Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Past Futures

A hundred years ago, my great-grandfather directed and starred in a silent film version of Humanity, based on his hugely successful stage show. Here he is looking suitably melodramatic


In 1915 he starred in The Monkeys Paw.  This was the film version of a play he had produced in the West End that itself was an adaptation of a ghost story. In it, a poor middle-aged couple are given three wishes via the power of an ancient and sinister monkeys paw. They wish for £200. Their son is killed in a gruesome industrial accident at work and they are offered compensation – of £200. They wish for to him come back to them without thinking what that would actually mean...

I have no idea what my great-grandfather’s film is like or his stage show but I rather like the 1902 W.W Jacobs short story that they are based on. Its setting was modern for its time and there is a subtle undercurrent of social inequalities caused by the introduction of industrial technology – technology that is also the immediate cause of the son’s death. Mostly though, it is an effectively spooky ghost story that has antecedents in all manner of fairy tales. And like all good fairy tales, the message is: be careful what you wish for. Beware the unintended consequence.

In The Monkey’s Paw and similar fairy tales, attempting to control the future is seen as foolhardy. It taps into a number of human fears some of which are about making the wrong choices (and for the wrong reasons) and  some are about what the future may hold.

Fear of the future very often taints how we think about climate change.  The issue is very often simplified into polarised opposites; the change is either happening or it’s not. And if it is happening – be afraid, we’re all going to burn! To put it another way, this climate-changed future is often presented as a single option that should be avoided or forestalled rather than a series of possibilities to be navigated.

However, even if you accept that the future is something to be navigated, how do we do that? In trying to answer that question, policymakers have to look into the future to what some of those possibilities might be and then create achievable goals that make sense for  those possibilities. They have to imagine a viable future.

This sounds abstract and only really starts to make sense when it is made tangible - and tangible in a human, social and psychological context. Art and culture should be ideally placed to mediate this; to help imagine the future.

However, imagining-the-future, that is, prediction, in the arts is a relatively recent invention. Before William Morris’ 1890 News from Nowhere, most utopias (or dystopias) were set elsewhere or in the past rather than in the future.

This reluctance to engage in prediction in Western art and culture may be related to religion as attempting to know the future was often viewed as sinful or even of being in league with the devil.  In any case, the predominant view (up until Darwin) was that life on earth is an inevitable journey to Judgement Day.  Thus, there are artistic representations of the approved version of the future (e.g. the Apocalypse) but not much else.  A slightly eccentric exception to this rule is Hubert Robert’s 1796 Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins

Since 1890, there has of course been all manner of creative imaginings of the future. But, as has been said many times before, nothing is as old fashioned as yesterday’s future.

Full Image 

And how helpful are they? In the first Men in Black film, there’s a scene where Tommy Lee Jones talks about the alien technology that is about to become part of our future. He holds up a miniscule “mini-CD” saying this is going to be the basis for the next generation of music-playing systems. Of course being made in 1997 the makers of the film hadn’t foreseen the forthcoming digital revolution.

Like other “predictions” the Men in Black mini-CD example assumes that the future is an extension of the present whilst (understandably) not predicting the revolutions or events that genuinely change everything.

If policy is “imagining a viable future,” how do policymakers avoid the trap of imagining an “out-of-date future”? And how do they avoid the unintended consequence - the monkey paw effect.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the UK government had a roads policy known as “Predict and Provide.” As the name suggests, predicted car journeys were extrapolated from current numbers. Roads – particularly motorways - were then planned to provide “enough roads” for the predicted number of car journeys.


This policy was somewhat flawed.

It conflated a policy objective (the provision of “enough” roads) with the strategy for achieving that objective and didn’t consider the possibility that “enough” might become too many.

Even on its own terms it was flawed because car journeys were extrapolated from existing ones without realising that car ownership and the average car journey length were going to dramatically increase. More importantly it didn’t take into account that the creation of motorways made traveling easier - thus further increasing demand for roads; a sort of feedback loop. The strategy for achieving the (flawed) policy objective was itself flawed.

Like the makers of Men in Black, the policy-makers imagined that the future was an extension of the present and created a policy that wasn’t flexible enough to allow for unexpected change – such as the need for sustainable resource-usage that we face today. It didn’t imagine a viable future; it had an unintended monkey-paw consequence…
So much for macro-politics, what of cultural policy?

Ten years after Men in Black, in 2007, Nicholas Stern had just published his Review on the Economics of Climate Change and Alistair McGowan, Actor and WWF Ambassador said: "Every actor wants their name in lights - it's great to think those lights will be energy efficient. I'm thrilled by this news and hope other industries (high profile or not) will follow suit".

In my next post I will write about what news he was talking about; my involvement with it and what, (if any), difference it made to what was the future in 2007 - that is, today.

At least it’s my prediction that I will write that…

Most people know that when Harold Macmillan was asked what is the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied “Events, dear boy, events.” What is less well known is that he went on to say “You make your mark as a statesman by your ability to control events.”

I like the sentiment it expresses, although I think “control” is a strong – dare I say, optimistic – word. Although, to be fair to Macmillan, I take him to mean in this context, “respond positively.” However it would be a brave politician who would say “I am not always able to control events, but I am able to respond positively.”

The use of “control” in this context is interesting; everyone likes to have a degree of control over their lives and a lack of it on a personal level can be deeply disempowering or worse.

Just after I started writing this post, Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast of America and Mayor Bloomberg wrote “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Albeit briefly, mentioning climate-change was not seen as vote-loser.

What I find fascinating is that it has taken an “event” that represented an all-too-tangible vision of a future, uncontrollable on a personal level that led a call for “action;” for politicians to try to exert control.

I don’t think, as some do, that Sandy tipped the election; but for a while, the issue placed Romney and his team on the side of the Men in Black’s mini-CD. His vision of the future was based on an extension of the past. It did not accept that the unchecked use of fossil fuels is wishing on a monkeys paw. It did not accept that uncertainty, events and revolutions can change everything.

Copy of orginal published script from 1903 prodcution on my desk

Monday, 15 October 2012

Reasons to be cheerful

In Season 4 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Buffy is brought back from the dead by her friends who believe her to be suffering torments in hell. One of the pivotal moments is during an episode where the town is under an enchantment that turns everything into a song-and-dance number. As in all good musicals, the songs display the characters’ innermost feelings and secrets, and Buffy reveals that she had not in fact been in hell - but in a place where there was “no pain, no fear, no doubt; a place of comfort and love.”  Heaven, no less. For her, it is the hard and violent “real” world that is Hell.

Despairing, near suicidal, she is pulled back from the brink by the (sung) insight that
Life’s not a song.
Life isn’t bliss.
Life is just this:
It’s living.
You have to go on living

The whole season is about dealing with becoming an adult and understanding what it is that makes life worth living. The question of what – if anything – makes life worthwhile is a recurring theme (albeit not usually with vampires) through the ages from Seneca’s line: "merely to live is an act of courage” to Hamlet to Dorothy Parker’s poem Resumé:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

In Buffy’s case, though, the stakes are raised beyond that of the fate of one individual – her dilemma is bound up with the fate of the whole world; indeed the personal drama becomes, quite literally, that of the world. It’s a psychologically perceptive metaphor: we all exist in own individual universe and personal calamity does often feel like the end of the world.

I was reminded of this direct link between individual, personal choices and those of the planet a few nights ago when I was watching the excellent and moving Lungs. It’s an intense, moving and frequently funny two-hander with recognisable people trying to navigate the complexities of a modern-day relationship. They start to question whether having a baby is a responsible, ethical choice since doing so leaves a carbon footprint as big as flying back and forth to New York every day for seven years.

As the late, Eric Hobsbawm wrote, a hundred years ago the idea of global peril was beyond imaginative conception. At that time, mass casualties of man-made calamities were numbered in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands. The horrors of the Congo Free State that shocked so-called civilised society and inspired Heart of Darkness were modest in scale by modern standards.


The millions dead and wounded during the industrial slaughter of the First World War were such a profound shock to the psyche of the human species that they effectively put an end to the civilised assumption of “inevitable human progress” of the preceding hundred years.

The rest of the Twentieth Century only accelerated this trend of expanding scale of destruction. The word “genocide” was coined in 1944. Three years later Stalin chillingly said that “one death is a tragedy; one million a statistic.” And by that time the world was living with the possibility of nuclear war and today is still coming to terms with the concept of global peril.

Since 1945 as the global population has mushroomed, paradoxically, in Western culture at least, the prominence of the individual has risen. One consequence, perhaps, of this apparent contradiction is the rise of the popular trope of one person “saving the world.”


The last few years have seen the world become ever more-connected. Now, for the first time in human history, we are aware of the combined impact of our individual choices on the fate of a fragile world. This awareness can become paralysing.

It is this paralysis that Lungs explores as the couple try to focus on the possible hastening of the end of the planet as a way of assessing whether to take the very human decision of having a child. This is not a polemical piece (unlike, say, the recent Ten Billion at The Royal Court) and the play works because these debates come out of the narrative situation and drive it forward rather than placing them centrally.

On the same day as seeing the play, I had a meeting with an arts organisation and we were discussing what they were doing in terms of Environmental Sustainability. The Executive Director made the point that there is a conflict between much of what they could do and its affordability, citing the example of the high cost of sustainably sourced timber for set construction.

This dilemma is in a similar territory as that of the play. What does it actually mean to be good? How much is enough? I think this taps into a certain viewpoint that can be characterised as “hair-shirt.” That is, we (particularly in the developed world) have got to “give up” up unsustainable habits and change our behaviours. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in these discussions is the suggestion that to be “good” - to be responsible citizens - we need to renounce the world and live as hermits.

As well as being a bit depressing, this can also be counterproductive – most of us are not capable of doing that; therefore, the thinking goes, anything less is an empty, futile gesture so there’s no point in doing anything at all.

Generally, the framework within which these issues are considered is very often in such polarised “either/or” terms: Utopia/ Dystopia; extinction/ no change; become a hermit/ don’t do anything.

Personally, I find this, whilst understandable, very unhelpful. It’s not a question of choosing between one option or the other. Yes, we need to conduct our lives in a better fashion, more in tune with the warp and weft of the world we inhabit; but surely we would all like to do that? Exploring the possibilities of what that might mean I think is hugely exciting.

In the Pixar film, Wall-E, Earth has been rendered near uninhabitable by a man-made ecological disaster. Humankind has departed in a luxury spaceship hoping that the planet will be cleaned up by the robots left behind. Over generations, cossetted and pampered, humans have lost the ability to do much at all – even walking. When the Captain of the ship discovers all that has been lost on Earth (especially dancing!) he wants to go back. He is stopped by the Autopilot that tells him that the only worthwhile thing left to do is to “survive”. The Captain replies with the memorable cri de coeur “I don’t want to survive! I want to live!!”

The Captain has a reason, a motivation for “living.” What is common to the sentiments of Buffy, Lungs, and Wall-E is that “living” is much more than just existing and that there is a reason behind wanting to “live”. In the case of Lungs, it is linked specifically to creating and nurturing of another life. I don’t think it is reading too much into the play to infer that the immersion in the waters of life – in this case, the joy, wonder and love that comes with parenthood – are powerful reasons for living. And powerful reasons for living can mean powerful reasons for exploring ways of conducting that life that - in the words of Bruntland - “meets the needs of the present without compromising the life of future generations.”

I think this gives courage, perseverance and even hope. It helps make sense of our endeavours. As Ruskin observed, it is not what we get, but what we become by our endeavours that make them worthwhile.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Feeling Reasonable?

Easter Island, which I wrote about in my last post, is the most isolated inhabited island in the world. Its nearest inhabited neighbour, 1300 miles to the west, is Pitcairn Island. By a coincidence, I recently attended a read-through of a new play called “Pitcairn” by Richard Bean (he of One Man, Two Guvnors). It’s a powerful piece and I hope it makes its way into production, as planned, in 2014.

The play tells the events following the mutiny on the Bounty when Christian Fletcher and his men landed on that island and tried to set up a “paradise” republic. The munity occurred in 1789, also the year of the French Revolution, and right in the middle of a period of European political and social revolution that included the American and Haitian Revolutions and saw the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This period is usually known as The Enlightenment and its achievements were celebrated in Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemming’s Paralympics Opening Ceremony.

According to The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, one of the central tenets of The Enlightenment is that “Reason is man's [or woman’s] central capacity, and it enables him no only to think, but to act, correctly.” We usually think of this period as the beginning of our supposedly rational modern world and, as a result, probably most of us today like to think that we are able to make decisions and judgements on the basis of rationality and reason.

It is something of a paradox, therefore, that it was the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume who observed that Reason is subordinate to the Passions. This old insight has proved remarkably robust and one which has been extensively tested, explored and confirmed by modern-day psychologists. Modern day political tacticians talk about the “reason of voters riding into battle on the elephant of intuition” and they advise that politicians “talk to the elephant.” In other words, to “sell” a political idea, you need to appeal to people’s deep-seated values and biases.

Common Cause, a report from 2010 sponsored by WWF, Friends of the Earth and others explores the implications of these insights for those working in the climate change field. Although it is rather dense in places (I was glad for example that I already had some understanding of cognitive science), it is an intriguing and often compelling read. It quotes the scientist George Lakoff who specifically highlights the danger of utilising “Enlightenment Reason” - that is, that “if only people are made aware of the facts and figures, they should naturally reason to the right conclusion. Voter should vote their interest…. [However] Voters don’t behave that way. They allow bias, prejudice and emotion to guide their decisions; they argue madly about values, priorities and goals.”

The report makes the point that if facts don’t support a person’s values and their sense of self-identity, “the facts bounce off”.

There is supposed to be a Saami tribe in Finland who believe that anyone wearing white clothing whilst observing the Northern Lights will be snatched away by the spirits. They believe this even whilst showing the lights to white-clothed (non-snatched) tourists.

The report goes on to quote the cognitive scientist Dan Kahan “The prevailing approach [in trying to influence the public about climate change] is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then… [confronting them with this data] is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence”

So if we do want to influence people’s behaviour, how do we work with (and not against) people’s values and attitudes? How do we harness “passion” and strong positive feelings; how do we engage with people’s values? The report has some interesting things to say on this and I hope to return to this subject again.

Meanwhile, for those of you who, like me, have to attend work meetings, ask yourself what do you remember from meetings – particularly those that have had a positive (or negative) impact? You almost certainly won’t remember what other people said; you might remember some of what you said; but what you will remember – long after the event – is how you felt. There may have been no revelatory insight or significant agreement but if you left with a warm glow of enthusiasm, or inspiration then that warm feeling will not only last but also motivate.

On his return from Elba, Napoleon famously remembered the name of a small-town mayor he had met for just a few minutes some years previously. The man was so impressed that he followed Bonaparte all the way to a pointless death at Waterloo. An example, perhaps, of Reason being not so much subordinate to as eliminated by Emotion…

A few decades earlier, back on Pitcairn after 1789, reason did not prevail against emotion either. Richard Bean’s play is about many things and works on many levels so I don’t want to be reductive but, as well as being a story of extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it is an another reminder from history of the catastrophic failure that results from attempting to create a civilisation that does not respect the natural, human and social capital on which that society is built. As with all good art, big issues – in this case, what makes a just society; and how do we live with each other without destroying each other and where we live – are presented so that you not only think, but - most importantly - feel.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Hidden Friend

My three year-old has a bit of an obsession with the film Night at the Museum in which objects come to life through magic. His imagination is particularly fired by the talking Easter Island head. Since he likes going to museums anyway, it’s not surprising that he likes to visit the British Museum to see their Easter Island statue.

He’s called Hoa Hakananai'a and he is a tall, striking figure that dominates the gallery where he stands. He has been placed so that looks his other-worldly gaze over the heads of the visitors in the direction of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in the South Pacific. This is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world and, consequently, one of the last places on the globe to be populated by humans, probably between 700-900. Over time the islanders developed a unique culture and they carved large numbers of these statues, called Moai. They were  probably intended to represent the faces of deified ancestors or spirits and many were placed looking on the coasts looking outwards where they must have been an awe-inspiring sight to visitors arriving over the sea.

Like many small islands, Rapa Nui has a fragile ecosystem and over time the island became over-populated and resources over-harvested. All the species of large trees, many landbirds and some sea birds became extinct. There followed an environmental disaster and, by the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's population had dropped to 2,000–3,000 from approximately 15,000 just a century earlier. During this period of upheaval, the Ancestor Cult ended and was replaced by the Birdman Cult. At the same time, somewhere around 1600, the islanders abruptly stopped carving their Moai.

On the back of Hoa Hakananai'a a carving has been added representing this new Birdman cult. It is not easy to make out all of the detail and, to my eyes, is closer to carved graffiti than to high quality religious artwork. It certainly does not compare with the strength, power and mystery of his front.

It is unusual to have the impact of environmental changes carved in stone. Hoa Hakananai'a is a solid representation of the relationship between art/ culture and the environment and a reminder that this relationship has been with us for a very long time.

Art and culture are ways of exploring what it means to be human and the relationship between humans and the world we inhabit. Hoa Hakananai'a, which roughly translates as “Hidden Friend” was a gift from the Rapanui to the British in 1868.  If we care to listen to our hidden friend, he has a message that he has brought with him from the past. Moreover, he will be around after we have gone, carrying his message into the future – a future in which my son will be living with the consequences of our actions today.

File:Wellcome Trust Gallery + Living & Dying (Room 24).jpg