Society & culture

Why dirt and risk are good

Within a single generation, our attitude towards children has gone from “go out and don’t come back until it’s dark” to gated children’s playgrounds, chauffeur driven play-dates and a list of officially decreed ‘dangers’ facing children. We have shifted from slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails to iPods, mobile phones and playstations in less than fifty years.

You think I’m kidding? There is a DVD compilation of the best of Sesame Street (1969-1974) featuring a warning stating that the DVD is “For adult viewing only”. Why? Because it contains scenes now considered inappropriate for children. We are living in what is undoubtedly the safest time for children in recorded history, yet we protect our kids from germs, grazed knees and broken bones like never before.  But what about ‘stranger danger’? Warwick Cairns, a researcher in the UK has calculated that one would have to leave a young child on a pavement for 600,000 years before it became statistically probable that the child would be abducted by a stranger.

Why are adults so afraid? Why, for instance, did the number of children walking to school in Australia drop from 37% in 1985 to 26% in 2001? And why does a UK company, Thudguard, produce protective foam helmets for children learning to walk? Another company sells ‘Comfy Crawlers’, a product designed to protect the knees of crawling infants. The reason for this anxiety is a sensation-seeking media plus a growing culture of litigation, in which non-parental educators and caregivers are fearful of liability for any accident or injury, no matter how tiny.

But what if removing risk were making life more dangerous? For example, could removing ‘dangerous’ playground equipment from public areas be doing children more harm that good? What if our zero-tolerance of risk is making life riskier in the longer-term by shifting risk into early adulthood?  David Eager, a Professor of Engineering at Sydney University, makes this claim. For example, if you make playground equipment too safe, kids get bored and start using the equipment in unintended ways so more serious accidents occur.

Moreover, children learn through discovery, much of it physical. It is through trial and especially error that kids find out what works and what doesn’t, and appreciate the limits and risks.  If risks are removed at an early stage, then individuals do not grow up with an appreciation of risky behaviour. They become so protected, they only learn the important lessons much later in adult life when the world around them is less forgiving. They become brittle young adults who lack confidence to do anything on their own and lack resilience also.

Here is another problem: if parents attempt to ignore risk they are increasingly accused of being bad parents. They could even be reported to childcare authorities. But perhaps things are starting to change. The publication of The Dangerous Book for Boys a few years ago was, in my opinion, a reaction to this over-protective urge. Similarly, the tide is turning on attitudes to dirt. We are starting to realise that being too clean is unhealthy and detergent manufacturers are tapping into this sentiment by shifting slogans from “whiter than white” to "dirt is good”.

Ref: The Australian (Aus) 3-4 October 2009, ‘Fragile: Do not expose to life’ by Christine Jackman. See also
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Search words: children, risk, Sesame Street DVD, playgrounds, adult life, tolerance, litigation.
Trend tags: Anxiety, risk

The Search for Happiness

There is a quote from Richard Eckersley, an Australian social commentator, who describes young people as “the miners’ canaries of our society, acutely vulnerable to the peculiar hazards of our times”. Eckersley notes that detachment, alcohol and drug abuse, and youth suicide are early warning signs that the felt experience of the modern age lacks cohesion and meaning. While most peoples’ lives have improved on many levels, most of these improvements have been physical or material. As a result, life has become unbalanced. There is an imbalance between work and life, individual and community, liberty and equality, the economy and the environment, and between physical and mental health.

This is not to claim that life is simple or safe. Technological change will continue to drive complexity and volatility. Risks will continue to exist. But if our social relationships and aspirations are grounded and directed, we can cope with them. This brings us to ideas, especially political ideas. It is becoming increasingly clear that our obsession with basic economic indicators (GDP, employment, income etc) has been at the expense of other factors that affect our overall quality of life.

One factor is mental health, barely captured by traditional economic indicators. Moreover, while everyone knows individual, community, and planetary wellbeing are important, these issues have not shared equal importance with economic growth and personal consumption so far. One argument goes that the pursuit of happiness (referred to as the “wellbeing agenda”) is nothing more than self-indulgent navel gazing by people who no longer have to face direct physical threats. There is also criticism that happiness has been appropriated by commercial interests that would like to turn it into just another consumer or lifestyle product.

I think there’s some truth to both these arguments. Nevertheless, we are entering a period of constrained economic growth and this will turn the spotlight onto the question of who we individually and collectively want to be. Thus, populist economic arguments will need to be tempered by consideration of fairness, sustainability and community wellbeing.

What most people ultimately want is fairly straightforward. They want support and respect from family and friends, meaningful work, enough money, freedom from violence and abuse, and a community that cares for everyone. People also want, in my opinion, a shared vision of where society is heading. Deliver all these things and happiness is a natural by-product.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 18-20 December 2009, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ by Geoff Gallop.
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Search words: happiness, economy, wellbeing, GDP, meaning, suicide, consumption, mental health.
Trend tags: Happiness

The Future of Oil (Part 1)

Thinking about the future of oil is hardly anything new. Indeed, it was Royal Dutch Shell that effectively invented the idea of scenario planning in the 1960s as a way for business to engage with the future way. However, the recent globalisation of demand for oil, climate change as a political issue, recent price volatility, and the search for new energy technologies have all combined to once again make oil a very hot topic from a future gazing point of view.  Most oil talk is about alternative energy sources. The fact remains, in 2030, we will still rely on oil for around 30% of our energy needs and the world will get at least 75% of its energy from oil, coal and gas.

Relatively new is the globalisation of demand for oil. Between 2000 and 2007, 85% of the growth in demand for oil came from developing nations, most notably China and India. Moreover, this demand isn’t going away, which could lead to international tensions, especially between the US and China. This might sound far-fetched, but remember that this scenario does have historical precedence – rivalry between the UK and Germany ended with the outbreak of WW1.

In all probability, the US and China will get along harmoniously because the US export market is vital to Chinese interests. Similarly, the US needs Chinese savings to finance its own economy. Oil isn’t even the most important resource issue for China and the US – it’s coal – and both countries share a common interest in developing new clean energy technologies that reduce emissions. They also share a common interest in finding alternatives to oil to lessen their dependence on foreign oil-producing nations. Both nations must invest in alternative technologies, but these technologies will have to work on a massive scale to be viable. Moreover, the levels of support (investment, subsidies and petro-dollar flows) could create another bubble.

As for peak oil, this type of thinking tends to become newsworthy when oil markets are tight and prices are rising rapidly. For example, in 2008, predictions about the imminent end of oil helped to push the oil price up to $US147 a barrel, although it fell to $US32, less than 12 months later. This was the fifth time the world had entered peak oil (first in 1880s, last in 1970s). Perhaps, there lies a lesson. The oil business has always been a new technology business and has repeatedly overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers with unexpected technical breakthroughs and discoveries. Oil is undoubtedly running out but there are still massive reserves left and, if we decide to use it more wisely, what’s left will last for a very long time indeed.

Ref: Foreign Policy (US) September/October 2009, ‘It’s still the one’ by Daniel Yergin.
See also The Prize by Daniel Yurgin
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Search words: peak oil, barrel, reserves, markets, US, China, globalisation, alternative energy, climate change.
Trend tags: Resource shortages, sustainability

Pessimism, prophecy and the year that nothing changed

Have you heard the bees are buzzing off? We are all going to starve because there won’t be sufficient bees to pollinate our food crops! Scaremongering. First, this prophesy extrapolates regional trends in the US and Western Europe, where bee numbers are declining. But globally, bee numbers have increased by about 45% over the past five years. Second, while 70% of food crops are pollinated by animals such as bees and hoverflies, most of our food staples (wheat, rice, corn etc) are wind- or self-pollinated. In fact, if bees completely died out, we would only lose 4-6% of our food supply. So why the yearning for catastrophe, self-flagellation and Armageddon?

Our yearning for the world to end is nothing new. Forty years ago, Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, predicted a global crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, due to overpopulation. The prediction was spectacularly wrong, not because the world’s population didn’t expand, but because the world’s food supply unexpectedly increased. Nevertheless, the doomsayers are once again in the ascendant.

If it’s not bees then it’s the imminent collapse of capitalism (eg, greed and stupidity will be instantly replaced by collaboration and compassion), the total collapse of investment banking, a global swine flu pandemic, rogue asteroids, or politician expenses bringing down parliamentary democracy. Oh, and let’s not forget climate change too.

Even the futurists are at it. John Petersen of the Arlington Institute writes in Futurist magazine: “huge, extraordinary global trends…are converging to precipitate a historic big transition event”. Indicators of big change ahead include collapsing of the global financial system, the beginning of the end of petroleum, global climate change, and food inflation.

I’d agree that food might get expensive once again but, in each of these cases, I believe we will adapt. The entire system is not collapsing anymore than consumerism is dead. I agree with Petersen that globalisation is starting to unravel in the sense that countries are starting to pull back from cooperation to protect their own interests, especially their resources.

To date, not a single one of the predicted doomsday scenarios in the past few centuries has ever happened. It is highly unlikely that we are at any kind of tipping point in human affairs. The recession (the fourth since the 1980s) has come and gone in most parts of the world and, on almost all valid measures (e.g. infant mortality, malnutrition, illiteracy and poverty) the world’s people have never had it so good. Of course there are problems, but perhaps it’s time to start worrying about evaporating optimism.

Ref: Various including: The Spectator (UK) 31 October 2009, ‘It wouldn’t matter if all the bees died’ by Rod Liddle  See also The Futurist (US) September/October 2009, ‘Prepare for life as we don’t know it’, by John Petersen. and The Age (Aus) 27 January 2009, ‘Isn’t all this talk of an apocalypse getting a bit boring?’, by Chris Berg. and The Australian (Aus) 5 May 2009, ‘Hot air doomsayers’ by Ian Plimer Wired (UK), 19 November 2009, ‘Hysteria obscures the stuff we should really be worrying about’ by Russell Davies.
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Search words: bees, doomsayers, predictions, population, food supply, consumerism, recession, optimism.
Trend tags: Anxiety, connectivity

The Future of Oil (part 2)

In its recent ‘Oil Issue’, Foreign Policy magazine featured an excellent piece entitled Seven Myths about Alternative Energy that neatly summarised the new energy technologies that might make a difference and some myths - those that could cause a few unexpected problems in the future. The first myth was that the world should do everything possible to promote alternative energy. Too much emphasis on new ideas, such as hydrogen cars and cold fusion, could shift attention away from other ideas that are cheaper and more readily achievable.

The second myth is that renewable fuels are the answer to our oil addiction. This is demonstrably untrue. Biofuels, for example, are good except for the fact that the cure is often worse than the disease. Using crops to make fuel soaks up carbon while growing, but they also displace existing vegetation. Growing fuel crops on unused industrial land is fine, but more often than not we cut down virgin forest to plant fuel crops. Moreover, subsidies given to biofuel farmers offer a financial incentive to cut down the forests. Biofuels also push up food prices, causing starvation, while a tank of ethanol used to fuel a typical SUV could feed a person for a year.

The third myth is, while today’s biofuels are not the solution, tomorrow’s biofuels will be. This is unlikely. All kinds of plants can be used to make fuel, but again, they still require good agricultural land. A better solution is simply to change demand. Get people to use less fuel, use more fuel-efficient technologies, or remove the need for fuel from some activities altogether. For instance, promote public transport, encourage more people to walk and cycle, and get them to dry their clothes on a clothesline, rather than in a drier.

Myth four is nuclear. While nuclear power is a serious alternative to oil (the US currently generates around 20% of its energy from nuclear power plants; France generates almost 80%), nuclear power plants are staggeringly expensive. They are also dangerous and there is the risk that nuclear material gets into the hands of those it shouldn’t.

Myth five is there is no magic silver bullet for the energy crisis. Rubbish! Simply turning things off or not using certain items (increasingly referred to as ‘Negawatts’) could make an enormous difference. According to the US Department of Energy, global electricity demand will rise 77% by 2030. Yet simply designing fuel-efficient devices, factories, and cars (and buying smaller cars) could reduce demand by 20-33%. For instance, only 96% of the energy required to light a light bulb is totally wasted. But changing how we use energy is not straightforward because utility companies make more money by selling more energy.

The argument that we need a technology revolution to save the planet is not necessarily true. Energy conservation and efficiency could reduce consumption considerably, as could attitudinal and behavioural changes. For instance, if it’s getting cold, put on some more clothes instead of turning the central heating on. If you want to look at some photographs, ditch the digital photo frame and look at some images printed on paper instead.

Ref: Foreign Policy (US) ‘Seven myths about alternative energy’, by Michael Grunwald.
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Search words: oil, biofuels, attitudes, alternative energy, nuclear, demand, “negawatts”, food prices, behaviour.
Trend tags: Sustainability, resource shortages

How green energy could reshape the world

Some people believe green energy will save the planet. This might be true. But green energy could also create a number of new geopolitical risks. For example, electric cars are good (if the electricity comes from clean or renewable sources, but usually doesn’t), but the widespread adoption of electric vehicles could spark fierce competition for lithium (used in batteries). Seventy five percent of lithium is found in two countries that have historically been antagonistic towards each other (Bolivia and Chile).

Water scarcity is another by-product of green energy. Currently over a billion people do not have access to clean water and this could worsen if demand for biofuels (that require water) increases substantially. Even hybrid cars use water because the power to run them generally comes from water-cooled power plants. Similarly, silicon requires large amounts of water to produce. Nuclear-powered desalination plants? That’s one solution, but it’s all a bit chicken and egg.

One thing is for certain. Oil states will rise in influence and decline at the same time. They will rise because higher prices will make them even richer (cue the acquisition of foreign assets, triggering nationalism and protectionism), but they will be in long-term decline. This could trigger succession struggles in Saudi Arabia or the geographic expansion of Russia, as it attempts to offset demographic decline and dwindling energy reserves. Buckle up folks, we are in for a bumpy ride into the future.

Ref: Foreign Policy (US) ‘”Is a green world a safer world?” Not necessarily.
A guide to the green geopolitical crises yet to come’ by David Rothkopf.
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Search words: lithium, water, oil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, nuclear, biofuels, electric cars, Bolivia, Chile, geopolitics.
Trend tags: Power shift Eastwards

Experts and the professionalisation of everyday life

It is generally accepted that one feature of the modern era is the declining influence of experts. We no longer trust institutions, we possess more critical instincts, and deference is dead. But is it? Another feature of modern society is that politics has become ‘evidence based’, in other words, informed by expert opinion and advice. Policy formation has been like this for a long time, but providing specialist advice has become politicised: experts are frequently used to shut down public debate.

A good example is the way experts have begun to colonise the private sphere. It is now widely believed, within government circles at least, that individuals cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs without guidance from officially sanctioned experts and specialists. So we live in an era of personal trainers, life coaches, mentors and relationship counsellors. Child rearing, personal relationships, and education, for instance, are seen as a science. The ideas and thoughts of ‘ordinary people’ are given very little airtime. This is despite the fact that the history of child-rearing, education and relationships is littered with short-lived fads, none of which proved to have any long-term value.

Using experts in this manner is a form of undemocratic authority. Experts can hide behind a wall of specialist silence. Experts are accountable to nobody and they can also use the argument that the complexity of the issue (e.g. climate change) prevents ‘ordinary people’ from having a say. But this is disciplinary insularity. Since the Renaissance, idea and insights (progress if you like) have depended upon individuals who are not experts: people who transcend individual domains and specialisation to see the bigger picture.

Ref: Australian Literary Review/The Australian (Aus) 2 September 2009,
‘Specialist Pleading’ by Frank Furedi.
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Search words: specialisation, experts, ideas, democracy, authority, policy formation, debate, ordinary people.
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Big ideas for 2010

Wired Magazine recently published a list of big ideas for 2010. Some ideas were just plain silly, but some others were curious. First was neurosecurity.  Since neural implants can now be used to treat Parkinson’s disease or to control computers, wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs, surely human brains (or the implanted devices that control them) could be open to unauthorised access. This hacking could be short or long-term manipulation (harder to detect) and changes to neural signalising.

The second big idea was online sentiment monitoring. The idea of finding out what people are doing right now (e.g. Twitter) is old hat. What if you could find out how people are feeling right now? Websites, such as Moodviews and Evri, claim to do something similar but it will be interesting to see how this idea develops. Third, bionic noticing is the idea that mobile devices can “light up our surroundings” by overlaying tags on the real world.

Last, since everything captured digitally can potentially live on forever, digital forgetting allows us to obliterate mistakes or past embarrassments. A possible consequence of a world that never forgets is high risk aversion, so perhaps we will start designing systems that are engineered to forget. Other ideas include networked drugs (pharmaceuticals containing electronic parts that can be ingested), printable buildings, wireless charging and transparency mania.

Ref: Wired (UK) 2 November 2009, ’25 Big ideas for 2010 (various contributors) See also Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger.
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Search words: bionic, digital forgetting, Twitter, online sentiment
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The end of shame

Have I gone totally mad? The New Yorker (an excellent magazine normally) recently featured a series of portraits of well-known dictators. The photographer, called simply Antoniou, shot (I wish) the likes of Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez, Muammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Leon Wieseltier observed, writing in the New Republic, this was an exercise in stylised neutrality and displayed a wilful indifference to who these men are and what they represent.

What’s next? A glowing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art on the architecture and uniforms of Nazi Germany?  There are two explanations for these series of photographs. Either the photographer does not really know who these men are (shame on him) or he believes evil is a meaningless concept in a postmodern world. These are simply leaders (quite possibly misunderstood) who need to be dealt with, so why not give them a little camera time? This is dangerous territory.

Ref: The Australian (Aus) 26-27 December 2009. ‘Facile face of brutality’, by Leon Wieseltier. See also
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Search words: photography, leaders, dictators, New Yorker, Antoniou
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