but reeled in, landed,
and pan-fried with a little butter. A great idea comes with its own rocket fuel to propel
it into the wider world – and enough in the reserve tanks to light a fire under your
imagination. Mine was certainly ignited.

InstantIy, I thought of how artists were central to scientific explorations in centuries
past: the voyages of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin (which then were the equivalent of
a journey to Mars), needed illustrators to create an accurate record of their
discoveries. The British Antarctic Survey has a rich archive from the artists who have
accompanied them on their expeditions.

But in the age of the camera, the artist’s role shifted away from just recording what
they saw. Early on in the space program, there was an acknowledgment that highly
trained individuals such as Astronauts, could only give the world a fairly narrow
viewpoint of their experiences. I came across a quote from Buzz Aldrin: “We need to
have people up there who can communicate what it feels like – not just pilots and
enginners”. What better reason to send an artist to Mars?

In Timo’s head his Astronaut/Artist was a woman – which just felt right for this
particular story. In fact, by the end of our chat, I had the perfect surname for our main
character: Bonnestell, after Chesley Bonestell – the US artist who helped popularise the
concept of space travel in the 1950s with his beautiful illustrations of Rocketships
and Space Stations, published in Colliers Magazine.

Only one thought, buried at the back of my mind, was nagging me – my roast dinner in
the kitchen was probably burning. I could have asked for a pause in the conversation –
hell, the Skype call was taking place on A MOBILE DEVICE – but I couldn’t bring myself
to break the flow in any way. I was captivated.

And I have been ever since.

Thankfully the call soon came to a natural end, and dinner was saved, but my mind
was blown – or perhaps more accurately, expanded. I could certainly feel it had been
stretched – and, in a strange way, reawakened – because the strands of my life had
been gently guiding me to this moment for decades: without my conscious knowledge,
I’d been training for this mission to another world. Timo’s thesis was playing out in my
own life. But it wasn’t only science fiction, but science and art that had been working
its background magic.

I had forgotten just how much of a geek I was as a kid, and also how much science,
but in particular Space Exploration, meant to me. My first memory along this path was
collecting PG Tips picture cards buried in a box of tea bags. I’m not sure if the
company still do these, but as a kid growing up in the 1970s, this was almost a second
strand of education for me. The cards, once collected, could be glued into little albums
that you could send off for. And eventually you would have your own illustrated book.

Over the years there were lots of albums they produced – titles like Transport through
the Ages, and The Sea – Our other World. But the one that captured my imagination
was The Race into Space – 50 moments that charted our progress into the high
frontier. Collecting for this was a frustratingly slow process, because sometimes you
would get duplicate cards, and things weren’t helped by the fact that I didn’t drink tea
as a kid. But eventually I got my album completed. One of the final cards inside was a
glimpse of a proposed Apollo-style Mars mission (for the early 1980’s!!!). Maybe a
seed was planted back then…

I found my mind journeying back to other moments that now seem formative. Libraries
and Television were my Internet, with information gleaned from TV science
programmes – never to be seen again (as this was pre-video recorders). As well as the
required viewing of Tomorrow’s World, and Horizon, there were more
thought-provoking programmes from presenters like James Burke who gave us
Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. I think I can honestly trace the
development of my enquiring, analytical mind back to absorbing those series.

But my sense of wonder about the exploration of our universe came from another man:
Carl Sagan, and his sublime Cosmos series. The poet laureate of science invited me to
leave my living room, and climb onboard his dandelion-like spaceship of the
imagination. He showed me around the inside of the long-destroyed Library of
Alexandria, then demonstrated the ridiculous length of the googleplex number. And he
gave me perspective on just how brief human civilisation has existed in the great
scheme of things – the last 10 seconds of the last minute of the cosmic year. Perhaps
most importantly – though I didn’t truly appreciate it then – Carl Sagan outlined the
crossroads that we as a species found ourselves at:

“We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice – we can
enhance life, and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15
billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second
of the next cosmic year depends on what we do.”

I was just 13 years old. I didn’t know it, but my die had been cast.

Time jump to the 49 year-old me (this essay is beginning to resemble a Christopher
Nolan film). It was Saturday 8th July 2017, and I was camping in a field near
Manchester, with Timo, his wife Caroline, and our good friend Lee Rawlings. The
shadow of Carl Sagan still loomed large in my life because we were at a festival named
in honour of one of his most influential pieces of writing: Blue Dot.

It was a double shadow really, but this second one was literal: we were camped within
a stone’s throw of the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank – a huge 250-foot
steerable dish designed to explore the universe in spectrums invisible to our eyes.
Why have a festival here? Well, Blue Dot is no ordinary fest – it is the perfect fusion of
art & science, and the Lovell Telescope is a beautiful constant reminder. For every
packed out music act on the main stage or within one of the massive tents, there were
equally well-attended science-based talks, discussions & demonstrations elsewhere. It
seemed like someone had had a rummage around in my head, taken all my passions,
and strung them together in the form of a 3-day celebration. The biggest surprise was
that several thousand other people’s heads must have been filled with the same
things.

Timo and Caroline had made it possible for me to attend – an early 50th birthday present,
and I will be forever grateful, because on this particular Saturday, the gears of my own
personal universe meshed with the wider cosmos, and all the aforementioned strands
of my life – and perhaps those of my friends with me – seemed to converge on a hot
afternoon at Jodrell Bank across 2 seemingly disconnected talks.

The first talk, by Physicist and Blue Dot Curator Tim O’Brien, was called Hello Out There
and was about the Voyager spacecraft – launched in 1977 to conduct a flyby
exploration of the outer Solar System. Attached to each probe was a gold plated
record, which contained a compilation of music, sounds and greetings from across the
planet, as well as images that were encoded into the grooves of the disc. The idea was
that as the 2 Voyager craft would have gained enough velocity to escape the solar
system and head into interstellar space, they may eventually be encountered by other
specefaring species. With instructions on how to play the record, and our location
etched onto the aluminium ‘album cover’, the recipients would glean a small window
onto who we are. Think of it as the ultimate mixtape for aliens. The record was curated
by a small team of artists & scientists, headed by – who else – Carl Sagan, and it was
the record that was the subject of Tim’s talk.

Now the Voyager story holds a very special place in my heart, and its one that I am
passionate about telling on film some day. I was a child of Apollo – born 18 months
before Neil Armstrong’s small step took place – but was clearly too young to have any
real appreciation of its magnitude. As I grew up, the talk was of one thing as far as
manned spaceflight was concerned – the Shuttle, and I was genuinely excited to see
this reusable spaceplane turn the greatest feat of exploration into a routine event like
air travel (sadly, that never really happened).

We’d had Skylab, and the Viking landers had successfully touched down on the surface
of Mars – all incredible feats – but in the end it was Voyager that made a shy 13
year-old from East London with few friends put pen to paper & write to NASA. Just as
with Timo’s project, I was captivated.

I wish I had a copy of that letter – perhaps in a dusty filing cabinet of a NASA basement
the original still exists. I don’t recal exactly its contents, but I think I imagined Voyager
2 hurtling towards its encounter with Saturn – next stop Uranus in around 5 years – and
expressed my desire to know more about the mission. I’m not even sure how I found
the address to write to, but clearly it was the right one, because a little later, I got a
reply – and if it had been from aliens replying to the Golden Record, I doubt I could
have been more excited.

A fat orange-brown envelope dropped through our postbox from what to me is still the
coolest sounding address: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of
Technology – Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California.

JPL was the division of NASA tasked with designing and delivering all of the agency’s
deep space robotic missions. This group have explored every planet in the Solar
System from Mercury to Pluto (yes, Pluto – I’ll be having words with you one day,
International Astronomical Union…)

Inside the envelope, they had sent me glossy full colour photos of the Voyager
encounters so far – Jupiter and the recent flyby of Saturn by Voyager 1. I saw the
swirling clouds of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot up close, and fine detail in the structure of
Saturn’s rings. Things that no one on Earth had seen – until we went there.
Also enclosed were ‘Voyager Bulletins’ – mission status reports that gave a little more
of the science gleaned. They even packed in some images taken by the Viking landers
on Mars. This all came from their education and community relations division, and
boy, was I being educated. NASA has a remit to share scientific discovery with the
world – and they were living up to it. I wondered were there other kids around the world
who were receiving the same gifts as me through their letterbox?

For the next decade – in the years before the internet, I would receive regular updates
and photos from the mission. Like those directly involved with Voyager, my life was
bounded by the moments & milestones in its Grand Tour. It mapped not only the Solar
System – but my entire formative journey to becoming a filmmaker.

I started secondary school not long after Voyager’s Jupiter encounter. Already I had a
love of drawing and making things. From constructing crude electric motors in primary
school science club, to building balsa wood gliders at increasing levels of complexity
(aircraft were a parallel obsession – but that’s a another story…).

By the time of the Saturn encounter, and when I wrote to NASA, Art and later CDT
(Craft Design & Technology), became the school subjects I loved best – both fuelled by
passionate, encouraging teachers. I also discovered a love of Photography, learned to
process film & print in a darkroom – and went to my first photographic exhibitions,
which really opened me up to the power of the medium.

A fork in the road occurred for me around 1986 – and Voyager’s Uranus flyby. My
A-levels nearly took me down a more product design pathway, but my maths wasn’t up
to the job of pursuing it further. So I ended up on a BTEC Art and Design course, and
this is where I really connected with photography, and decided to study it at
degree-level – in the city that has now become my home – Exeter. What I also got the
chance to do was go to the cinema. A lot. A lifelong fan of Steven Spielberg’s work, I
recall one occasion where I saw his then latest Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade,
3 times in a week. I always loved films but this was where the notion of becoming a
filmmaker was planted – in 1989 – when Voyager made its final planetary encounter
with Neptune – before plunging into the perpetual darkness of interstellar space. It’s
cameras, though, had one last task to perform.

Carl Sagan asked that they be turned back to take a ‘Family portrait’ of the Solar
System. This had no real scientific value, and Sagan had a battle to persuade the
project managers to do so, but the result of this was that the Earth was photographed
at a resolution of less than a pixel. Barely discernible, this image became the iconic
Pale Blue Dot, where Sagan poetically described the Earth’s fragile beauty in the
cosmos, and how our petty selfish concerns threaten this oasis of life. The image that
inspired the festival I found myself at that fateful Saturday.

During the talk Timo and I looked at each other like excited kids, because there was
another layer of personal synchronicity with regards Voyager for both of us. Our
birthdays are only a month apart, and unbeknownst to one another, our wives –
Caroline & Lucy – had on order the same very special birthday present: a repressing of
the Voyager Golden Record in vinyl: the result of a highly successful Kickstarter
campaign. In fact my previous birthday present had been a record player – in
anticipation of this. The creation of the Voyager Golden Record is a story that cries out
to be dramatised – the perfect fusion of Art & Science – and perhaps the most hopeful
thing we have ever done as a species.

I then dashed off to catch the start of the second talk – entitled Stone Age Cinema,
given by New Scientist Writer Catherine Brahic – which on the surface would seem far
removed from the technical wonders of the Voyager mission, but again this was of
deep significance to Timo & myself. Since our initial Shape of Things to Hum
conversation, I had written 3 drafts of what became known as The Martian Artist, and
a key theme was that our hero, Nina Bonnestell, as the first artist on Mars, felt a strong
connection with the first artists on Earth: cave painters. So this was a must-see talk.
Catherine began the talk with a piece string – spooled out and held by an audience
member. She wanted to give a visual reference of how far back in time we were
journeying – a little like Sagan’s cosmic 12 month calendar. Recent human industrial
activity would only occupy a tiny section of the string, but to go back to the time when
the first artistic marks were made, Catherine played out the string until it stretched the
entire width of the lecture room we were in: 40,000 years. Before recorded history – and
yet these cave-dweller paintings found in Spain & France were just that – records of
their world and what was important to them. But there was another dimension to them
that we were only just discovering.

Brahic informed us that palaeontologists now believe that what looked like preparatory
drawings of an animal like a horse in different positions layered on top of one another
were in fact the attempts to record the animal’s movement in stages.
In other words, animation.

Photographed as separate images and played back in a loop, the cave drawing of a horse
in different positions becomes a film of it nodding its head. A bison drawn with too
many legs becomes a galloping bison. It also seems that cave artists would also make
use of the flickering nature of a cave firelight (or stone lamp filled with animal fat),
combined with the curvature of a cave wall, to create images that not only moved, but
had a 3D appearance.

Here I was – a filmmaker realising that the medium I expressed myself in was not 125
years old, but 40 millienia. Cave artists wanted to represent their universe just as I did.
Like our Martian Artist, Bonnestell, I too felt a kinship and a visceral connection with
these fellow storytellers.

Epiphanies are things that happen to other people, not me. But as I emerged from that
second talk with my friends I truly believe that’s what I experienced, and I think they
could see it on my face.

In a field in Jodrell Bank, I found myself at the the exact mid point between the first
artistic marks made 40,000 years ago, and a time when Voyager, with its precious
cargo of art & science gets within appreciable distance of our nearest stars – 40,000
years hence. To be planning films about both of these things with my friends who were
also present made me reel from the heady collision of ideas that intersected me. Yes, I
was at a science & music festival, but also in a prehistoric cave, on a mid 21st century
mission to Mars – and experiencing the cultural offerings from a long-dormant
spacecraft. Somehow all my childhood passions for space exploration, science, and
my artistic training had become the means to link these distant points of human
experience. For me to tell this story. So forget London 2012 – THIS was my Super
Saturday.

Or perhaps it was mild heat stroke.

Blue Dot was, I believe, a turning point for Timo as well – or at the very least it
deepened interests that were already there. We both attended a sobering talk given by
Erik van Sebille called: Our Plastic Oceans. By now, there can be few who are not
aware of this problem, but to hear a first-hand account of someone who has tracked &
mapped exactly where this material ends up, and how it gets into the oceans in the
first place brought it home. And still (in response to Timo’s question), he felt that the
greatest threat to all of us was human-induced climate change.

After Blue Dot, I could see just from Timo’s tweets, that this was a more galvanised
person, who was drilling deeper into the issues that he wanted The Shape of Things to
Hum to explore. He became an accidental futurist, as I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his
aim when he started this project.

Timo had already put together in beautifully-presented book form, the working thesis
that he had given to me over the phone so many months before – and this had been
such a useful tool in many of his early discussions with people trying to convey the
scope of the project. But now he embarked on something much more challenging – to
actively start the conversation we all need to have about dealing with the here & now –
so we and our children can have the future we aspire to. The medium he chose to
deliver this in was the podcast – making the most of one of his greatest assets: his
wonderfully expressive voice.

Titled Unsee the Future: How to Encourage the more Hopeful, Human Tomorrow – this
is a 19-part odyssey that uses the United Nations Global Goals as a framework to
explore a variety of subjects – such as Health, Energy, Education, Sexuality, Justice &
Poverty.

Now you might be thinking that the above sounds dryer than a lawn that hasn’t seen
rain in 2 months (which as I write this, perfectly describes mine), but Timo manages to
bring his unique sense of irreverence and play to the proceedings. I like to think that had
Douglas Adams tackled these same issues, he may have had an approach that would
have shared the same DNA.

But the great thing about Unsee is that it also knows when it needs to be serious, or
impassioned, as Timo increasingly is towards the end of the series. There are no
simple solutions to the “Now of fearsome realities” as he puts it, and the podcast
doesn’t try to tie everything up in a neat bow at the end of each episode, but it does
attempt to furnish us with potential strategies – brilliantly referred to in the podcast as
“Seeing the hopey-changey bit”.

Ultimately, Unsee the Future is one man trying to get their head around the issues
affecting us now, but it’s intention is to make you think about your own life, and the
incremental adjustments that on a global scale might make a huge difference. As a
result of the podcast, I eat less meat, and I consciously look for the alternative to
plastic packaging when shopping. We have also got an electric/gas smart meter
installed. I’ve seen how the podcast has altered friends trajectories in positive ways.
So 2 years on from Timo’s phone call, where are we? What of the event that is The
Shape of Things to Hum? Well, like any major project, it requires a large amount of the
folding stuff which we don’t currently have. And the incredible enthusiasm of everyone
who has been involved, will only take you so far. But only so far, was just far enough to
create a pocket-sized version of the final product…

At the beginning of 2018, Timo conceived a scaled down test-bed production, that
would give a taste of what we wanted to achieve – called Five Songs to help us Unsee the
Future. He constructed a pure audio introduction of just the first few minutes of the
show to share with collaborators. Listening to this on headphones with eyes closed,
the combination of his spoken voice intro, sound effects and music – including the
opening number (the theme tune to the Unsee podcast), gave an incredibly vivid sense
of atmosphere, so it became a brilliant tool to set the tone of the event. We had a
deadline: to present this during Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe at the end of April
2018 – and Timo still wanted some aspect of the Martian Artist film included.

Oh.

There is a unwritten rule in low-budget filmmaking that you should really only build a
film around what resources you have or can get. Well, in depicting a mid-2030s’
International mission to Mars, I think it can be safely said we have trampled over that
one. Budget-wise we were flying on fumes – but that’s where I’ve made all of my films
to date. It’s almost a comfort zone.

So for this teaser film within a teaser show, I came up with a more oblique solution,
that didn’t involve filming the story exactly, but instead expanded the backstory of our
artist, Nina Bonnestell. We simply presented what her last day on Earth would be like,
as she says goodbye to all the sensory experiences that would be denied her on a 3
year mission to another planet: the taste of fresh food, air that hasn’t been recycled a
thousand times, the sensation of running water over your hands.

The actor bringing the character of Bonnestell to life is Veronica Jean Trickett –
someone who I met several years earlier in a filmmaking context, because Vee is also
an accomplished writer/director. And it was one of her short films that she also
starred in, which made me think of her for the role. Right from the get-go, when she
submitted a self-tape audition piece from a monologue that I’d written, both Timo & I
felt she projected both the strength and vulnerability that our Artist Astronaut needed.
We spent a very packed, but enjoyable day filming with Vee in Brighton, and got
inventive with our location – a house belonging to friends of Timo’s – that became not
only Bonnestell’s home, but parts of a Martian habitat – aided by a little sprinkling of
old-school camera trickery.

Together with some Mars surface shots created in my back garden of all places, a few
weeks later, we had a film – not the whole thing, but enough to give a flavour.
Meanwhile, Timo had the unenviable task of putting together an entire show which
was to take place in Talbot Heath Girls School, that for one night only would play host
to a neon caberet for the end of the world. He pulled in both regulars to the world of
Momo live performance, and new collaborators to help fashion this event out of sticks
& string, imagination and passion. Key onstage collaborator was Hazel Evans, an artist,
performer and spiritual explorer, who has worked with Timo many times. She would be
embodying the persona of ‘The Muse’ – playing opposite Timo’s ‘Ghost of Future
Shock’. Together they would be our guides through the evening – narrating, performing,
and facilitating the transition from live moment to my filmed content.

Post-production on the film literally took me up to the wire – only completing the day
before the event. We didn’t have the luxury (actually necessity!) of a rehearsal the day
before – having no access to the space until about 6 hours before the event – and
everything we needed to do had to take place in that timespan. I saw the pulling
together of a little creative community, literally conjuring a show from thin air inside a
school hall.

And what we pulled off on the evening of 29th April 2018 was a little piece of magic.
Words here won’t really do it justice – it has to be experienced – participated in. I was
helping to film the event on the evening, but that will still be a poor substitute for being
there. The combination of atmosphere, music, visuals, performance and message was
mesmerising. Everyone on the stage was in the zone – particularly Timo & Hazel, and
for me, it became greater than the sum of the parts that I had witnessed in the brief
rehearsal just before the actual event. I don’t think anyone present will forget that
evening in a hurry.

As I said to Timo, if The Shape of Things to Hum is Apollo 11 – full lunar landing,
stepping on the Moon – then 5 Songs was Apollo 8 – leaving the safety of Earth for the
first time to circle the Moon – a necessary trailblazer to learn from & prepare for what
was to follow. In that respect, she was a good ship, and I was so proud to be part of
the crew.

To be honest, it has been an odd feeling to find myself the other side of the event –
albeit a prototype – after more than two years of thinking about not much else. Like
Voyager, there was a long period of build up as the goal got imperceptibly closer each
day – then the sudden mad flyby of activity for the event itself – followed by empty
interplanetary space again until the next encounter.

Hopefully that next encounter will be The Shape of Things to Hum proper – with the
full-blown version of The Martian Artist. And we head towards that armed with some
pretty significant knowledge – the most important of which is that we’ve proved to
ourselves that Art is indeed the delivery system by which change can be effected. At
its essence, Art is communicating the story of what it is to be human. We (being
human, of course) respond to that story, so the end result of that process is change –
sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic.

We have been hard-wired for story from those first marks made on a cave wall. And
ancient myth was storytelling that shaped society. It is a cornerstone belief that both
Timo & I subscribe to – that ultimately everything boils down to “what is its story?” So
if we want to change things, we need new myths. We need to tell different stories. And
I include myself in this. When it comes to personal change, storytelling begins at
home.

50 truly is the age of reassessment in one’s life, and this project has reaffirmed that
visual storytelling is where my talents lie. As Spock said in The Wrath of Khan, my
“first, best destiny”. To anyone who knows me, that might seem like an obvious
observation, but family life & work (the kind that pays bills) created a frame that often
made me perceive filmmaking as indulgent hobby, getting in the way of ‘proper’ life
stuff. A frame that has most consistently been applied by myself, and compounded by
my frankly lousy ability to juggle the demands of all these elements. The end result is
guilt, and feeling conflicted about my aspirations – to the point where normally if I
introduce myself in a social situation, and am asked about what I do, I would never
volunteer ‘Filmmaker’, when that is clearly who I am at my core.

I feel there is almost a ‘Coming out’ process that I need to undergo. My work screams
who I am, and displays me at my most authentic, but the person I still have to come
clean with and admit to being, is me.

So my challenge is to find a way to rewrite my own personal story and acknowledge &
accomodate all the aspects that are truly important to me: Family and Filmmaking.
And when I use the term family, I include not only my wife Lucy & and daughter India,
but all the incredible friendships we have forged that have been energising and
life-sustaining over the last few years of this journey through life. It is creativity and
friendship, love & family that has given meaning and purpose to me – all need to be
honoured and celebrated. And the linking thread that has bound us together has been art,
or creativity of one form or another – whether that be films, local radio shows, writing,
painting or music. We have used it to explore the story of ourselves – even if we didn’t
realise it. To explore, learn, develop and grow. And it nourishes not only us but the
wider community.

We are already changing the shape of things – and for the better.”

Andy Robinson
Exeter, July 2018

Fully Charged Live – EVs shift the power at Silverstone

If you haven’t heard of Fully Charged, then that’s because you’re not currently the right sort of geek. But dropping into the first ever event by the online TV show this weekend showed me just how un-geeky the world of electric vehicles and clean energy for the home is already becoming. Because wandering around its packed halls in the pavilion buildings surrounded by the famous British race track, I saw only open-minded enthusiasts everywhere, brought together by a middle aged mechanoid with a bit of vision.

 

Robert Llewelin’s regular interviews with car designers and clean energy developers, home charging champs and innovative future thinkers have inspired and informed me over much of the time I’ve been developing Unsee The Future – enough to convince me that EVs are already viable for most car journeys right now, but with a staggering revolution about to burst across our highways. And as I’ve said in a couple of the episodes, most notably EP9: Energy, the reason EVs should excite you if you’re concerned about the environment isn’t simply that they are helpfully emmission-free at point of use. It’s because the mindset they bend your brain into when you use them is the beginnings of the mindset it will take between us all to save the goddam planet.

Here, I give you a glimpse in a little vlog that was a typical one-take wander with no editorial planning, including inspiring punchline. But it was an inspiring day – one we found hugely encouraging to some hopes, I’d go so far as to say. See what you make of it.

 

Unsee The Future – episode 18: Poverty

Don’t say it. Don’t say Africa.

It is a name that seems always in the shadow of the word poverty, haunting the imaginations of certainly western minds whenever issues of inequality are aired. But for what might be the world’s richest continent in natural, human and historic resources, the irony of this reflexive cultural assocation is so gross it may illustrate the real truth of poverty – it is the flipside of justice. The very embodiment of injustice.

Those comparisons that drive us mad trying to keep up with each other, reducing us with burdens of supposed failures, have us look down at those of us at the bottom of the ladder and say: “Thank God, that’s not me”. But is this basic lack of recognition a sign of the real problem?

Well, while the tracks of poverty may well lead from some psychologies at the heart of our cultural problems on 21st century Earth, they surely lead us to the nub of human suffering: The ultimate indignities of complete disempowerment. And the numbers of us living at this end of those tracks is still a yoke around all our hopes for enlightenment. Our progress seems like a bitter disallusionment in the face of still so many human stories of the very basic misery and dehumanisation of poverty.

As we conclude our look at the UN’s Global Goals for sustainability, it’s grand SDGs, is the physical ruin of rural communites as the poorest families suffer, far away from the stupendously unequal wealths of other communites around the world, while billionaires build space buses for the least environmentally sensitive tourism imagineable… is it arguably all just a symptom of what’s really wrong – our whole system of valuation. Our culture of want, in every sense. Because it appears to be killing us.

 

But, y’know, cheer up a bit, mate – this is the podcast about the more hopeful human tomorrow, and there’s been some progress in all this hasn’t there? And if this is the case, could we yet bring the numbers in extreme poverty down further, after years of comparative improvement? Even eradicate truly extreme poverty by 2030 as the UN hopes?

Or will achieving fairer outcomes for more of us mean striking to the heart of what got us to where we are, as globalisation cracks under its own weight of demand? Will we have to finally address what must be vying for the statistically greatest injustice of history – the wealth of Europe and America, the root of globalisation itself, built on the backs of slaves from Africa?

What might that cost, to really address? And if you think that is a price no one in power will ever entertain spending, especially in populist climates where more honest colonial histories are badged as revisionist, you may well be right. But the inescapeable question coming into focus behind it, none the less, is: How high is the cost of having never addressed it so far – and what will it concievably be for us all in the looming future of what look increasingly like inevitable consequences? Of everything.

With the largest proportion of world poor living south of the Sahara, what are the hopes for 21st century Africa – and how might this shine a light on the future of the whole global usual business of trade, wealth and growth?

Will we have to face the truth that our real human poverty is much farther reaching than economic droughts, actual famines and hopeless academic numbers – but something holding our very minds hostage, in a shared cultural custody impoverishing the wellbeing, the potential, the very hope of human life on Earth?

If our modern lifestyle illnesses, our struggling minds and bodies, our oceans clogged with disposeable consumer waste, our entire climate shifting from the chemical, biological assault of our lifestyles, if these are all different symptoms of the same story maintaining old fashioned poverties – alongside a seemingly growing dependency on charity across cultures – is it time we all began to count the cost of sparing more than a little change?

 

LISTEN TO THE UNSEE THE FUTURE DOUBLE EPISODES 18 & 19>

 

Marius Liutkevicius - Red Wasteland

 

 

 

DOLLAR A DAY.

The United Nations makes it its number one Global Goal: No Poverty. And they simply byline it like this: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.”

It is the biggest human experience umbrella problem facing humanity in the 21st century, and it is arguably the bellweather for how well everything else we’re doing is going. Which means we aren’t doing very well at all, if their longer statement on the matter is true.

“Eradicating poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice and the key to unlocking an enormous human potential. Still, nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty, and lack of food and clean water is killing thousands every single day of the year. Together, we can feed the hungry, wipe out disease and give everyone in the world a chance to prosper and live a productive and rich life.”

If we “can” then, ah: “why aren’t we?”.

Save The Children have issued a report that spells out the work still to do like this: “More than half the world’s children – 1.2 billion – live in countries affected by widespread poverty, conflict and discrimination against girls”. Half the world’s children.

14.1 million kids in the US alone “grow up in poverty” they say. In America. Which chimes with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report at the end of last year which said that a very similar number of adults and children are living in poverty in the UK today, with the decline in reducing poverty reversing for the first time in two decades.

So it doesn’t matter where you live, it’s easy to get poor – and easily impossible to get out of poverty. Developed countries, developing nations, democracies and dictatorships – the global economic system as it currently works appears to be a long way from working well. We seem to have come far enough to see the potential of really transforming human life on Earth for the healthier, but jeepers, what’s stopping us pushing it over the line?

Essentially, I’ve all but summed up this final Global Goals episode at the beginning of it – I think there’s a mindset, a habitualised shared culture, that’s effectively driving us towards destroying all kinds of human progresses, even as we’re working so hard to improve our lot and still have a squinting eye on the possibilities of the future. And the outcome of this mindset in the end is always poverty – for someone.

You can quote the Universal Charter for Human Rights all you want, but in the end we don’t universally perceive intrinsic value in anything – or anyone. Because there’s no irrefuteable higher power that can lay down the law on this. We’re left to work it out between us. Like hopeless hipsters starving on The Island. The brutal truth is that at the very bottom line of our current economic system, humans are just so much meat to each other – when they don’t know them. When they do, the emotional bollocks of market value goes out the window, mate.

But before both our Marxism Redflags toot warnings again, I think we can agree there’s work to do. And the Global Goals don’t aim low, as we know.

The UN’s bold goal is to: “eradicate extreme poverty” for: “all people everywhere” by 2030. And their measure of that is people living on less than $1.25 a day. If you want to know how many people are actually attempting to live their lives on less than one hundred and twenty five cents a day, it is, as NGO Nuru explains, some 1.6 billion people on the planet today, not just in measureable poverty but an extreme experience of it. They suggest that 85% of people having to live through this live in rural locations, and not so far short of a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

But, whatever the pie chart of the pie-less, you and I likely have no real feeling for what extreme poverty really means. It’s a total kind of poverty. It is a profound powerlessness. It’s not simply debilitating hunger, or the indignity of having nothing of anything materially. It is a fundamental lack of options. Of choices to improve matters. It is, I hopelessly try to imagine, a prison of degredation.

Gisela Bernardes Solymos is General Manager of the not-for-profit CREN, Centre of Nutritional Recovery and Education in Brazil, and as she says to the World Economic Forum: “Our experience has shown that being poor means to be exposed to a range of adverse conditions that go against, limit, or put obstacles to the fulfillment of the person, to their “coming-to-be” themselves. People in poverty suffer from pain. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally, eating away at one’s dignity and driving one into total despair.”

She describes the symptoms of poverty to include: “physical pain that comes with too little food and long hours of work; emotional pain stemming from the daily humiliations of dependency and lack of power; moral pain from being forced to make choices such as whether to pay to save the life of an ill family member or use the money to feed their children.”

And she gets to the human truth of it further when she adds: “While poverty is material in its origins, it has psychological effects such as distress at being unable to feed one’s children, insecurity from not knowing when the next meal will come, and shame at having to go without. All these situations have strong symbolic value. People in poverty are also more likely to develop non-specific psychopathological manifestations and become mentally ill.”

Wherever you’re dealing with it, poverty makes you dependent on others, and therefore on a sense of powerlessness. Sharing in Overcoming Poverty, twenty-eight year old Shay in New Orleans says she started with childhood ambitions: “When I was a little girl I dreamt of becoming either a police officer, a lawyer or a hair dresser. I wanted to be an independent woman and to sacrifice my life for my kids and not to depend on others. Very soon I realized that these are not going to happen, school was tough… I was in 11th grade when Katrina hit. I was displaced and separated from my family. I could not find my mother, my brothers and sisters. I missed school and ended up getting pregnant with my first born.”

She adds this: “I think I am left behind because now I live on food stamps for my kids. If I get a full time job they will cut my food stamps and I will continue struggling to raise my kids. I hope for a better place for me and other mothers to help others in need. This world is not just for all of us because everything is a struggle for us.”

Poverty is a life draining of inspiration. The spark that is the magic firelighter of confidence.

To put it academically, it is a multidimensional problem. As the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative puts it: “Multidimensional poverty is made up of several factors that constitute poor people’s experience of deprivation – such as poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standard, lack of income, disempowerment, poor quality of work and threat from violence.”

The UN, in it’s Goal, wants to: “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.”

And they want to: “Build resilience to environmental, economic and social disasters”, “implement social protection systems” and try to get policy frameworks into place to be more pro-poor and gender-sensitive. However that’s going to really work on the ground.

The collected point being that to simply consider poverty from the economic point of view, chime as that bell immediately does when we say the word “poverty”, is to miss a lot. As the OPHI says in simple example: “Economic growth has been strong in India in recent years. In contrast, the prevalence of child malnutrition has remained at nearly 50 per cent, which is among the highest rates worldwide”.

Extreme poverty is to barely exist. But to do so knowing that others are living full lives right over the road.

And the truth is, that $1.25 line is based on the old purchasing power parity exchange rate – the PPP – of a few years ago, upgraded itself from the old dollar a day measure concocted for stats in the early 90s. Today that sensible measure of the value of what people can afford is, according to the World Bank compiling the figures, actually $1.90. Almost two dollars a day. From which graph-inducing technicalities it is enough to glean that the cost of everything has gone up, making the extremely poor even worse off. Though, once you can’t eat or work or find any way to run your own life it’s all bitterly academic, I’m sure.

Now, the numbers of us in poverty at all has come down across the last century, even as populations have in some cases ballooned. But it’s hardly fast enough is it. Not when you consider the wealth in the world today.

Nuru suggests that: “The cost of eradicating poverty is only 1% of global income.”

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it.

Especially when one of the four big audit corporations, KPMG, announced that 2017 was a record-breaker for global venture capital investment, at some $155B.

And especially especially when you consider that the six richest people in the world – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Elon Musk respectively, or Mr Microsoft, Mr Amazon, Mr bits of everything, Mr Facebook, Mr Alibaba and Mr magic future – are together alone worth supposedly way more than double that. Six people. And it’s not like they’re alone.

But, y’know. Before we get into wondering what they’re doing with all that cash (Elon Musk’s singlehanded retooling of the known universe aside), it might be interesting to ask a really dumb question first.

What does this world currently amount to?

How big is the hill of beans?

 

COUNTING BEANS

How much money is there in the world? Ever wondered? If we’re talking poverty, it might be interesting to throw it into the context of global wealth a little, no? And the way we do that always starts with stoopid numbers. Complicated sounding stoopid big numbers. Because we find them comfortingly bafflingly rational-sounding.

Go on. How’s your portfolio looking? Derivatives? Property? I’m sure you have it nicely in hand and the future is sewn up for you one way or another, speculating and hedging with shrewd exposures to risk. My portfolio career, on the other hand, may end me up at the other end of the economic ladder but with an excellent spread of stories on my website.

Money is funny business. What even is it these days? Jeff Desjardins may sound like a stage name but he’s obviously a bloke with an interest in numbers, and how to make sense of them, because his money markets comparision at visualcapitalist.com illustrates just what we’re currently talking about when we talk about what we value financially.

As Sue Chang puts it, going through the chart for Market Watch, the definition of money can mean a few things, so there are different ways of counting how much there is.

“For purists, who believe “money” refers only to physical “narrow money” (bank notes, coins, and money deposited in savings or checking accounts),” she says, “the total is somewhere around $36.8trillion. If you’re looking at “broad money,” which isn’t just physical money and includes any money held in easily accessible accounts, the number is about $90.4 trillion.”

Actually, those notes and coins in your pocket – actual money cash moola, physically passing between grubby mits and sometimes through washing machines – add up to just seven and a half or so trillion dollars. Just about the same as the total value of the world’s above-ground gold – some 187,200 tons of it, apparently. A lotta coin, but not really. Not compared to the assets locked up in not just bank databases but bricks and mortar and bits of paper promising this and that if such and such goes up or down in agreed value.

Jeff’s big chart puts the market capitalisation of all the world’s stock markets at $73trillion, 38% of which is just North America, with Europe following at 11%, China just behind on 10%, Japan alone at 7% and the UK the fifth largest player on 5% of the markets action.

Just to compare, real estate values are estimated at $217trillion. Which shows you were all the savings really are. And cracking towards half of that is in the US and Europe, where nowhere near half the world lives. Still, the Caff at Sandbanks still does an agreeably-priced breakfast for us non-oligarcs, surprisingly.

But the biggest number in world money is so big, no one quite knows what it is, apparently. Various boffiny methods arrive at two ends of a possible scale with the sort of clarity of method and result that really warms your worries about ever facing a financial crash again like a fluffy-covered hot water bottle. Because the derivatives market – contracts of payment agreements surfing the value of underlying assets which could be absolutely anything – is thought to be worth $544trillion. ..At the low end. At the high end guess it’s possibly $1.2quadrillion. Which is a made-up number you’d use in the playground.

Which also makes Jeffrey Sachs’ figure from his infamous book The End of Poverty sound rather slooshably loose as change goes: $195billion a year. How much it would concievably cost the world to eradicate poverty by 2030. A number that’s been kicking around the debates in handy headline simplicity since he worked it out in 2005, buoyed by years researching a high-minded belief in the power of aid. And back then, that cost worked out at just 0.7% of the world’s combined GDP – broadly where Nuru and others get the idea of how comparatively little it could cost us to sort out the problem.

Interesting to remember, however, that alongside global GDP there is global debt – and while I can tell you it’s spectacularly high, at 325% – $215trillion – two hundred and fifteen trillion dollars suddenly sounds like birdseed compared to the one-point-two quadzillionsquillionflappybirdhandsinthesky number you’ve just heard before it.

And when you consider that swapping debts and betting on secret handshakes values of abstract things was what all but collapsed the markets in 2008, and there isn’t even a practically useful way of even saying the possible value of such not-wholesale-different financial agreements today, ten years on… hey, let’s not even go on. Let’s not even spell out what disaster might be wrapped up in all that unmentionable derivatives market value the world is literally banking on more than anything. Because it would be a foolhardily meaningless thing to say when everything seems to be fine, right? Derivatives give us borrowing which gives us liquidity which gives us choices which gives us growth which gives us way too much boredom and confusion to give a damn about who’s doing or getting what.

But all this also gave us something else too, of course. Consequences. The sacrifice zones that have often had typical geographies, like many nations in Africa, but which increasingly appear today across the entire international economic world, patchworking daily life for cultures across all our territories. Including the very heartland of industrialism itself – its birthplace, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Because one of the consequences of the financial markets crash was a bit of a political strategy so directly linked to the worsening of modern poverty and the quickening of separation between rich and poor, it was all but coming clean about the way our globalised financialised capitalist system really works.

Austerity.

‘Nother skyscraper, anyone?

 

POUND IN YOUR POCKET.

Reading Peter S Goodman’s article for the New York Times, In Britain, Austerity is changing everything, is like reading about a far-away place. A thoughtful little portrait of human life in a foreign land; an emotional curio, perhaps touching you to feel momentarily wedded to the story of those captured in its frame as if you’re an old travel writer, sincerely curious, recognising humanity, ultimately catching a comfy steamer back to the leafy home counties and your typewriter. Bit like catching a segment of Radio 4’s From our own correspondent. The apparently dispassionate perspective of an outsider, meticulously noticing the details dot-to-dotting the landscape of the picture, marking out the boundaries of people’s actual lives. Only, this particular snapshot isn’t a whistful pastoral of old England. It is a very slow dolly zoom on the places that didn’t so much see the tide of our modern economics go out, as watch the lagoon of society being drained.

It is a tale that starts in Prescott, in the North-West, and is of a list of dour closures and endings, of diminishing public amenities and of a council so increasingly strapped for cash it is turning to the sell-off of more public space, like the apparently much enjoyed Browns Field park. The potential march of developers’ private profits eradicating more shared free experiences of daily wellbeing. It is the easy to picture image of Austerity Britain, a thing as familiar to me as a Brit today as it is alien.

Conservative party leader, and eventually UK PM, David Cameron’s sort of sickeningly luke warm turn of phrase based on no actual idea, The Big Society, was originally I think just a way to try to make Conservatism sound compassionate in an age of New Labour. Maybe trying to steal their middle class conshy crown after Tony Blair sort of went mad bombing people. But it became the initial fig leaf to a grim badge for governement cuts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, after Labour lost the following election to our first coalition government this century. In suitably Conservative vein, dominating the coaltion with the Liberal Democrats as the party obviously did, the story they told of these cuts was intended, I think, to appeal to the fairness and adult responsibility that is the hook to all good Conservative voters – few of whom I think believe it’s quite that simple really, when they’re twiddling the pencil at the ballot box, but are none the less often motivated by a genuine belief in trying to run a fair system, not an unsustainably expensive one for bloody scroungers lacking imagination. I imagine. While also doing their best to block the sudden wave of marauding Marxism apparently at the gates again. I dunno. Whatever, it purported to bring us together by tightening our belts. Like a community gastric band. Sort of round the throat.

Oh, I am a cheeky old liberal, I know, but whatever the ideologies and comparative virtues of deficit spending or of dealing with national debt, and whatever the truth of the numbers and claims thrown around by everyone during Cameron and Osborne’s helming of this economic strategy, it’s hard to deny the effect it’s had on people at the poor end of the trickle-down ladder. It’s kind of… well, I think you get the picture of what being under the golden showers of anything trickling down probably feels like. It’s also made the bottom rung slippery again. It’s been undignified for lots of people, to say the least.

The stresses on people trying to sit through the consolidation of different benefits into Universal Credit, compounded by technical tangles and delays and the simply stomach-pit dropping Kafkaism of Fit To Work disability allowance checks deeming lots of almost comically ridiculous cases of people suddenly lustily ‘fit for work’ – after years of having no legs or an entirely glass chest cavity or something – have been so bad, there have been horrifying figures emerging of not simply deaths but of suicide, linked to people’s fears of how they will survive in Austerity Britain.

Paraphrasing a BMJ Open report, The Independent simply quotes an academic but chilling number: 120,000 deaths due to Austerity under the Conservatives, since 2009. Despite the report stopping short of saying they were truly avoidable deaths, says the writer Alex Mathews-King, the report says essentially that mortality sharply began to rise on the other side of social care Austerity measures, where it had been falling in the UK, and the article quotes one author of the report who goes as far as accusing the government of “economic murder.”

In another article, the paper unearths deeper specifics. And it shows that the sector is already dealing with vulnerable people, of course, so people feeling even less able to deal with such, well, existential uncertainties.

“Data from NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007, which surveyed around 7,000 adults in Britain, shows 21 per cent of IB claimants had tried to take their own lives, compared with 6 per cent of the general adult population. The same survey seven years later reveals that 43 per cent of ESA claimants – and as high as 47 per cent of female ESA claimants – had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, compared with 7 per cent of the general population.”

In response to the figures, they quote Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who told them: “These results are staggering. It is difficult to overemphasise how large a jump in rates of attempted suicide this is. I cannot think of a greater jump in rates in any population. If the Government has any real interest in suicide prevention, benefits reform must be the immediate priority. The UN has condemmed the government’s treatment of disabled people as contrary to their human rights.”

What this feels like, the article illustrates with testimony from a typical claimant, Sarah Louise Thompson, 31, who suffers from Fibromyalgia syndrome as well as depression. “I’ve suffered with mental health for many years and have felt it more when I have to go for another assessment every two years” she said.

“I’m currently awaiting to hear back from another form I’ve had to fill out about an update of my health and how it’s still affects me. I’m terrified of what might happen as I know they are taking it away from people. Right now my anxiety and depression are really being affected. They make us feel like we are criminals. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve tried to end my life.”

In the face of such stories, such evidence, The Spectator‘s righteous row with Goodman’s NYT article and its exact facts about the North West’s suffering sheds little light on the validity of Austerity’s intentions. As Patrick McGuire says in New Statesman, the point is the people themselves, up close. Not the punditry of political opportunists. Including me.

And we’ve not even talked about the state of the emergency services, the NHS, the fundamental lack of reliable, affordable structure to wider social care, or the crumbling state of UK prisons, the chief inspector of which, Peter Clarke, has been professionally candid about the rising state of self harm, suicides and struggling management in the whole system, markedly rising since Austerity. He stopped short of telling Jon Snow on Channel 4 News that they were “inhuman” but looked sorely tempted not to. And this in a somehow very British culture of locking people up for sooner than investing in helping people find productive ways forward. All while police numbers are cut and cut and fire crews have seen fire related deaths go up as their own teams have been diminished.

I know, this is all sounding a little dramatic and perhaps you feel one-sided. Not sure you’ll find me especially penitent here, as the inclusive future won’t be built on being blind to injustice, but gracious. If I am coming to the conclusion that the only viably sustainable future is one that acounts for all of us – includes everyone – I can’t say I believe an old Conservative philosophy is easily consistent with this. And that’s putting it graciously. Austerity in particular was bad strategy at best, and arguably disingenuous, many feel founded on myths of good husbandry in times of crisis to attempt to hollow out the wellfare state, with nothing to replace it. Like regime change. As Paul Krugman quotes John Maynard Keynes in The Guardian, who apparently wrote in 1937: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

If we are facing a wellfare bill only going up, leadership has to look at why. Because, yes, this isn’t a trend caused by Austerity or even the banking crisis itself – so what are the underlying economic rhythms that have been pointing us this way since the Thatcher and Regan years? Whatever your hunch, conviction, firm beliefs or resounding resignations to our econo-political story, even in my home country managing the globally fifth largest economy, if we are a generation of people heavily relying on benefits between us, we’re obviously going to need help invested in us to get viably off benefits. Escape unhealthy dependencies. Because we’re people. Worried and feeling stuck, or just not inspired with an alternative in the world we see around us.

As a Brit, I’ll admit I can, yes, in moments where I extinguish the hopey-changey lamp for a chilly moment, feel the pinprickles of hopelessness in the air. Even down here by the seaside, friends with many can-do creative people. We can all feel the frankly fractious despondency, hanging like frozen shards all around us since the B-word dropped its result like a quiet bomb, exposing all the papered-over fissures stretching back through the Austerity years to something way before that, perhaps. Symptoms of a country currently wheezing under a crippling lack of cultural leadership, shutting down any comprehension of meaningful engagement with the challenges, with the people, of now. A leadership unfit for work. Lost in its own family gossip, barely leaving the house, let alone getting out into its community to make a difference.

And, um, this is how people across many nations seem to be feeling at the moment, in their local ways.

As Paul Krugman puts it in his article trying to contextualise the idea of Austerity: “I often encounter people on both the left and the right who imagine that austerity policies were what the textbook said you should do – that those of us who protested against the turn to austerity were staking out some kind of heterodox, radical position. But the truth is that mainstream, textbook economics not only justified the initial round of post-crisis stimulus, but said that this stimulus should continue until economies had recovered. What we got instead, however, was a hard right turn in elite opinion, away from concerns about unemployment and toward a focus on slashing deficits, mainly with spending cuts.”

What played well with people in their fears at the time, he suggests, is a basic household sense of propriety with the purse strings. Which is common sense – and doesn’t equate at all with the concept of deficit spending for a national economy.

“Conservatives like to use the alleged dangers of debt and deficits as clubs with which to beat the welfare state and justify cuts in benefits; suggestions that higher spending might actually be beneficial are definitely not welcome. Meanwhile, centrist politicians and pundits often try to demonstrate how serious and statesmanlike they are by calling for hard choices and sacrifice (by other people).”

Standard policy would likely have been more Keynsian in the face of a slump. Spend to stimulate. If you cut in an economic slump when you also have no room to let things breathe because your interest rates are already basically at an unprecidented zero percent, you’ll worsen the slump. But, suggests Krugman, those eager to perhaps more ideologically pursue austerity found a poster child of fear in Greece and some economic theory that clained the opposite of normal macroeconomic thinking.

“The doctrine of “expansionary austerity” is largely associated with work by Alberto Alesina, an economist at Harvard” he says, who claimed his research had found that: “spending cuts create confidence, and the positive effects of this increase in confidence trump the direct negative effects of reduced spending.”

There was, however, one tiny flaw in the plan. It was bollocks.

The truth of various charts is that Britain’s economy only started properly recovering in 2011, after the then coalition government had quietly relaxed its Austerity measures. Its ideological aim to shrink government and welfare state alike kept the notion of Austerity alive until, well, now. And this seems a supremely British kind of conservatism. One that would rather suck up to big business than help people. Even if helping people makes better actual business sense.

“Business leaders love the idea that the health of the economy depends on confidence, which in turn – or so they argue – requires making them happy” Krugman says. “The message was clear: don’t criticise big business, or the economy will suffer. But this kind of argument loses its force if one acknowledges that job creation can be achieved through deliberate policy, that deficit spending, not buttering up business leaders, is the way to revive a depressed economy. So business interests are strongly inclined to reject standard macroeconomics and insist that boosting confidence – which is to say, keeping them happy – is the only way to go.”

How much does all this enormously consequential stuff turn on who everyone’s mates are? The influence of personalities, ambitions and associations of people in the room.

Whatever the well intentioned or badly misguided or downright nefarious intentions of national leadership in the Britain that’s helped to inspire something as desperate sounding as a podcast called Unsee The Future, it’s practices have lead to local government being gradually emasculated. Crises can be a two-edged sword, of course, with some efficiencies to be found in dramatic shake-ups – but if any ideologues think cutting benefits will make the demand for them go away, they are fresh crisis-inducingly deluded, I would suggest. The fact that over 80% of my council tax goes now towards social care – looking after the elderly, the young and the sick – is a trend. A symptom. Making the elderly, the young and the sick suffer debilitating social trauma and humiliation will do nothing to even look at the causes. They will only make the whole climate of confidence, optimism, energy – productivity – even weaker.

Duh.

Of course, charity is a problematic entity in the middle of our poverties. And, as we’ve touched on elsewhere, dishing out aid is no great solution. Even just in principle, never mind in corrupted and oversighted practice.

Jeffrey Sachs’ ambitious plan to eradicate poverty was met with scepticism even when published, thirteen-odd years ago. Because it still relied on a bit of an older world view of benign globalising states deining to help poorer ones. Not at all the tone that Sachs brought to this, but the effective one his ideas met other ears with. Because it hardly helps the globalising family if the biggest engines of such economic growth are driven with corporate influence and interests that are at direct odds with their local economies.

As John Vidal reviewed it at the time: “What he believes could change the world in 20 years, and eradicate all extreme poverty at a cost that everyone could bear, is simple: far more aid, far more debt forgiveness, far better trade terms and far more access to good technology. Sounds familiar? All this is now economic orthodoxy – what everyone from the anti-globalisers, to the very poor of Brazil, charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, and even politicians from Gordon Brown to the Tory party have been arguing for some time.”

But he sites the Africa Commission reporting back at about the same time and agreeing, yes, they wanted those aims met, but: “they recognise that other major problems such as conflict, the rape of resources, environmental degradation, privatisation, multinational companies, population increases and urban slums must be considered too.”

It is not really about money. Poverty. As Rob Weir says on an interesting thread on Quora: “How many aspirins does it take to cure brain cancer?

“The error to avoid is thinking that poverty is about lack of money rather than lack of productivity.  Productivity is a complex thing, involving education, infrastructure, regulations, culture, rule of law, and many other things.  There may be cases where investment is needed.  But in other cases outside investment is actually harmful, to the extent it “crowds-out” local investment.”

And he sites the Haiti hurricane disaster as an example: “Western aid flowed in, funneled through friends of the Clintons, whose companies made a tidy profit.  Ditto for the elites in Haiti.  The wealthy made out very well.  But this dumping of goods and services destroyed the ability of small local businessmen to grow their business, businesses that would have created jobs.”

Whatever the factchecked details there, the principle makes sense and, ah… money. See? It seems to cause more problems than it helps. It may be true in our current state of affairs that “money is good because it gives you options”, as a dear and qualified friend of mine puts it, but he puts it in a personal context that has perspective on what’s really humanly valuable. And the context of all our human values right now is a current state of affairs looking precarious for everyone. A context needing the seeds of dramatic evolutionary change sewing fast, in all our imaginations.

Imagination. We find the whole world in there. The whole world of who we are. And sitting right along side each other on the bus, in a traffic jam, passing each other on the high street, there are between us billions of different views of the world. Different stories of who we are. And one of the key aspects of telling a story is something that can change the whole outlook of it. Or of us.

Editing.

Which bits of us do we tell, and which bits would we rather not?

 

 

BLACK SALES.

Founder of Nuru, Jake Harriman spoke at a TEDx meeting a few years back. In his talk, he explained the motivation for him wanting to found a humanitarian organisation when he left the military – one with the headline goal of eradicating extreme poverty.

He descibed a scene from his memory, serving in Iraq with the US Marine Corps, that left him feeling deeply frustrated. A local farmer, coerced into fighting the coalition, was making a break for it to enemy lines with his family. Desperate for help, it seemed he wanted to escape his whole country’s desperation under a dictatorship now at war, and was waving his arms for help after pulling up at Harriman’s lines and running from his car towards them. Not yet having any idea what was happening as this lone vehicle had sped nearer, Harriman said he knew he would have to make a decision any second as this solitary figure had flung open his door and made a break straight for them. He shouted for the man to stand down. The man kept running forward, shouting. Harriman ordered his men to hold ready.

Behind the running man, a military truck from the Iraqi forces pulled up and soldiers jumped out. They ran towards the man’s car and simply opened fire into it. The man stopped in his tracks, turned and raced back towards the bullets.

“In a second,” says Harriman, “that man lost everything he had.”

The man’s wife, baby and young daughter were suddenly dead, there where he’d left them, moments before, in his car. And his desperate bid for escape, for help, had failed in the worse way anyone might have feared. Harriman said he felt lost for a moment, as he approached the scene, Iraqi soldiers themselves now dead around the vehicles with the man’s family, after exchanges of fire. Then, he found himself holding his rifle limply at his side and weeping with the distraught man.

Then he said, it hit him. He felt angry.

“It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the GPS co-ordinates of this man’s birthplace dicated what choices he had in this world.”

In the middle of politics, sometimes defended with armed force, there are ordinary people just wanting to protect their families. And the injustices of conflict only compound everyone’s poverty, it seems. And, yes, in the most meaningful, pertinent sense of all our crisis-defining human poverty today, when I say this, I include those made privately financially wealthy by war.

If flashpoints in history, of conflict, are always unfair to those involved, either serving or just caught in the crossfire, then how much deeper do the roots of injustice go when our economics are founded on the long-term suffering of many? How stable a foundation is this from which to defend the more hopeful human future?

If we can’t have peace without justice, and we can’t build a sustainably just future without accounting for everyone on Earth, and if all our wars are, in the end, about defending economic identities, what would reparations to African nations be if we added up the money Britain and Europe made from slaves?

 

If you’ve never thought of the idea of actual reparational payments to black Americans, Europeans, Carribeans for their history of exploitation by their historically European nations, I’m going to take a punt and say that’s quite possibly because you’re white. Might not have ever have entered your head. Nor mine. Not even heard of it before a few years ago. When you’re growing up, even the decade before you were born seems like irrelevant palaeontology – stone-dead fossil stuff. Flares gave me the creeps by the time I was eleven and I even have pictures of me wearing them aged five or something. So don’t ask me about William Wilberforce, he may as well have been mates with Jesus. And don’t ask me why flares came back in the 90s, either. I was old enough to just about eschew them at college.

But, the older one gets, the more one realises how stupidly fast time flies and how many mini epochs modern lives can have covered, in such rapidly redecorating cultural times as the 20th century. Martin Luther King and Malcom X were rallying for the very basics of legal dignity for black lives in America mere moments before I was born. Which means the gramps and granmas of plenty of white folk still alive in the US today could have been immediate family members condoning lynching in the deep south. Don’t wince, it’s just maths. This stuff is fresh, not ancient history.

But the nature of our history is something quietly speaking to all this, if any of us notice it. Because if I mentioned Ottobah Cugoano and The Sons of Africa, you may well assume I’m referencing some incalcuably hip 70s Afrobeat group you’re know knucklebiting wishing you knew. That this was an African abolitionist group of educated black former slaves championing the stories of those suffering under British economic rule to the newspapers and society groups of 18th century London may be as much news to you as it was to me before I Googled it. Because who of us got taught that in school, here in the UK? No one when I was there, in resolutely tight drainpipe jeans.

As Doctor Alan Rice says in his useful outline of the slave trade’s economic history, mark-up on Africans bought from slavers on one side of the Atlantic could be six hundred percent on the other side of it, when the idea began to boom in the late 17th century – and all Europeans were piling in, having all piled into the Americas with plenty of plundered land now to put to good use and nowhere near enough hands to use it. By the time we get to the time of great British hero Horatio Nelson, such individual profits were down, but the trade was massive – and driven by such a modern sounding problem: Consumer tastes. Namely of that intoxicating demon still holding us all hostage, sugar.

“Although average profits on successful slave voyages from Britain in the late eighteenth century were less – at around 10% – this was still a big profit. The love of sugar that developed in Britain and other European populations meant the demand for sugar could only be met by the expansion of the slave trade to keep the plantations busy.”

But… it tastes so delicious. And, I’m getting weirdly shaky again.

Interesting that today, nearly two centuries after Britain finally abolished slavery across all its colonies (if you don’t count the a little place called India for a while after that) in the 1807 Slave Trade Act, it turns out we still find it so difficult in my country to freely talk about the real historic effects of the British Empire. Its clever achievements, and its costs. Why are we not taught, for example, that Admiral Nelson’s column-inducing job was not simply defending the financial interests of Britain at a time when perhaps 80% of the country’s blooming economy just was the triangle of the African labour trade, but that he heatedly opposed Wilberforce’s momentum to outlaw slavery? Where is that in the national curriculum?

And why do plenty of UK folk today get pretty heated themselves when it’s brought up? Afua Hirsh’s Channel 4 doc, The battle for Britain’s heroes, was essentially undramatic in its looking at Nelson and Churhill and Rhodes, laying out with simple good point that there are bits of their characters that are a bit racisty and it’s funny how such things are still not much talked about in classrooms or pubs. But it didn’t stop her getting a boringly predictable blizzard of abuse on Twitter, and of almost bored indifference to the actual racism from the nice academics she interviewed.

As Matt Baylis put it in Daily Express, it doesn’t matter that the programme was simply asking us why we don’t talk about this stuff: “Rather than pulling down statues and rewriting textbooks, Afua was arguing for a balanced view. Let’s make sure our heroes, Nelson, Churchill, whoever, are presented warts and all. You couldn’t really argue with it, except to say that’s not really what having heroes, national or otherwise, is all about.”

I had a polite discussion with a chap on Twitter after it. And he didn’t get in any way abusive but did swiftly tell me this was all part of a Lefty revisionist plan to undermine the whole fabric of society.

Is this an age in which we can’t talk about history – can’t understand any complexity in people, cultures, consequences? Can’t challenge anything?

As a Guardian Secret Teacher article puts it, the bits of race history that are taught in school tend to be fragmented, not joined up. Leaving black Britons today still feeling awkward about how to express their feelings on it. The usual sins of ommission speak volumes when you essentially relate to those being omitted.

“There are schools that choose to talk about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican businesswoman who helped British soldiers in the Crimean war. But students should also learn about Una Marson, a black feminist fighting racism in Britain in the 1940s. There’s Cherry Groce, who was shot and paralysed by police in the Brixton riots in 1985. There’s William Cuffay, who fought for universal suffrage until he was deported to Tasmania by Queen Victoria. And there’s Olive Morris, a key figure of Brixton’s Black Panther movement and prominent civil rights activist.”

And the article’s author says the point is this: “It’s not enough to discuss these issues in Black History Month in October and ignore the reality of racism that minorities have to endure all year round.”

Edifice of British identity, Nelson was a genius commander, and his efforts changed the fortunes of Britain, not least of which in successfully repulsing the vast threat of France’s (not actually so) diminutive Emperor Napoleon. In ultimately defeating the Corsican Fiend, Hardy’s daddy crush is owed all the Empire’s ultimate wealths from sea to shining sea by our great institutions, him and the august confidences of the Royal Navy and England’s very establishment hierarchy of the time which saw Nelson, in his own words: “bred in the good old school”. But how are you supposed to feel about this history if you’re British and black, or even consider yourself a smooth caramel blend of rich British love? Part of the modern state of the UK as much as anyone – because this apparently still needs saying in some conversations – but part of your identity arriving in the North Atlantic via the West Indies from West Africa.

If, as a white boy from Bournemouth, I am technically half Welsh and half English with a name dating back to Norman times, then I partly arrived here via invading French Viking, partly by migrant German hired thug, partly by galant defending Briton and partly by conquering Italian technocrat. At no point was any of my biological heritage transported here via slave cargo hold. How differently do you and I feel about what it means to be British? Because there’s no escaping the reality of both those personal perceptions. They’re both real parts of our shared country today. The story of how we all got here and ended up in each other’s lives.

For many black lives wondering how much they still matter in 2018, reparations represent the reset button everything needs. The whole sorry mess.

 

What, really? Actual… payback to everyone descended from the slave trade? What, ah, what would that cost? And how would that work? And ah, don’t be so what now?

Yes, it is a considered thing. And whilst you might scoffingly say that the flat Earth is also an apparently truly considered thing making the news persistently these days, as another little bellweather of the galloping lunacy of our times perhaps, this other bit of supposed “craziness” doesn’t tend to make the news. But if you hadn’t heard of it before, you should find it interesting to know that reparations for slavery exist in concept as a serious attempt to heal many world divisions.

There are a few bodies exploring it, like Caricom, based in the Caribbean. And they see this role as, of course, an uphill task – but an obligation to justice. A peacemaking responsibility.

“The CRC is committed to the process of national international reconciliation. Victims and their descendants have a duty to call for reparatory justice. Their call for justice is the basis of the closure they seek to the terrible tragedies that engulfed humanity during modernity. The CRC comes into being some two generations after the national independence process, and finds European colonial rule as a persistent part of Caribbean life.”

You might be unsurprised to hear that they claim to have “persistent objection from European governments” to its, as they see it, mandate. But they see it as “a necessary path to progress.” The echoes of the past are not quaint period drama stories but, for millions of people, a resonance through their Now. And speaking especially for the people of the Caribbean, the CRC says it: “sees the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of their suffering today.”

But what is the plan for this? How would any governments deliver such a grand scheme?

Well, here’s the interesting first point. The CRC lay out a ten-point plan to deliver suitable reparations, as they see it, and their number one step would cost nothing to any tax payers directly: Full formal apology. It would be an obvious start, right?

“The healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires as a precondition the offer of a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe.” Their point being that the statements of “regret” some governments have offered in the past have deliberately sidestepped culpability. Much like then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s impassioned statement ahead of the bicentenary of abolition twelve years ago.

As The Telegraph reported at the time: “Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was — how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition” he said, “but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”

It was dismissed by many different groups as worthless words, because it was backed up with no justice. No action. The point many black lives would make there being: Better times? Um, doesn’t feel as different as you think, Tone’. Which is a perspective that will undoubtedly seem as ridiculous to some as it does bloody obvious to others; perspectives possibly influenced a leeetle by your skin colour, I’m going to guess coyly.

All ridiculously simply put by me here, but fundamentally out there in our wrangling around geopolitics and the justice of our economics. Development, aid, corruptions, influences, interests, hopes – all the things swirling around the honeypots of resources across the globe on all sides, it’s a chapter in history that so shapes the modern world, nothing of today’s wealth and opportunity is isolated from its implications. Britain’s industrialisation itself, the world leader in modernisation, drew massive funding from the economy of its day. An economy banking on human cargo. How do you think some of the great traditional edifices of the UK – such as the Bank of England building, first built in Threadneedle Street in the late 18th century where it still stands, or even the Palace of Westminster, the seat of sovereign parliamentary democracy, mate, rebuilt at a time when last slaves were still not free from loaded tax-paying landowners – were essentially afforded by this particular wealthy business nation?

If you’re possibly smarting imperceptibly at the idea of anything from $5–$15trillion in payback being a conceptual possibility for the collected nations of Europe and America to find, as the price-tag for supposed justice, you might like to know. Reparations funds were found before. Reparations paid to disenfranchised slave traders at the time of the emancipation act, to pay them off and make it work. The British government allocated the equivalent of billions in today’s money all on its own, a giant wallop of its GDP at the time, to compensate the rich so heavily involved in the business. At about the same time they were throwing up the new houses of parliament, so it’s obvious the sun was still only rising on Victoria’s global economy.

Reparations to slave traders? Not… slaves? Yeah. And here’s the extra rub: According to the Treasury, the last of it was only actually paid off in 2015.

Think about that.

As The Independent reported in 2013 when a study of the reparations documentational history was published by UCL, a list of prominent people in today’s Britain were revealed as descended from families who benefited from the pay-offs. Including former Conservative PM David Cameron. A rather smaller society than advertised, you might say. Naming names of people with dodgy-sounding family is sort-of pointless dog-whistle stuff, of course, because name me anyone without dodgy ancestors in there – who are we to hold each other accountable to them? But the relevance of these revelations is simply this – look at who is related to who and still in postitions of influence over Britain today. Today. People and institutions, like banks. How far away is history to us?

It wasn’t Abolition that triggered this reparations plan. It was another act of parliament, more than a quarter of a century after it, that not only finally forced the emancipation of people already enslaved – far too late for thousands of them – but also triggered the huge pay-outs for their suddenly former owners. Legislation that, as  Sanchez Manning’s article puts it: “made provision for the staggering levels of compensation for slave-owners, but gave the former slaves not a penny in reparation.”

Manning quotes Dr Nick Draper, who headed up the study, as saying: “There was a feeding frenzy around the compensation.”

A large proportion of the Victorian elite were entitled to pay-outs and many had the equivalent of millions given to them. And yet freedom still didn’t come for thousands of slaves even at this point, with the concept of “apprenticeship” demanding “former” slaves work out an unpaid contract with their same masters, while they were trained, as it were, to be able to cope on their own. What this turned into was sometimes worse conditions than before, with special magistrates dispatched to Caribbean plantations to help the recently hansomely compensated plantation owners enforce justice from any unwilling supposedly former bondsmen.

And there’s an interesting detail that will also resonnate from this precise period of economic history. The treadmill. Ever felt you’re on it in your dead-end job? You should know, it doesn’t mean a boring running machine. It means a punishment device. And not your normal self-inflicted one. A splintery drum of boards that used prisoner power to turn mills or pumps but which were, under Apprenticeship, used as an even more deliberate torture.

As Kris Manjapra explains: “Apprentices accused of laziness – what slave owners called the “negro disease” – were hung by their hands from a plank and forced to “dance” the treadmill barefoot, often for hours. If they fell or lost their step, they would be battered on their chest, feet and shins by the wooden planks. The punishment was often combined with whippings.

And you couldn’t even nip out behind the bins for a forlorn fag in the car park.

How far away is all this from us today? As we stand next to each other with British passports, that are about to turn resolutely supposedly traditional blue again, and have very different feelings and personal connections to our shared British identity. This quintessential modern, digital, nation.

If we can name names of people still in the establishment, if black British citizens had their taxes still paying off some body or other benefitting from slave trade pay-offs until the middle of this decade, and if the cultural habit of our day is still such that our history doesn’t teach us all this joined up – you knew all this and I didn’t – then is this history at all, in a sense? Is it in fact, still part of our business as usual?

So much, in fact, that the full circle of our look at the Global Goals brings us back to where we started: Climate. Because Britain lead the industrial revolution. It’s culture of innovation, confidence, audacity, intelligence, science, even storytelling, transformed the world. Funded vastly, fundamentally, by the slave trade. And the biggest single result in the end is the crisis of an entire planet’s shifting relationship with humankind. The climate crisis. The thing that every other crisis is happening within.

On the surface, the world is vastly different for us. Wealth like the world has never known. An explosion simply of colour – in every concievable way. And of sound, music, story. Of possibilities for ordinary people. We have lassood the very moon, and billions of ordinary schmos like me and you live like little Greek gods, even bored and neurotic in our wealth, the like of which ancient world leaders couldn’t sufficiently dream of. And amidst it all, we can be friends. We can cross divides that were unthinkable mere seconds ago in history. So many daily interactions and opportunities are a multi-cultural melt of wonderful possibilities, compared with what looks like another age entirely now, when the slave trade finally foundered, perhaps especially in modern Britain. Itself a country I’m used to thinking of as full of creative possibilities, triumphant in daily acts of humour, charity, generosity, creativity. So many glimpses of a future that’s… so cheerily human. I owe the land of my birth so much of me.

But under the surface, many argue it is essentially the same system is still working. For all the dramatic changes in psychological economic software now running the modern world, since the financialisation of it, the attitudal hardware is still the foundations of the same world machine other-age men built. And millions of us know it, and millions of us don’t.

As Kehinde Andrews tells D And C: “We must understand that slavery and colonialism are what western prosperity and the current world were built on. Slavery brutalised all societies involved. Atrocious racism survives; both in severe structural inequality and in blatant racial prejudice.”

But, is the lid unscrewing slowly off the world machine? In our Now of fearsome realities? And is it so fearsome because, yes, if this is turning out to be like Wells’ Martian capsules blasting through the gently twerpling evening summer trees of cosy Horsell Common in Sussex, with that ominous giant clang of the lids falling right off precipitating unspeakable monsters of alien form rising up to enslave us with giant stalking genocide machines, then… no wonder we’re all psychologically running for the ships.

Is the possibility of facing what’s inside too awful to contemplate? So much so that we never will, adequately? Not least because we all have things we’d rather not discover in there.

In looking at the long-awated publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, Afua Hirsch shares some bitter facts woven into this story written in the 1930s by the legendary Harlem Renaissance writer. Because, in the book itself, as Neale-Hurston interviews in detail “the last survivor of the last known slave ship to sail from the African continent to America with a human cargo”, spending fascinating time with this man then in his late 80s, she admits to feeling torn about the reality of his story. That he wasn’t kidnapped by white traders, he was sold by fellow Africans.

Cudjo Lewis; a man born Oluale Kossola in the Yoruba kingdom of Takkoi, was living history to Zora Neale Hurston, but today she is more legendary than he is, among black scholars, as a kind of civil rights anthropologist. And picturing the two of them together, there in a vivid intimate scene in imagination, somewhere around the time of the great depression, Afua Hirsch today implies Zora’s nuance in storytelling is missing in much of today’s.

“Hurston herself remarked that in writing Kossola’s harrowing account of how the king of Dahomey profited from raiding and selling members of neighbouring kingdoms, she was deeply affected by the question of African complicity in the slave trade,” says Hirsch. “The inescapable fact that stuck in my craw,” Hurston wrote, “was my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard ship and sailed away.”

And yet, says Hirsch, this lost book, Barracoon, that couldn’t find a publisher until almost sixty years after its author’s death, also helps deepen the understanding of the context in which slavery took place. She quotes Deborah Plant, a Hurston scholar who edited the book: “This idea of ‘African complicity’ is more myth than a reality. Because at that point in history, there was no such thing as an ‘African’. People on the African continent did not self identify as Africans; instead there was a self identity in relation to specific ethnic groups and specific kingdoms, religions or language. So many of us don’t know, because we don’t have these nuances about our history.”

All our identities are a construct of imagination, aren’t they? Are we in a time of multiple indentities feeling like they are cracking, leaving us lost? There are, in the modern world it seems, so many ways to feel lost. Yet, it feels like the lid is coming off this collective time capsual, full of ghosts and terrors and heartbreaks, whether we like it or not. It seems to be unscrewing itself, as it might inevitably always have done, you might say sanguinely.

But, if anybody’s quaint Horsell Common of tradition is to be overturned with invading drama, remember: That war of the worlds wasn’t the end of the story. Because something saved us from the death rays and red weed. The tiny truth of the nature of life on Earth. The bacterial reality that makes us, and binds us together.

Can the value of the freedom and the choices and the funded education that I was just handed ever be paid back to sides of your family still combating habitual ticks of prejudice in our culture? No. Is the obvious answer. Not by me. I will forever owe. And even across the ten steps Caricom lays out for African reparations – the debt cancellation, the psychological rehabilitations, the cultural reinstitutionalising, the health crises investments, the repatriations, the investments, the raw humility diplomatically demanded – even then, its known there’s no making straight handouts to individuals, or even to indiginous governments, so often effectively encouraged by corporate interests to be complicit in their people’s suffering. It will take whole new trust organisations to administer the paybacks and invest them well. And we don’t have a great track record of that happening yet.

Debt is owed in multiple ways by everyone, at all levels. Many families down at ordinary us level have been drowning in it, trying to stay afloat. As the cost of doing everything has gone up, driven as much by our system’s addiction to private property values as anything, ordinary people’s ability to afford a healthy place in public life is diminishing all the time in many places, right in the heartland of the traditional wealth centres of the world. And as this begins to affect infrastructure investment for ordinary people by public bodies and the governments they supposedly voted in, it leads in turn to a growing infrastructure deficit in the whole public realm. And infrastructure deficit leads directly to social deficit. A threadbaring of the fabrics supposedly richly woven for the good of the nation, to bind it together, from the old cotton mills. Supplied by the old cotton fields of Alabama.

In the mean time, there is you and me. Trying to patch up our cheaply-made jeans. Trying to get on. And, yknow. What can we do?

From the world’s current stooping shuffle, I think there’s one thing we can do. I think we can look up.

 

SEEING THE HOPEY-CHANGEY BIT.

Do you dream of being rich? Of what it might be like to be a billionaire? I find myself wondering this again, as I wrap up the cost of doing daft hopey-changey art and start going looking for the next thing I can actually bill someone for. But if we dream occasionally of being them, what do they dream of? Once you supposedly have it all, what comes next?

Interesting that all of the top six richest world individuals we mentioned earlier are described in their Wikipedia profiles as ‘philanthropists’ alongside their day jobs. What audience are they playing to there, I wonder? Once you’re a billionaire, who do you care sees you publically as a human being as much as a businessperson?

And what does it say about them that so many of them are investing in conspicuously futurey things? Are they finally losing the plot in planning to leave the planet, or is something so far removed from the pressures of poverty it seems the epitome of gauchely wealthy disconnection, actually something that might hold a symbolic key to our ambitions to make the human race truly wealthy?

In trying to invest in getting more of us out of the gutter, should we even be spending a single penny on trying to get more of us into the stars?

Or does the penny finally drop when the penny floats?

The Designer of SpaceShip One, Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer who’s team won the SpaceX prize with the craft, was philosophical as Dr Brian Cox interview him for a BBC documentary, The 21st century race for space. He said: “Why do we as the human race want to fly into space, push and push and push”: “I think it goes back to why we’re different from the animals. The animals live to survive. Humans live to explore. To find out what’s over that mountain.”

On December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Brian Binnie was at the controls for the first powered test flight of SpaceShip One, taking the craft to a top speed of Mach 1.2 – and he went on to break the record for the highest winged flight in it. And he too, formal naval pilot and practical Princeton graduate, was philosophical as Cox interviewed him about the human experience of flying into space. In fact, he was dreamily thoughtful, as he spoke about the memory of what happened after the incredible adrenalin rush of the rocket motor firing, propelling the craft to its 112kmm altitude from its parentship launch, and the motor was then shut down. It was, he said, for all the excitement that got him to that moment, by far the best part.

“It’s as though you step across the line into an entirely new dimension, and this instant karma of weightlessness,” he said. “And it happens just like that, and you realise…” he continues with a slightly lost for words pause, “you’re in space. And it’s as though somebody’s pulled back a stage curtain for the benefit of your eyes only. And you look up and there it is – this black void that is space.”

And he pauses again, thoughtfully. “It’s mystery. And menace. But you can also sense its majesty.”

It is, I can picture being for anyone, a humbling, profound, indescribable moment. A moment of such perspective. The first time you see Earth from space, and see space as it really is. So black. So vast.

Carl Sagan’s masterful highjacking of the Voyager camera, against sensible orders from the mission command who wanted only science gathered from their delicately precarious impossibly distant seeming craft’s instruments, is an image that changed the world – the pale blue dot. Something that took the image of Apollo 8’s iconic Earthrise photo and raised the frightening perspective of our one home planet to the ultimate truth: All we know of us isn’t just hideable with a thumb, it can look like a spec of dust to be wiped off a photograph.

These are the science- and engineering- and yes, politics-driven moments that mark humanity’s very very first steps into getting true perspective on itself. And tell me, what price that?

It’s no wonder many of our billionaires think there’s a lot of cash to be unlocked in space tourism.

Or in building an escape plan to Mars.

We can’t afford to lift all humans out of poverty, or global justice-redefining reparations, but we can afford to go to Mars? Rich people can burn rocket fuel into the atmosphere to have a briefly stratospherically expensive poetic moment? What planet are we living on?

On the face of it, you’re right. And the drivers of the space race were blatantly politico-economic – a race to flex the idea of supremacy between the US and the USSR. But, regardless of what the disconnected rich splurge cash on instead of human equity, it brings me to the experience we collectively have of progress – it doesn’t happen uniformly, does it. And I think there is a very basic principle we have to bear in mind if any fight for justice or struggle to build in sustainable new systems of wealth are going to work. We are not dealing with economic units. We’re not trying to find news ways of accounting for human life like counting beans. That’s the good old school’s kind of engineering. We’re dealing with people. And if people are born to do anything, they are born to explore.

Take away inspiration, and we take away progress’s ability to ever take. And, like it or not, our inspiration is outgrowing this one planet’s horizon. The nacent story of humans taking to space, spreading their cosmic wings for the first time, inspires millions to look beyond the Now. It’s the resurgence in the scientific understanding of our celestial neighbourhood afforded by space technology that is giving many people hope. It simply has to be some small but noticeable part of the story of us right now – because it just speaks to us. To our instincts to grow way beyond the treadmills of globalisation. And here’s the truth, like all travel, the more we get out there, the more we learn about home.

Like a personal anxiety coping technique, being able to pause the business of building our Now and pull out mentally to low Earth orbit and see our context? It is as amazing to us, as calming, as inspiring, as hope-filling as any image of progress can be. It shows us just how tied our bloodlines are. Seeing the Earth from space is when hardened test pilots and engineers – the frontier heroes of our modern times – really first get it. A kind of reverence for life.

As Colonel Bob Springer, astronaut who flew with the space shuttle Discovery twice, said to me once: “Everyone who goes into space comes back an environmentalist. Everyone.”

I think simply, such perspective might give us some practical help down here, right down at ground level. Some psychological tools to take forward.

Firstly the fruit of such reverence might be a little attitude change, deploying a very humble word into our thinking. Because I think a first definitely possible way forward we can any of us engage, as we work out what must be done, is I believe a key aspect of the whole shared future – helping to develop a story of grace.

I don’t simply mean picturing William Wilberforce singing Amazing Grace flintily as the eventual posterchap for abolition, though it’s easy to imagine him doing so. I mean the grim idea that after everything, the historically marginalised and oppressed nations of Africa, the Americas, the people of India… I wonder if a keystone to helping us build bridges between identities may be to include a conscious degree of grace in expressing all our heritage into future identities – forgiving the past.

But what will truly build the future is more and more of us becoming conscious that we need grace. And so need to give it. Grace is at its most potent in partnership. That’s when we can get truly productive.

Secondly, it’s the Goals. They are high-minded, and they don’t mention reparations. But they do one vital thing that I’ve come to realise as I’ve spent so much time with them – they help ordinary schmos like me and you put it all together. The great circle of everything we have to do. The complete story of us – the full picture of the consequences of how we’ve been living, lost in the world machine. Putting it together in our lowly minds is… empowering. Sobering, very weightilly sobering. But oddly inspiring. Giving us a much higher level of that vital mental component we’re collectively missing: awareness.

When we understand more of our context, nothing we do is in a vacuum any more. And gazing into space can give you that.

Which means, you might find yourself acting differently. Seeing differently. Knowing what you are doing is part of a bigger story. And while this will rob you of some hope to begin with, if you’re really facing the facts for the first time together, it is likely to oddly percolate. Bubble through your mind and filter your thinking. Suddenly, all you do in your daily life will have new resonnance. You may begin to feel that your life is oddly less lost in the machine. Because your living, your very life, will begin to feel like it’s part of that bigger story. And this might get you off your bloody arse at last.

You think you can’t do anything? As Chris Manjapra points out in a grimly frank history of the slave trade: “Over the past few decades, scholars have stressed the ways in which the antislavery movement depended on expanding democratic participation in civic debate, with British women and the working classes playing a crucial role in the abolitionist ranks. British parliamentarians were inundated with thousands of petitions from ordinary people pressing them to pass laws that eventually brought slavery to an end.”

So much of 18th century Britain is unnervingly like today’s. The hierarchy, the gossip, the papers, the society trends, the consumer fancies, the bawdy entertainments, the worthy hopes, the blind ignorances, the sincere intentions, the arrogant abuses of power, the satirical wits, the inequalites, the prejudices lurking. But while it looks like the shame machine under the different lace cosies, look closer and you’ll see something has changed. The machine is infected with nanites.

It was the enslaved themselves who rattled the cages. Forced uprisings that destablised the system. Sang the songs. Built the cultures. Held on to their identity and pushed it up through the earth into the sunlight, evolving and growing, knowing they were every bit as civilised as their savagely dehumanising oppressors. They knew. And they didn’t ever become the under-species they were forced to be. And in the end they got noticed by other humans prepared to surrender a little to empathy.

Today, we are so swamped with channels of information it has overloaded our attentions. How can we ever muster sufficient focuses of public attention we can skew the system and force change? Yet, connected like this, our collective empathy has not so much been empowered as fundamentally upgraded. For the digital networked human, you and me now, is a whole new level of us. You are the ghost in the machine, connecting a living new machine in the lungs of the old one. And every new connection you make reshapes it.

What shape do you want it to be today?

The truth is, when you pull out, this enormous theme running under our modern economics – slavery – goes beyond Africans or native nations of any kind being bought, sold and abused by old empires. It’s no conshy student poetry to say there is a kind of slavery net ensnaring all of us. An entrapment of thinking in how we live that, I would say keeps us docile. Kind of asleep. Asleep to the human potential. And to the things we can collectively do to address injustices.

The question many are asking is this: Is the Now of fearsome realities beginning to wake up more of us?

Umair Haque, writing for Medium, says he thinks we’re simply in the age of collapse. That our culture’s inability to question the fundamentals has perpetuated it way beyond its ability to stand up. That the kind of ‘super-people’ that corporations effectively are, omipresent and multi-connected to more than human powers, makes them the overlords of our time. But the reality of any hope to defeat these killer automatons stalking the Earth subjugating us, is in the fact that the world machine they’re part of is a system beginning to fail simply too many people in what people are. Human.

“This global system is not benefitting the average person in any real way — financially, socially, culturally, relationally, politically, economically. It might give him cheaper TVs and drugs to numb the pain with — but soothing the pain away isn’t happiness”. And while you might say this really is getting a bit student conshy poetry club, it’s hard to deny the sense of disallusionment driving populist times. So much a consequence I’d say again of our expectations not matching reality. Which means now is the time to help change those expectations – of the very things we consider of value to us.

“If your life was stagnating, and I asked you — “free trade, or a decent life?”, you’d laugh at me, wouldn’t you? Are people human beings — or are they just mindless workers, insatiable consumers, and heartless competitors?” Says Haque. And he makes the link all the way from the slave trade in America to kids working out their disalusionment in infamy-chasing classroom carnage.

But even in this failing system, he says, there are examples of not being so enslaved to it, suggesting it’s the good old Nordic nations that show better how it’s done.

“They are not protectionist nations. They trade away happily. But they also do something that the rest of the world does not so much — they reinvest the gains from trade in robust, universals, strong social contracts. Things like parental leave, healthcare, protection, insurance, incomes, are all guaranteed. So there is not the tension there — so much — at least of trade versus livability.”

Yanis Varoufakis, Greek showbiz economist, suggests we won’t make any practical difference to the crises of now by looking backwards to the achievements of our system. Even if they’re as world-shaping as the collective epochs of capitalism have been.

He recalls: “Back in 1991, a left-wing friend expressed his frustration that “really existing socialism” was crumbling, with exaltations of how it had propelled the Soviet Union from the plough to Sputnik in a decade. I remember replying, under his pained and disapproving gaze: “So, what? No unsustainable system can be, ultimately, sustained.” Now that globalization is also proving unsustainable, and is in retreat, its liberal cheerleaders resemble my friend when they proffer similarly correct, yet irrelevant, exaltations of how it lifted billions from poverty.”

He makes the point that we have a lot of money kicking around, but we’re not investing it where it’s actually needed.

“Humanity’s accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history. However, our investment levels (especially in the things humanity needs, such as green energy) are particularly low.”

He describes the real story of us globalising as going right back to the first migrants – all of us.

“Humanity has been globalizing since our ancestors left Africa, the earliest economic migrants on record. Moreover, capitalism has been operating for two centuries like “heavy artillery,” in Marx and Engels’ words, using the “cheap prices of commodities” to batter “down all Chinese walls,” “constantly expanding market for its products” and replacing “the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency” with “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.”

“It wasn’t until the 1990s, when we noticed the unleashing of momentous forces, that we required a new term to describe the emancipation of capital from all fetters, which led to a global economy whose growth and equilibrium relied on increasingly unbalanced trade and money movements. It is this relatively recent phenomenon – globalization, we called it – that is now in crisis and in retreat.”

So then, what does this mean for us? Left here at ground level to deal with it every day, psychologically, practically.

What is history and what is heritage? How do we define the difference in our minds? Because, let’s face it, it was none of us us, that did those specific historic things – we were none of us alive in that context. It is, in so many ways, history. But we all of us get to choose our conscious identity today, or preception of heritage, piecing together the fragments of ourselves into the collage we believe in. And if we can feel empathy with the bloodlines we learn to be connected with in our imaginations, as we experience what others percieve this to mean in the way they treat us, can we yet delve deeper into our minds and feel a glimmer of empathy for the blood running through everyone’s veins? It’s as hopey-changey hippy peace song as it gets, but it’s also the bottom bloody line of all our economics.

Influenced as enormously as we are by our education, our family, our cultural atmosphere, it is possible that those things themselves can change when we resolve to influence them back. And in new partnerships, who knows what realities we can make?

Howard Zinn, activist and historian, describes it to perfection, in a quote reminded to me by the lovely first lady of Momo while reading Noam Chomsky’s Occupy. Presumably while furthering her bid to overtun her gift to be a naturally profoundly balanced person to become loony barking Marxist, presumably.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”

 

It could be the quote on the inside sleave of Unsee The Future, the coffee table edition.

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives” he says. Hear that? Do you hear that?  “If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives is the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending theis spinning top of a world in a different direction.

What’s emerging really is a truly globalising world. One where we can no longer hide our sacrifice zones. Because they have phones.

The business as usual of this chapter of human life on Earth seems the most likely and possible one, doesn’t it? Glimmers of hope, but the reality of overwhelming selfishness baked into the systems of the world machine, just grinding on. But, whatever the pain you and I might be labouring under today, defining our ability to think about anything, the statistical, pragmatic truth surrounding all our contexts is that the consequences of collective human living are converging to overwhelm everything. Our selfish business as usual is not sustainable. So things will never go back to the way they were when things suited you better than now, if they did. Or to some pre-injustice age. Or to Eden. Our job is to help see what life is like after we’ve tattooed the indelible scars on us and the planet. How to live with the semi colon.

Farhad Mirza, a human rights activist I met once during a travel glitch that had us spend an unexpected rainy night talking the world in a bar in Berlin, posted this on Twitter: “No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now, I don’t know what I’ve become. #Home – by Warsan Shire.”

We are all the migrants. The immigrant lost. We can continue to try to just shut eachother out, push each other away, but we are only storing up bigger and bigger problems for us and our children. For the planet we all have to live on. Can we reach a tipping point moment where our work to face the crises – educate and empower and enfranchise the refugees, emancipate the enslaved homeless looking for refuge in a storm – starts to shape a new Earth? Even new ideas of heavens possible in it?

I think it won’t be super-saviours that rescue us. It won’t be leaders alone, in the old fashioned sheepling sense of them, that will or can light up the complete Global Goals into a significant measure of success. The revolution won’t be lead. The evolution will be encouraged.

 

The symptoms of our living tell us what’s wrong. Injustice presents everywhere, as the daughters and sons of former slaves struggle to live lives as ordinary as and equal to the sons and daughters of former slave owners. So many daily blindsides from friends and co-citizens. A system built by dominating men, leaving men and women across all cultures struggling to know how to relate as equals. And mental health the world over imprisoning us in habits of comfort and desperation for purpose that is squandering the incredible medical advances prolonging the lives we have to feel broken and lost in. All while the complete song of nature is ringing in our ears a low building hum, a chorus of animal voices calling us to do one thing: Wake up. Wake up to who we really are. For we are part of the great circle of the Earth, and it is our purpose to sing for her. For all life.

The world machine is broken. The plan for fixing it is imperfect. But we ourselves are the wonky componentry – every one. Vulnerable, fat-headed, ignorant of some things, understanding the value of others. Impoverished in so many ways we are too poor to even see. Struggling to know ourselves. Lost and disempowered. Humiliated and degraded.

But we ourselves are the answer. We ourselves are the hopey changey bit.

Exploring the multiverse of examples of this happening all around us now, this will be Unsee The Future‘s ongoing mission, I think.

From rebel banks printing money to buy back household debts in England, to communities coming together to regreen the drylands of Ethiopia’s desperate Tigray region, to the rise of veganism across the West, linking better health with less damage to our resources… with a more humane psychology of consumption. From the explosion of projects building an economy of sharing, wanting to work for good instead of paycheques alone, wanting more time with loved ones and a much stronger sense of open community. The increasing seriousness of the universal basic income. The volunteering principle emerging naturally, not just around BS 9–5s, but in the way we value business projects themselves. To the flowering of truth budding in our sexual cultures – the admission that we are not stiff cut-outs of identity, but wobbly shaped individuals linked by our collective need of each other. And our collective suffering. Desires. Hopes.

It is our role now, surely, to put everything together in our minds and actively work against the fullest sense of human poverty – our disconnection from life on Earth. To recognise ourselves in the whole beautiful, rare, astonishing, diminishing web of it, as we learn to change the way we see it. And it will not be something we can fix with a switch flick.

We are in transition. Generation Now. From slaves to freefolk. From stereotypes to people. From separate consumers to flocking, reforming, sharing, shaping, encouraging global community. Is it any wonder more of us are being heard in our experiences of embodying the personal experience of transition? And do the trans of us have a profoundly simple testimony to us all in their hard-won identities, explored a whole generation ago in Ursula LeGuin’s prophetic, ice-cracking The left hand of darkness – we won’t lose our humanity in leaving the freezer-mould forms of us; in daring to realise who we are, we’ll find it.

It is us, in our outlook, that will encourage the more hopeful human tomorrow. By letting our vision of it percolate everything we say and do. By letting it charge a greater, zoomed-out sense of purpose. Like other worlders with perspective suddenly on what is truly wonderously preciously valuable about life on Earth. Without having to stump up millions taking a rocket trip.

As Howard Zinn put it, with words I could never better as we conclude this chapter of Unsee The Future:

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human being should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

And there we conclude our first series of Unsee The Future. We’ve mapped the whole plan for the human planet tomorrow… and where next?

I’ll be back with a new series after a bit of a break, pulling together so much of the creative ideas and… what? Oh. You mean the whole saving the planet thing. Because, this isn’t really the end, is it. This unrealistically triumphant Hopey Changey conclusion.

Hmm.

Well, if you’re asking how we bring it all alive, after this much time dialing around the UN’s Global Goals, I think I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that I think the UN is missing one. A Goal. And, in fact, they are missing the most important one. The one that is the only way to make the whole plan actually work.

Oh.

The good news is I think I know what it is.

UNSEE THE FUTURE WILL RETURN LATER IN THE SUMMER WITH A ONE-OFF SPECIAL.


DISCOVER THE UN’s No1 GLOBAL GOAL >

Their primary aim is ending poverty

 

The rebel bank, printing its own notes and buying back people’s debts >

Read The Guardian story of where art meets direct action in Walthamstow

 

Why do we value things? >

Everything Voluntary’s Skyler Collins considers what the word can mean.

 

We absolutely could give reparations to black people. Here’s how >

Read Julia Craven’s view on the idea for the Huffington Post.

 

The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid >

Read Kehinde Andrews’ view on turning the world ‘radically fairer’

 

Caricom’s ten-point action plan for reparations >

Discover the Caribbean organisation’s aims

 

Countries back ‘ambitious and comprehensive’ reform of UN development system >

Discover the UN’s new plans to encourage more sustainable development

 

The Austerity Delusion >

Paul Krugman dissects the economic strategy Britain has wedded itself to

 

In Britian, Austerity is changing everything >

Peter S Goodman analyses the foreign landscape of the modern UK

 

Attempted suicides by disability benefit claimants more than double after introduction of fit-to-work assessment >

Read May Bulman reporting for The Independent

 

All of the world’s money and markets in one visualisation >

Peruse Jeff Desjardins’ infographic

Five Songs and counting

It’s now been three weeks. And, so… this is what life is like on the other side, is it? Is this how big things end?

 

Five Songs to help us Unsee The Future is, yes, complete and essentially a success on its intended terms. I think we survived it. And modest as those intended terms were, it feels significant to me. Because, more personally here in a blogged reflection of it, I can say that this little show represented a turning point for me, quietly unlike any other I’ve taken. All roads lead to that evening, it seemed, and I more or less ran Momo flat on all fronts getting over the line of it. That’s conviction for you, I guess. All or nothing. Who knew I could be that guy.

I should feel a lot more depressed than I do.

Weeeehhll, you know what big highs are like, right? Always followed by big lows, they say. But oddly I kept equillibrium through Five Songs, even as the final weeks ticked by towards it and I didn’t see the end of the To Do list zooming up as quickly as the date. And this was certainly much to do with conviction – the personal belief that I should be doing this, bolstered into credibility by the lovely first lady of Momo’s agreement on the idea. She, I listen to. She wise. But any whiff of credibility, or at least enough integrity somewhere knit together in the experience of it, was hugely too to do with those around me on the night. How the hell did I talk into it whom I did?

In the official Promo article of it I’ve name-checked most of the amazing team that put their trust in me and the idea. But it goes back further to the folk who gave time to listening to a daft bloke with a book turn up and bang on about a crazy idea. I spent 2016 drafting the thesis for the idea, around writing the first music and generally keeping the other creative plates of Momo spinning. And thesis I felt early on that it would have to be, because it was obvious from the beginning that my hopes to simply take amigos into space with the third studio LP would barely cover the idea. So, as that idea took shape, I decided to work first towards codifying it into a physical tome I could thump on people’s desks and say: “This. I wanna make this. ..Am I cray-cray?”

As I explained briefly to Mark Masters on the night and a little as his guest on the You Are The Media podcast, my idea to use each different tune from the album to explore a different ‘prediction’ of scifi got me first thinking about what those regular themes really were in scifi, and then to thinking: Which of these supposed futures is the most likely for us?

And that got me looking at the current state of affairs the world is in. Turns out… um, not great.

I’d wanted to explore science fiction musically because it’s just always been the general filter through which I’ve seen the world. Thanks, as I have said often, to my wonderful mother. She I have to thank for getting me hooked on Blake’s 7 when young and for radiating the assumption that the great SF writers were proper writers indeed – expanding the human outlook, not hiding in a clique of amateur fanderbation. Which is a word I didn’t realise I had apparently in my brain ready to instantly make up by typing it before I’d even thought about it. Hmm. My, er, mind.

Beloved Asimov, or Clarke, or any of the big hitters that are legends of their creative kind today adorned my book-devouring Ma’s shelves and lay around the house throughout my childhood, all with gloriously fantastical 70s edition covers. All perhaps setting up my imagination to receive my own new generation of Star Trek when TNG beamed into TV at the end of  my teens and blew me away with its integrity of in-world thinking. And our-world thinking.

So a trip round the cosmos with my playful musical sound would be a no-brainer, right? Especially with the wonderful family of amigos who’ve grown to encourage me so incredibly much these Momo:tempo years – they take me to school on storytelling and imaginative knowledge, as well as creative musical understanding. I wonder what I’ve been doing with my mind and time all these years talking with so many people in my timeline.

But, as I began to wonder more about where we currently are today, in this broad chapter of Now, the big social and political bombs dropped that just changed the climate around me somehow – the B-word result here in the UK and the terrifying satire of Forty-Five’s actual election in the US. As people I love and respect were suddenly taking forceful stands against ome values I’d not thought about dividing us before, I could sense a new kind of reality unfolding in the air between us. Division like the UK seemed to be leaving behind, if the bubble of love I felt lifted into by the 2012 Olympics was anything to go by. It wasn’t, it turns out. Or at least, it wasn’t the whole reality. Which plenty of folk I love and respect might have told me, from numerous different perspectives I’d never felt for myself.

This Now of fearsome realities, as I came to christen it, put my daft playful ideas of music into a new imperative context culturally. It wasn’t that I awoke on the morning after the referendum result and said: “Now I am on a mission. I will redeem my country with electro-beat tomfoolery.” It sort of all happened naturally, concurrently, dawningly. And so I wrote down the things I was beginning to discover.

The result is the thesis of The Shape of Things To Hum. I had a couple of sacred copies of the short-run book out on display at Five Songs. Was expecting them to get nicked, because I know I’d want to. And in their pages, I found not simply the delineation of a five-part production take shape, most especially as I shared the bare bones of the idea with Andy Robinson early on and reading a whole new heart-filling dimension to the project in his first script for The Martian Artist. But also in the way those scif topics combined to imply a story as well. A story that consolidated, by mere juxtaposition, into a little opening essay. A starting point belief from first research that perhaps in fact, scifi was always trying to teach us the future. And that that might even give us some hope.

If we can turn Things To Hum into a full production, I shall undoubtedly find the budget to release a version of the thesis in print, hopefully bringing some of the graphics up to date with work we’ll produce especially for the project and already have a little. For now, I’ve turned it into an audiobook – the complete thing – as a sort of precursor, it turned out, to the podcast, Unsee The Future.

A thing you can now download and listen to if you are a Momo amigo subscribed out of wonderful actual interest on the mailing list.

As 2017 started, however, I had nothing else but the book and the outline of many of the tunes. Enough to feel inspired, and helpfully prepped in my mind to talk very definitely with first consultants. Because what could I do next? I had to get it outside my head and simply ask some first trusted advisors if my mad idea was pure folly. And planning to do this timed with something else interesting for Momo.

A few big things kind of cleared out of my way all at once, quietly. In creative work terms, two big clients I’d been working with alongside dear mate Julian Clarke-Jervoise came to the end of their projects with us, and a personal chapter closed for me and the lovely first lady of Momo. Some richly interesting but schedule-filling events were delivered and surived and billed by Jules and I, wrapping up a chapter of a few good crazy adventures around the world just quietly. And for Caroline and I, our long years of quietly trying for children came to an end. A sad one, but a weirldly peaceful one, as the book finally gently shut.

A story for anther time. But this turning point came to us during a year of celebrating a significant milestone in our marriage and felt like, well, at least closure. It was time to pack up our blessings and move on from the uncertainty. A mystery over us – yet one we came to finally accept, grateful for still being in a team together facing it. Who can explain any of the mysteries of loss and gain?

Which meant I found myself at the start of 2017 with a big book of an idea, some interesting tunes, a bit of pocket money in the Momo vault and a clear diary. So I filled it. With a year of trying to work out how the hell to make The Shape of Things To Hum a reality. Me. Bloke alone in a shed. With zero track record of making much beyond a jolly nice time of it happen around some good tunes.

I planned a schedule and wrestled with a gant chart, to make it seem real. I think the original gant chart I in no way used afterwards was February. I worked on a companion document to the thesis, an internal brief, to map out the many layers of development a whole concept production would require – the music, the stage, the graphics, the film and the digial elements, yes, but quietly huge challenges like the PR – finding an audience. Defining the brand. Working out how we’d fund anything, attract anyone to want to. And stages of development to start testing things.

What this year of development didn’t do was stick to first timings and get a show made. I should print out the original gant chart as a quaint poster memento. Sell it in the Mercato page as a curio.

What it did was kind of change my life.

Getting out to a number of folk in the first few months and share the vision for this great thing was empowering. Because no-one thought I was cray-cray. Well, no-one thought the idea was cray-cray. They thought it was infectiously inspiring, they all differently said. All. Exciting. So I began to belive in actual possibilities, at least. And in the idea of having a mission of sorts. One that felt somehow more than the energising ones I’d always felt before of each album adventure. As the brand developed sufficient to flip Momo:tempo into a new, more futurismy chapter, I began to explore how to build an audience. Something I’d not scienced the shee out of before, but I began to remind myself of the principle of regularity. Posting things as a regular voice of something. But also finding the ears to listen who already wanted to – finding your micro niche.

I discovered that, musically speaking, I don’t have one. That is, I’m it. So as I’d always known instinctively so I discovered with some research that year – I have no home, creatively. No neat pocket of fandom exists waiting for me to join it. The sound of Momo:tempo combines things from a few certain niches, but the combination of them has me seem to stand alone. So, I wouldn’t quickly win over the electro-pop musical crowd alone. My story was going to be the truly interesting and perhaps connecting bit. The why of Things To Hum. What came along at the same time changed up my life’s outlook again.

A friend introduced me to Ross Thornley. A creative consultant with an eye on the future. And he simply said to me: “Have you heard of the UN’s Global Goals?”

“No,” I said flatly. “What they?”

“They are a framework for talking around the human challenge as we’re facing it,” he replied. “A language used by higher-level people, who are more likely to respond to you framing your thesis around it’s analysis of everything.”

I didn’t make Unsee The Future immediately. But you know where I ended up. After reading around the topics I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this grand project before – and how the hell I was supposed to interact with them at Nobody Ground Level, where I live.

That summer, we had a first production meeting with Treehouse Digital. Because they too were something a little life-changing that came to me in my research. Frankly, like a small world of people, as I knocked on doors for enthusiastic chats. I didn’t find any cold hard cash, but I found some love for the project, at least in principle. And I found new friends. Treehouse met kindly and enthuiastically with me and Andy and with our Bonnestell – our Martian artist – Veronica Jean Trickett, whom Andy found from a networking event somewhere and to whose picture I simply said: “But that’s Nina. It’s just her, isn’t it?”

We had a sketch of a plan to make the film and the graphics. The next stage was to make a first music film to test the production and that summer, across a couple of mighty sweatsome days in Treehouse’s loft in Boscombe, we made the simply beautifully shot Behave New World, Hazel Evans brought in to be the face of the whole future, in an idea Pete, Natalie and Tom pitched to me for the piece. With a little creative help from projection artist Martin Coyne, we had a first bit of visual language and indeed music to share out there.

By the end of the year, you might have been forgiven for wondering what I’d been doing for twelve months. But it felt like I’d quietly changed worlds. Researching more of the state of the world as I squared up to becoming a podcaster, I realised this project was indeed my mission now  – and that if I was to make anything of it real, I would need to begin to stoke that idea of a regular audience. Strangely not built primarily around the music, but the idea. So, stoked by You Are The Media‘s regular wise counsel in Mark’s regular weekly bulletins, I finally launched the opening episode of Unsee The Future just before Christmas. And found I loved making preachy radio.

Hardly a surprise on any front, right?

I laid out the episodes along a timeline that I hoped would lead to… something, in the spring. But as I woke up on January first this year, I realised I had no idea what I was going to do with a single moment of this new empty calendar, so preoccupied had I been with working the old one.

WHAT was I going to, er, lead towards with Unsee?

The point was to create a something that revealed The Shape of Things To Hum at long last. But… how? I knew that BEAF was back, and in April and early May, so surely I had to put some kind of something into that, right?

Then on a walk in the woods in the first days of the new year, a phrase fell out of a conversation with the lovely first lady of Momo. “Five songs to help us unsee the future.” And something quietly went twang.

In the first weeks I worked up an introduction. Just like a radio play. And realised we had a format that could work. An old-fashioned bit of budget theatre – turning out all the lights and focussing on voice. The words: “Are we all asleep?”. Then I realised we needed eye masks. It felt like the start of something.

I picked five tunes from the LP and worked out a narrative around them – could I work up a cogent thesis of how we might get to the more hopeful human tomorrow, from the themes explored by these tracks, celebrating their particular themes of science fiction? I found myself in Rob Amey’s studio space in Boscombe humming and hahing and he simply said to me with a grin: “Just put the application into BEAF. Just put something in. Then you’ve got to do it.”

Well, in the end I had to do it. And perhaps I will go into this as fully as the experience justifies it one day, but here it is enough to say that from nothing at Christmas, the journey to producing our first actual, gosh-darned real world production, Five Songs, had some remarkable turns of fortune lining me up for the runway. Coincidences that might raise the hair on my neck if I dwell on them, but which essentially just did what I most needed… encourage me. To not give up.

When I found myself sharing the opening and the plan with Mike and Michele from Octopus Farm, they stared back at me and just said words to the effect of: “Shuttup and take our help. This is awesome.” I did, and they were. They treated the whole project as real from the beginning and valued it as not only credible but purposeful. If the Octonauts were my first official sponsor in a wonderful line of souls encouraging me in other ways, I couldn’t have found more validating, excitment-amplifying ones.

This side of actually doing it, I have not had a big emotional crash. Perhaps because I avoided a huge high going into it. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Five Songs was a waypoint. A quietly massive one, but just that. Now we at least know, it could work. And we got our ‘quorum’ of mood in the room, which was in the end my only aim. People felt it, even though this test-bed first ever production was always going to be literally made of stick and string.

As I walked into Talbot Heath hall that afternoon and saw everyone in there, separately tinkering in the big empty space, together for the first time, I knew we had it all to do, but that it wasn’t really in any one person’s hands – even mine. All I had to do was gently ensure everyone’s plate was spinning up to speed as I moved around the groups and we finally struck up some actual musical sounds.

Y’know, the real space is never the space in your head. Hazel and I and Andy and I and Pat Hayes and I and Becky Cutts and I and Becky Willis and I may have felt increasingly excited each time we met to talk performance, film, music, set and show, but eventually you are on set and having to dance through all you planned in a whole new alien reality, trusting your prep. Somehow, with a scraggle of things looking apart from each other until tea time, we could have in the end pressed the button to let folk in from 7.00pm on the nose, right on schedule. I stood there, clad in my new Po-Zus, wondering where faith would take me as I stepped forward into it in this latest little bit, the actual perforamance.

I guess, the revelation of the reality was simply that it worked. There was love in the room. Tunes I’ve had in my head for years carried themselves, I think, including a conclusion that I was still wrestling with finishing just days before. Could I really just end the show by standing at an actual lectern in a preacher’s white suit and actually just preach?

Turns out, when you resiliently have no normal Cool, like me, you are free to try anything with enough conviction.

Especially when there is love in the room willing you on. I was hugged by such a line of people I admire and appreciate it was fortifying. People who had traveled from towns away, or just from a Sunday afternoon, to let me blindfold them and put strangers’ hands in theirs and sing the end of the world to them.

Except, because of the trust everyone showed me and each other that night, I have never felt more strongly, this is very far from the end. It’s just the beginning.

xxx.

 

Unsee The Future – EP17: Justice

There’s no just-iss, there’s – huh! – just us.

What do we want?! Er, when do we want it?! Now, obviously. We don’t want it gradually. Because while you might be tempted to say that what we all want is love, or what we all think is a nice idea is peace and what we’d all settle for is cold hard cash, the truth of trying to build a brave new world is that what we most want is justice. We long for life to be fair. Because it mostly just really isn’t.

So what shape is the hopeful human tomorrow really, if it isn’t ultimately a just one? This is where all our lay lines of hope converge, in the emotional singularity of justice.

But is justice equal opportunites for development or equal representation? Equal voice? Equal power? And how the hell do we create equality when most circumstances are not just comparing apples and oranges – which are both roughly fist-sized sweetish fruit – but apples and hang gliders? Oranges and orangutans.

Our finer moments of enlightenment, of great exhibitions, technological wonders and explorations of nature do seem spoiled by our habitually darker instincts. Crimes against ourselves. We see-saw between night and day constantly it seems.

Is the human thirst for justice really about a hunger for balance? A longing for order in the chaos of us that is at the root of all our persistent daft dreams of utopia?

And yet, whenever corruption wins and jokers get out of jail free, we say: Typical. Nothing changes.

If we’re even going to scratch the surface of this subject, let’s hope life’s handed us lemons. Because you can make cakes with lemon zest. I’m Timo Peach. Let us all eat cake.

LISTEN TO UNSEE THE FUTURE EP17: JUSTICE

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

 

In this episode of Unsee The Future, we’re going to be trying to close down corrupt administrations, bring back the dead, get everyone fed and some sharp threads, activate decent universal broadband and finally get you signed to a wealthy independent record label. And teach the world to stop projecting. And to sing in perfect harmony.

From great innovation fayres to artistic movements championing the natural world, humans aspire to rise above things, it seems. And it’s hardly surprising in a way – have you seen Newhaven? Well, the point is you probably haven’t, you’ve probably only seen the A259 and the awful port, as you’re dreaming of Dieppe. You might be surprised with a little bicycling around outside the fuggy traffic queue of your expectations.

But, we do like to disconnect from ugly truths, and if I am to park up my floating bubble pod of nicely upholstered fatheaded ignorance for a moment and even consider how to drift over this episode’s topic, I’ll have to admit up front that I won’t do it justice. I should just ask you: What is your number one justice issue? And simply listen. Taking time to listen to each other’s stories might be all that’s really needed to sort out this one. If we did it every day.

With the relatively easy freedom I happened to be born into politically, socially, sexually, I’ve sometimes felt I haven’t personally had to fight for much. But as we’ve established, guilt doesn’t get us anywhere really, not like empathy. And besides I can smell cakes in the oven. So let’s imagine there is some sense to be made of the human longing for fairness, as we peer over our half-moons at the court room and ask the young legal intern to refresh the elevenses plate for us and the whole gallery.

If our sense of entitlement to a fair hearing comes from anywhere, it seems to come from our expectations. Which is weird really, because a cynic would say we can’t possibly have been looking at the world very clearly if we still expect anything to be fair.

Yet, it does seem that something in us longs to be rescued from something.

 

 

 

 

SCALES AND WEIGHTS.

There are two UN Global Goals, almost at the completion of our turn about the lot of them, that essentially combine to give us one word at the heart of the entire plan to save ourselves from the Now of fearsome realities – and the word is justice. Because all we long for, are fighting for and statistically will be held accountable for, in the face of the sheer rareness of life in the universe, all of it is really about rebalancing all that we value in our lives. Our very lives themselves. And if justice is about anything, it is about seeing – it is about recognition.

The UN addresses the word in its goal for Peace, Justice And Strong Institutions. But also, I think, in its goal for Reduced Inequalities.

As they put it: “Compassion and a strong moral compass is essential to every democratic society. Yet, persecution, injustice and abuse still runs rampant and is tearing at the very fabric of civilization. We must ensure that we have strong institutions, global standards of justice, and a commitment to peace everywhere.”

But before you hoist the flag of the United Federation of Planets and start filling out your Starfleet application form, as they also say: “Too much of the world’s wealth is held by a very small group of people. This often leads to financial and social discrimination. In order for nations to flourish, equality and prosperity must be available to everyone – regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs or economic status. When every individual is self sufficient, the entire world prospers”.

Together, these goals get to the nub of it all. Surely. That we care most about getting a fair share, and that, when we don’t, we create problems for ourselves. Often badly destabilising problems. Planet-destroying problems. If you want to build your Star Trek future to get out and explore strange new worlds, these two goals might be your social dilithium matrix, to regulate the power flows of this one.

But if life is essentially not fair, how pie in the sky is any serious hope to get pie dished out fairly? Or cake. We’re a long way from having food replicators.

When we stop to consider such a massive philosophical question, what turn out to be our real hopes for any future of human justice? Are we talking physical resources or feelings? Does money always balance out inequalities? And, y’know, why are we bothering with this sort of utopian unicorn hunting? Is the grand aim of this really to try to promote global stability – to really achieve balance? To do that, should we be all taking spiritual retreats and digital detoxes, closing our Facebook acounts and taking professional sabaticals to really go get into fell walking and kale and possibly finally try mind-expanding substances to see if we can at least begin to ask the right question of life the universe and everything? ..Or have I immediately gone too far?

Well, as ever, considering the future starts with looking at the trends of our now. So let’s continue to crib from the homework of the UN and look at what problems its two goals are broken down to tackle.

Ah. Well that’s good. Because scanning through the targets here it looks like we are facing inequalities across gender, race, class and geography without even drawing a breath. Cup of tea?

From income inequalites to political exclusions, social policies that divide communities to unregulated economics destabilising whole countries, the world is a collision of ghastly justapositions and threats to progress because progress is just so uneven. On a planet of peoples who do not share values, you have a world of pain from unshared resources. Uneven recognition.

 

Some of those targets to injustice boil down to some absurdly simple sounding headlines. If the challenge is as basic as trying to reduce gun violence around the world, for example, we are in trouble. Because in the most loudly democratic country on the planet, only the children seem willing to tackle the US epidemic of gun violence. So what hope “combating organised crime and illicit financial and arms flows” or “substancially reducing corruption and bribery” or trying to ensure: “responsive, inclusive and representative decision making”? When American teens actually do participate in democracy, the gun lobby derides and intimidates them. Which rings horribly with the idea of “protecting children from abuse, exploitation, trafficking and violence”. Doesn’t matter that I’m conflating issues there, I think the words conflate themselves.

A big part of this is simply engagement, however. Reducing discriminatory laws is perhaps the outer layer of getting people to even consider investing any time in wanting to engage in political processes or trusting the police. But developing “universal legal identity” as the UN puts it likely works hand in hand with the aim to make it ever easier to simply access information publically.

Problem is, this does all quickly get institutionalised. Because if running a group of humans like a society works best when they all believe that society is reasonably fair to all of them, managing that takes systems. Administration. Booths and forms and computer networks and people to oversee who gets… wait.

THAT’s not utopia, is it? Beaurocracy? Why can’t we just take off our clothes, love the one we’re with and be happy with just enough, man?

It’s a beautiful dream, you daft young adorable idealist. But I’ll tell you why it doesn’t work like that. One word. Beginning with G. No – not greed. That’s the boringly central injustice of the dystopian future – the one built on knowingly cynical inequality. The word I’m thinking of is something we can’t help yearning for, falling in love with, precisely when we hope for something better, when we’ve glimpsed the need for ideals. For I think the big problem with the utopian tomorrow is always bloody gurus.

 

ROBES AND WIGS.

Journalism. Now there is a litmus test for justice. That is all about recognition – reporting facts – and it is supposed to be fair. Rooting out unfairness, in fact; the simple act of not reporting crimes against someone or certain ‘types’ of people is seen as an injustice while it is reporters who can break silences and call out crimes against communities. Against humanity. How much air time is given to one group of people over another? Statistical minority groups within nations tend to be under-represented in news and storytelling, of course, giving those communities a building sense of injustice about everyone else’s ignorance concerning them – ignoring of them. If such imbalances do then get addressed, there can then be a reaction from others in the accordingly delineated majority who feel they are beginning to see an unjust imbalance of representation against them.

You can name your global conflict of choice here. From immigration spikes to actual wars, it’s perceptions of injustice – of stories being rewritten – that tend to fuel problems between peoples. And it’s proved jolly effective to lever to advantage by leaders. Or just by media owners wanting to manipulate markets.

If you were going to pick an instant global conflict of choice, then Israel is likely to top the illustrative list, as it seems impossible to strike a fair balance everyone can agree on in even talking about the situation at the heart of the Middle East’s modern story. Is the great in justice the nakba or the holocaust? The numbers of children dead at Israeli Defence Force hands or the blood of indiscriminate terrorism on the hands of Hamas or old Fatar? Is it the unseen hand of Shia Iran manipulating all or the unchallenged influence of Sunni Saudi Arabia? If you can’t have peace without justice, as the Archbishop of Galillee once put it, whose do we champion first?

Interesting that this posterchild for insoluble conflict, soaked in suffering affecting all quarters, does have its list of big-hitting personalities rallying followers almost like cults. David Ben Gurion, Yaser Arafat, and would-be followers in big footsteps like Benjamin Netinyahu. But there’s something in our brains that can really amplify our obvious hopes for strongmen in times of conflict. Something weird in us that might twang back up the timeline of our collective consciousness to a primal story locked into us.

Perhaps the greatest injustice of our lives, gnawing at us underneath it all, is the expulsion from paradise. Being kicked out of the kindergarten. Turfed off the swings and sent to the sweatshop, not the sweetshop. We do seem to privately long for good parents to look after us. But more than that – we want leaders we can worship.

 

If there’s one documentary I’ve seen recently that seems to strike a fascinating balance between two sides in a remarkable conflict, it is the Duplas brother’s six-part story Wild Wild Country. A story that illustrates strikingly the pitfalls of utpopian dreams. And the complexities of real world ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

It concerns a chapter of mid-west American history linked to India that appears to have washed across the news around the world at the time, but about which I had never heard a thing; I think much of this film’s popularity comes from what a striking sense of discovery this whole story is to many agawp at it. Because while this could be a story painted as a clash of ethno-spiritual cultures, it seems from the very inception of this particular telling of it to be an amplified farse – of mobilised small armies based on ridiculous misunderstanding.

It’s a story of a cult. A religious group that grew in the late sixties from an ashram in Pune, sort of just down the road from Mumbai, and which relocated to Oregon, lock stock and, in the end, almost both barrels. A cult that bought an old ranch in the early 1980s – supposedly in the middle of nowhere – and started building a self sufficient city in the scrubland hills. A religious group of smiling, young free-lovers who managed to instantly annoy the new neighbours. And manage it so badly it escalated into chemical attacks, armed militia, planned assasinations and mobilising the national guard. All while wearing maroon. A group of cosmic explorers following the guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

He was the architypal guru to look at. Beard. All about the beard. And the orbular eyes benignly looking, always looking. The armour-plated fleet of Rolls Royces. The words few and thought about. Then the words so few he was silent for four years. But it wasn’t silence that made his name. It was a challenging of the religious status quo in India that ultimately changed his name from Chandra Mohan Jain to single-word icon Osho.

As a young man he was apparently restless, curious and disruptive in his thinking. And he went on to share teachings that lit the imaginations of people from all over the world, at just the time people were hungry for something more from life. The irony is that his teachings, while dressed to the nines in mystic-looking garb that would have seemed liberating to young hippies trying to drop out of the world machine and find consciousness, were actually courting capitalism. He made no apologies about wanting those Rollers.

And it makes for an interesting tone to this community. They’re a sweary and unapologetic lot in the endless hours of selfying video they seemed to (in the end helpfully) shoot about themselves. Mostly smiling and always in the same palette of regal colours, through the sickly greenified VHS wobbles, they are a group of seekers who managed to pool resources and skills with such energy that they built an entire incorporated town with all its infrastructure out of nothing on a bit of farming wasteland, in what must have seemed like five mintues flat to the elderly locals in the neighbouring little Oregon town of Antelope.

But while the news reports at the time made this story all about the sex cult weirdos who were threatening America, and while the Duplas Bros make the story essentially about Bhagwan’s cult- and conflict-defining indominatable first officer and protoge, Ma Anand Sheela – a force of nature so unyielding she is indeed the most dramatically compelling character in the cast of them – the silent centre of gravity to this story for me is him. Bhagwan. Because why the hell did everyone worship him so much they turned blind to other people?

Guardian writer Sam Wollaston met Noa Maxwell, after reviewing the Netflix documentary. He mentioned his interest in the life of the actual commune, which doesn’t get especially deep attention in the edit, but to me too seems to be the real story implied heavily behind the conflict with the locals: Who joins a cult? And who did all those kids grow into? Wollaston asked the same question in his review – and Maxwell responded. “They grew into me. I was there.”

His story is of a middle class British family leaving London in the 70s for the good life. Buying a farmstead in the country and raising a bit of livestock and growing some produce. A call from an ecstatic friend in India had them visit with curiosity to discover this answer to life that their friend was evangelising. And something about the ashram in Pune that they found themselves in, young Noa too, changed their lives and they moved out there.

His story continues into a family split up fast by the free love and the expectations. Of remarkable freedom for him as a boy, but a sort of fearsome freedom. The sort that skips over boundaries without really understanding them. He came home from India barely able to read and write, so lax was the schooling, as articulate and curious as he is today, Wollaston observes in their meeting in a hip cafe in Notting Hill. And the real story under the bonnet is perhaps of people beginning to wonder if they’d lost themselves, trying to find themselves by conforming so harshly.

“I never showed upset” says Maxwell. “The narrative – particularly from my dad – was: this is fantastic, you’re fantastic. So I showed fantastic. I know my mum was struggling. She has said since she was already massively questioning what we’d done”.

What was it about Bhagwan that changed people’s lives so? I wonder if it was the good old fashioned combination of some enlightening ideas and inspiring charisma. But at a time when the idea of connecting things, seeing old languages of religion as just as much a problem as empty consumer living, was radical. Still a time of utopian grand plans – people longing for someone to give a tidy answer they could enact. To be surrounded by people all wanting to be so free, all feeling so connected.

It’s beautiful. But it’s a hankering after Paradise. To go back. Un-eat the apple, even though you think you’re gaining enlightenment. The strongest word underpinning every action of the Rajneeshees in Wild Wild Country to me is… immaturity. They behave like entitled children in this film. And it almost overnight became Lord of the flies.

Noa sites his astonishment, after some time relocated to Rajneeshpuram, at meeting outsiders who weren’t idiots, so much better than everyone else did his maroon community, the sanyassins, consider themselves. “Noa was amazed, when he did get out, meeting a friend of his mum’s for example, that she could be articulate and emotionally intelligent” says Wollaston. “I thought unless you were a sannyasin, that was impossible, you would just be a kind of drone” Noa said to him.

It is this conflict of outlooks that the documentary focuses on, as the quiet folk of little Antelope become increasingly intimidated by the followers of Osho and everything escalates to, well, utter craziness. But for me, that’s not the real story. Just a hook. And Noa Maxwell, right there at the time, exactly my own age, agrees.

“That is interesting, but the inside story is more interesting – of how you end up with lots of intelligent middle-class people like my family going into where they got to, the heart of darkness. How does that happen? It’s like an ideal is bigger than reality and can make you lose your sense of justice and what’s right in the world.”

For him, much was learned he says from a childhood without boundaries, but it took him a lifetime to work himself back together from it. But it’s Bhagwan himself he finds difficult now, compelling as he was.

“I think without doubt he was deeply culpable, guilty of neglect of his people and did massive damage to many of them.”

The injustices here are numerous and illustrative. For Noa’s mother, for him, for various members of the sect that might have felt robbed or blinded by such decontextual devotion to a bloke. A bloke with some enlightened ideas and human limitations. But the injustice triggering the whole conflict that undid the community at Rajneeshpuram by 1985 was essentially a blindness to the locals. For all its enlightenment, Rajneeshism was an old fashioned 20th century utopia – a childish clique, uninterested in the truth found oustide its own temples. A cosy club.

It made me think of Israel, at one point, because a phrase in common currency around the time of the Balfour Declaration was this: “A land with no people for a people with no land”. Implying to the locals of Palestine a mandate to self rule when Britain took over the region from the Ottomans during the first world war, the main aim was to help establish a new Jewish homeland and the two cultures collided in conflict at the founding of the modern state after the second world war. And the indignation of the locals, Arabs and others like the Bedouin, is still rooted today in the same basic problem – “You didn’t even recognise us as being there.”

“It was a ghost town” said the Rajneeshees of Antelope.

“Er, we were very actually here, actually” said the people of Antelope.

Ring any bells elsewhere too?

Yuh. It’s all a bit awks, isn’t it, but there were Americans living in the Americas for thousands of years before they were rebranded to the Americas. People positively native to the land, in fact. That generations of European immigrants to the contintent ignored and subjugated and plundered and infected and have barely said a single sorry for to this day. Like the powder keg of the Balkans in the 1990s, we should know by now that calmly neighbourly streets can become war zones fast when old wounds are not healed.

Recognition. The balm of justice, you might say. And recognition starts with brokering relationship.

The challenge is not simply to begin a just path in a conflict, though, is it. The challenge is to inculcate it – enshrine it in law. But wanting representation in law presupposes having any laws in the first place.

Who dispenses the law? Because someone surely has to, right?

Who the hell can we ever trust with that? Is it any wonder we picture somone as ruthless and autonomous as Judge Dredd doing it in the future?

 

CLAUSES AND EFFECTS.

Much of the issue of justice is simply about the law, of course – trying to simply maintain or even establish a proper rule of it across the world. Hardly a small task. The World Justice Project has codified the definition of such aims into four criteria any country must meet together in order to be on the right track, including:

1. The government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law.
2. The laws are clear, publicized, stable, fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
3. The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
4. Access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical adjudicators, attorneys or representatives, and judicial officers who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

To try to get a picture of how we’re doing planet wide on such lofty hopes, the WJP has developed an Index it measures constant research against, which: “Measures rule of law adherence in 113 countries and jurisdictions worldwide based on more than 110,000 household and 3,000 expert surveys.”

The picture isn’t currently encouraging, to get right to it.

“More countries’ overall rule of law score declined (34%) than improved (29%) as compared to their 2016 Index scores—a troubling trend” they say simply. “Thirty-seven percent of countries’ overall rule of law score remained the same.”

According to their modes of measurement, the greatest decline was in fundamental rights – your core freedoms of expression – in with 73 of the 113 nations declined, while the second greatest factor of decline was contraints on government, with 64 of these countries going backwards on that score.

In the Rule of Law charts, the Philipines were the biggest negative mover – dropping 18 positions. If this was purely an index of international diplomacy this would definitely ring bells as President Rodrigo Duterte is not exactly known for his tact. Praising Hitler’s genocide of the Jews would seem like the only indicator you really need here, but he’s joked about rape, called open season for murdering anyone linked to drugs and generally sworn at most of the rest of the world’s leaders. As both head of state and ruler of the government, he’s another potty-mouther of our times who seems to have appealed to voters with his ‘candour’. Which continues to tell you everything you need to know about the state of the world as things have been going.

But Duterte Harry has his hands as full as dirty. In an obsession with drug wars he essentially missed the mark on Islamic terrorism and lost the southern city of Marawi to seige for five months and now, aas the FCO puts it: “Martial law is in place across the whole of Mindanao” for the rest of the year while: “A ‘state of national emergency on account of lawless violence’ remains in place across the rest of the country.”

Political analyst Tony Lavina thinks Duterte is close to consolidating his role as a dictator. As he told German international broadcaster DW: “President Duterte governs like a mayor. There is no plan, no vision for long-term leadership. He relies on instinct and will act on triggers that will put his power in question”. Referring to how institutions like the Filipino Supreme Court were being undermined through the impeachment of the chief justice, he added simply: “A dictatorship never ends well.”

It’s boringly normal, isn’t it? Who is mad enough to run for highest office? Usually the basically mad.

Afghanistan, Cambodia and finally President Maduro’s Venezuela bottom out the top 113 as the worst countries on the list for law and order. And this is partly because this last country is so divided – the successor to the partly venerated late Hugo Chavez lacks his charisma and has lacked much of his oil money too, as barrel prices fell in recent years taking 95% of the country’s GDP downwards with it fast. Hyperinflation is so bad the country is in such regular food shortages Kellogg’s can’t even afford to make Cornlakes there any more. Rumour of coups are built on the idea that while old communists value the supposedly strong leadership of the United Socialist Party’s nearly twenty years in power over the central American state, the rest of the nation has felt it’s democracy eroded as the price. Now, all bets are off, as President Maduro calls a snap election for the end of May this year which everyone expects to be more heavily rigged than Alonso de Ojeda‘s caravel. So much so that even don of all things above board Forty Five is threatening Venezuela with oil sanctions.

At the other end of the chaos, you might not be surprised to learn that Finland, Norway and at the top Denmark lead the list of the most lawly and orderly Earth nations currently.

Such resilient progress can trigger old Remoaners like me to hanker after the halcyon days of turning a blind eye to the European Union’s bookish cronyism to just enjoy its lovely parks and cycle lanes. But whatever can be learned from socialist policies integrating with good business to create both good standards of welfare and decent opportunities, the tremours underneath the EU, that helped to shake the UK free of it, may be from some fundamental senses of injustice unaddressed.

 

VISAS AND WAVERS.

Nothing will test a politician like immigration. How to play the game to multiple human crowds? Ultimately, you pick a crowd that you hope will out number the other combined crowds at election time and muddle through a message you hope they’ll connect with. Usually based around some version of Bloody Foreginers, Eh.

But if there’s one thing we should be mentally limbering up to get used to more and more, it is migration. Because more and more of us are likely to be on the move in very inconveniently sudden numbers. Like a community arriving in the desert with an entire town overnight. Except not in the desert. In your suburb. Without the cheery maroon civil engineers to build all the new streets and plumbing.

Refugeeism is always a consequence of something. Well, I mean everything is a consequence of something, obviously, but let’s not get finicky – those streams of people are coming from somewhere, and for a reason. And they are, awkwardly enough, fellow people with stories.

The EU has, as part of the alliance of globalising nations, assisted in a number of pocket wars since I’ve been alive. Security is no lightweight bit of admin for leaders, trying to protect lots of corporate and voters’ interests. Fighting terrorism from global networks like Aal-Qaeda and laterly Daesh, the NATO and G-various security council nations have felt compelled to protect their economic visions of the future from the alien utopian dreams of such Islamist groups. Dreams to repulse and destroy ‘invading’ conqistadores and colonials who have, they feel, left destruction of every kind from their interactions with the region since the days of Empire. In the great caliphatic conflict they’ve been trying to unfold, it’s true that one side holds barbaric violence dearer to its ideology than the other, but the other does have an arms industry worth trillions kind of stoking the whole thing. Because, whatever vision you’re fighting for the whole thing ends up in blowing things up and shooting people in the end.

Out of wars, whether noble defenses of identity or righteous responses to attack, there always stream people fleeing the war zones. And from just one story of many on Earth at the moment, but a significant one to many nations, millions of people have streamed from Syria, displaced by drought, war and economic disaster. Millions of people crossing boundaries to escape death. Something so intense, who of us can keep up with its true emotional value?

There is one situation that I seem to glimpse frequently that hasn’t gone away, because of a loose connection I have with someone on Facebook. And she has been living on a front line for a few years of this conflict. A line that the EU draws in the sand of Greece’s beaches. Golden holiday destinations that have piled up with suffering and loss, amplifying injustices separating everyone involved from each other somehow.

Philippa Kempson and her family live on Lesbos. And as a foreign national to the island, she has been a target for abuse from some of the locals who feel overwhelmed with the tide of refugees washing up on their shores and swelling the transit camp, Moira, to bursting point. What Philippa feels, is frequently overwhelmed with the the helplessness of humanity.

Today, she posted this:

“I seem to pass everyday in a state of anger and disbelief! Just today 18 bodies were recovered from two separate boats sinking while trying to reach Greece!

The media, if they even bother to report it, will call them migrants. Like they are doing this out of choice, like some kind of package deal for people from OTHER places.

If they mention it they won’t mention the children cast into the darkness alone in the middle of the night! If they mention it they will not mention the terror these people have fled!

Everyday i get people saying to me that the crisis is over, that it is in someway ok now!! Well the children and families that die trying to get to safety every day cant tell you that it is not over, but the over 9000 people imprisoned on this island alone will tell you that this is not over!

These are humans, these are people, they have fathers and mothers, they have people who love them.

They have lives ahead of them that we have taken.
If they survive the sea then we take their dignity and their future!
If they survive the sea then we separate families and make it impossible to rejoin loved ones!
If the sea does not destroy them then they are destroyed on land!
Where is their safety?
Where is their future?
Where are their human rights?

The answer is simple i think, they do not have any of these because the world does not see them as human, as people!! At some point our privilege made us superior! Where we were born made us more human?

More questions than answers, more anger and disbelief…….

If we are going to tackle global injustice, we are going to have to tackle the way we are used to seeing the world. And the answer won’t be to run away to a cult for enlightenment, or finding new strongmen to worship. To rescue us. The answer will have to involve taking responsibility like adults for truly waking up. Waking up to how brainwashed we’ve been by our religious values – how trapped we are in the temple of our economics.

 

SEEING THE HOPEY CHANGEY BIT.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Article 1, of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. If you want hopey-changey, this is the founding document of modern times. Are you old enough to not take the very phrase Human Rights for granted? Or to even consider a world where this idea is not the touchstone for common values in the way we believe we are supposed to be treating each other?

It was published in Paris in 1948, after the formation of the United Nations, at the end of the second world war. Half a century of warring over ideologies had resulted in the genocide of the Jews, along with gypsy communites, the gay, the disabled and others by the Nazis – 6million people exterminated systematically, ideologically. And evidently enough global leaders trying to rebuild after all this, with horror-fatigued populations to care for, felt enough was enough. We needed some vision. Some hope, in the face of our awful apparent reality.

Interesting to consider where this might have come from, though. Not simply to imagine a world before there was something as basic seeming to liberal minds as a global human rights declaration. But to imagine people actually attempting to delineate any notion of truly human values in less ‘civilised’ times historically.

Well, I mean. How far back do you want to go? Voltaire? Shakespeare? Leonardo Bruni? Jesus? Aristotle? I dunno, the founders of Jainism? You’re already well past two and a half thousand years ago. Where do you want to stop?

The Human Rights library has a little dusty corner of the internet with an interesting way of putting a little perspective on it:

“Throughout much of history, people acquired rights and responsibilities through their membership in a group – a family, indigenous nation, religion, class, community, or state. Most societies have had traditions similar to the “golden rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Hindu Vedas, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, the Quran (Koran), and the Analects of Confucius are five of the oldest written sources which address questions of people’s duties, rights, and responsibilities. In addition, the Inca and Aztec codes of conduct and justice and an Iroquois Constitution were Native American sources that existed well before the 18th century. In fact, all societies, whether in oral or written tradition, have had systems of propriety and justice as well as ways of tending to the health and welfare of their members.”

If you think back to more ‘barbarian’ times, it’s tempting from your bean bag ordering organic tofu to imagine modernity invented decency. But humans actually seem to have long longed for a life free enough to potter around in the garden sometimes. Decency, values… they are quite relative to context and we can simply go blind to the ghastly things we live with every day around our higher hopes.

What dirty, unjust, sickness-inducing things do you just not notice every day living your life? Now, in the digitally driven 21st century.

Streets clogged with petrol and diesel engines? Streets lined with homeless? Plastic wrapped around absolutely everything we ever touch? Blowing around our streets and washing up on beaches all over the world. People, washing up on beaches. Garment factories in Bangladesh that you never see, making everything you ever wear? Paying its workers what? The conditions of animals bread in boxes as ‘products’ to grind into what you eat? Along with what preservatives and chemicals to make them look appetising and rot less quickly.  The culture of drink, turning everyone into meat and ordinary town centres into the flashes of hell from Event Horizon. Every Saturday. The culture of objectification, comodity, ownership? The mindset of something fueling so much sexual abuse in the shadows some police services can’t keep up. States of mind, outlooks, scanning strangers and reducing them to race, shape, class, and feeling violence rise before a word is exchanged. The pandemic of mental unwellness crippling millions, from childhood to old age. Children cutting themselves. Men cutting women. Young people strapping explosives to themselves in shopping malls.

Let’s face it, we barely take notice of the bin men.

Now go read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Its 30 articles might give you a new feeling about us. Reverence.

The blindnesses we have to ghastly things today are just part of being human. Of course they are – this isn’t you going to hell, it’s all of us. Because we have to emotionally edit or we’d go mad. I’ll be walking past people and not getting around to things until I die in my hypocracy. The practical challenge and – this is my point across our whole series – the unprecidented opportunity for humankind right at the doorstep of us, Generation Now, is to begin to tackle real justice for ourselves at last by beginning to put the world around us all together into our minds a bit more consciously. Ordinary, fatheaded, you and me. Ordinary suffering, lost-feeling you and me.

Now, I’m personally a typical secular modernist in lots of daily ways I don’t think about. I’m no hippy, and I’ve never properly yearned for nirvana – to be beamed out of all this fartiness into the cosmos. So, I’m not sure how soon I’m going to transcend and reach enlightenment; I’ve never quite comfortably lost myself among the happy clappers; I always wonder what they’re not telling me. But, I have had some unexpected spiritual experiences that have shaped my outlook, despite my natural spiritual indolence. I mean, that’s another book to write entirely – and probably only right at the end of a long life to hope to make much sense of it. But I do remember the first time I sat somewhere supposedly un-spiritual seeming and could quietly, suddenly imagine that scene happening in a more cosmic setting.

No, I hadn’t been smoking anything. I barely drank in those days.

And it was nothing dramatic. Don’t expect my memoirs to be interesting at all if they’re not the augmented version with extended alien abduction sequences. But at a nightclub in my student years, somewhere in middle England, the music just kind of filtered down in the mix a little in my perception and everything probably filmically went slo-mo too, while we’re doing this, and I could simply just imagine something divine over this ordinary, drearily hedonistic scene. Noisy beats, awkward dancing and sticky carpets alike. Nowhere is off-limits. Everything is connected. Whatever stories you personally may attach to the unseen to make sense of it.

Nothing is really happening in a box, whether made of acacia, cardboard or neurons.

The point being that the fresh breeze on your face when you leave the warmth of the revival hall prayers, or the communal ecstatic dancing and all the weirdness you realise you are missing and the moment where you actually feel you belong, feel peace… that fresh breeze doesn’t have to feel like it’s waking you up from a fantasy. It’s perhaps a good way to remember that the fantastical runs through every fibre of the cosmos., from the moments where you’re lost in worship to the moment you realise you’re lost on an industrial estate on a Tuesday afternoon with a wrong number from the depot. Or the moments you just feel lost. Your own beliefs – your own values – can kind of run through everything too, however you feel. I suppose it was a formative little moment when I was a lot younger, realising this. If love is love, it just is. However crap the scenery.

There’s a lot of light pollution blocking out the stars, but you bet they’re always there trying to remind you of the sheer scale of your context. Even staring across the benefits desk on a Monday morning. From whichever side.

I think for us today, our blindnesses to things – to people, in other words – they’re usually in some way linked to some aspect of one thing. Crappy 3D glasses we forget we’re wearing. Economics.

We don’t tend to listen to people with different levels of economic power to us, and we don’t tend to see the processes and people that bring us our symbols of prosperity, at whatever level. And, of course, it does seem like representation under law is often tied to who has the money – if only to afford the lawyers.

The regular drivers of not just lack of engagement but active crime are economic, of course. Around the world, income inequalities are staggering, but this isn’t only down to local pirate kings hoarding all the loot – it’s the uncomfortable regular fallout of the wider culture of, yep, you guessed it comrades, capitalism.

Pffft. I mean.

Where to start?

Talk Poverty invited thinking readers and writers to consider their own top ten solutions to fighting economic inequality a couple of years back and the resulting lists accord with various sensible things the UN might champion. And it’s all kinda socialist, with people repeating calls to dignifying, stabilising measures like raising minimum wages, supporting training and being prepared to invest in both infrastructure and just subsidising jobs to keep people employed. Y’know. The very opposite of the Forty Five administration’s business at the moment it seems, sending their clownish front man out to spout constant attention-grabbers while other work is done more quietly, as social action super group Anonymous featuring Noam Chomsky put it.

Now, of course, socialism doesn’t work, right? Well, it’s just that, the point of old socialism was to tackle a basic injustice in the working economic system – workers getting screwed over horribly. What the unions and the governments of the people purported to do was give that very central thing needed for fairness – representation. And millions of us seem to be losing what representation we had. I can’t help feeling we should be taking note of this kind of thing.

But, the old ping pong of left-right political jaw aches always bounces back to the unfairness of hand-outs. And of their propensity to lock people into need. And if this appears true at personal level, driving the repo van to pay friendly visits to the benefit scroungers every day, it rings uncomfortably true at international level too. No person, family or state should be depending on charity, surely.

Increasing developmental assistance to try to bring up flagging nations is no long-term plan. Quite apart from trying to guarantee the practically fair management and deployment of charity funding into desperate needs around the world, we all know it’s a dependency that doesn’t help develop independence for people or countries past the short term. Was the massively hopey-changey love-in of Live Aid, in reality, a bit of a disaster? And not just for your ears.

Well, few things are simple in the fallout, and you bet charities in general fill gaps of need, No, the real problem I think is with the way we value things generally.

To reduce income inequalities we’ll need to not simply promote much greater social inclusion and representation around the world, we’ll need to promote better ways of encouraging fairer values of everything. And everyone.

 

It all comes down to money, in the end. Everyone wanting to follow it. But this is just the way the world works, isn’t it? People who catch the money don’t care much about the people who don’t. How do we change that?

Across the episodes of Unsee The Future, I’ve been discovering themes. In our look at Health, we saw that so much of the unwellness of humans today is mental. It’s a pandemic, yes, of mental health problems that we are barely scratching the surface of addressing. Barely beginning to wake up to talking about honestly. While some are asking a little more consciously, is depression usually just a chemically induced experience? and finding research suggesting there’s not half as much evidence for it as the multi-million dollar big pharma companies suggest, whatever your management routine for your head, I think we’re all certainly having to manage our psychological contexts as well. And if there’s one word driving a lot of our disconnection, and our mental exersions – it might be expectations.

Our expectations of lifestyle are certainly feeding the Climate crisis, our less than healthy Food markets, our demand for Energy. But so many of the emotional expectations we labour under lead to the fundamental injustices of conflict between people around the world, driving the models of our Education and perhaps right at the heart of us, our stories of gender, as we saw in our last two episodes on Sexuality.

Context. We’re creatures of it. And, as evolved as we are to adapt and survive in some weird settings, perhaps the great crime against ourselves is allowing ourselves to build contexts for ourselves that are so debilitatingly, restrictively unbalanced. A world making us sick.

 

In many ways, we are products simply of our physical contexts. Which is why the pursuit of the smart city is no idle utopian white paper. Design lead thinking is going to save us from many daily things that are slowly killing us, because bad design tangles our minds as we try to interact with things. Good design, human-shaped design, smooths things out. Imagine more of your complex modern day smoothed out. Linked to a new level of the internet like the blockchain, this could actually encourage community political engagement and ever greater transparency, by making public information verifiably – incorruptably – easy to find. Which would essentially lead to greater emotional ownership of spaces – and of the ideas of places. Identities of who we are where we live. That’s so potentially powerful, we might even stop feeling we ever have to use the word brands again.

That is all trying to happen. Where technology meets human truth and can unlock it. The ultimate expression of this will be Doctor James Burke’s nano fabricators. Replicators, to you and me. It’s the basis of the Star Trek future for a good reason – once you can manipulate the sub atomic to make anything you need, the entire basis of competition disappears. Everyone has what they need.

But it’s like those health augmentations we half dream of and half fear that will prolong our mortality into superhuman lifespans – the real health of us will have to be developed long before we’ll be ready to drive that kind of upgrading of ourselves. Long before the technical advances to prolong life into absurd longevity, our aim should be to see our health improving across the globe because we have begun to change our holistic outlook. And similarly, we’ll crash the Earth’s ecosystem long before we develop replicators if we don’t first tackle the real psychology at work in our lives – why we want things.

Competition is the energiser of the markets that have made us rich. But has it also made us sick? Are our economics like an addiction? We know why we went there, but we have to go to rehab now. We have to begin a new life on the other side of the semi-colon. A life that bears the fruit of child self harming becoming a thing of the past, violence against women disappearing, suicide rates dropping, rates of heart disease and stroke coming down noticeably in A&Es and GP surgeries.

At the heart of the UN’s Global Goals is a truth of us. A broken human mindset, driving all the problems the goals tackle. And surrounding that mindset is the flip side of the coin – the instinct to come up with grand plans to make our lives better. There is our cause for hope – the SDGs remind us that we are creatures who fashion it. Hope.

Fanning out as symptoms of that broken story of us, blinding us, our global problems are stoked it seems to me by our expectations. A mindset driven enormously by ideas of masculinity and femininity above all, perhaps. Leading to great injustices across the scales of our living as we deal with the greatest injustice of all.

Comparison. Is that the great injustice? Is the great cause to shift our mindset from trying to keep up with each other to trying to lift each other up? Recognition of each other – because we learn to recognise what we ourselves have too.

Perhaps the most interesting dynamic to consider in the human sense of justice is not our ability to switch off our humanity when we’ve shouted enough about our own wounds and pride, but how we can FEEL a cause for someone else. Empathy. Feeling it. For someone else. It’s like a magic web connecting us with hope everywhere.

Whether any higher being will ever be capable of judging humankind is a mystery. But it’s interesting to imagine why they are there in our myths, stretching back millennia. In the pantheon of gods and superheroes wrestling with our worthiness to be saved, the great judgement of us is really the great opportunity. To stand not in the dock but at the judge’s table, and ask ourselves: “When did we see the best of us hungry, naked, ashamed and turn you away? When we did it to the least of us.”

It’ll take more than great speeches. Or pompous podcasts. But if we’re going to play to anything, it should surely be the gallery – in the great exhibition of us, it will be new ways of seeing that save us from condemnation. It will be art that helps us truly justify ourselves. Perhaps most especially, the art of listening. Because this may help us finally begin to recognise ourselves.

That could change what we even want. And that could change everything.

DISCOVER THE UN’S GOAL FOR PEACE, JUSTICE AND STRONG INSTITUTIONS >

DISCOVER THE UN’S GOAL FOR REDUCED INEQUALITIES >

READ THE UN DECLARATION ON HUMAN RIGHTS >

 

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