This is the twenty-third in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!
Investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed is looking into the abyss and what he sees is crisis compounding crisis: climate change, global economic meltdown, food shortages. Each crisis is so cataclysmic, and the science behind each so specialised, that it is difficult to understand the complex connections between them. “It’s created this very serious problem that we’re underestimating the scale of the problems we’re facing,” Nafeez says. “We’re always playing catch up trying to understand how these things work.”
For example, in the last couple of years, the rate of global warming increase has slowed, resulting in a “global warming pause”. “This was predicted by the models,” Nafeez says, “but what wasn’t predicted was how much heat would be stored by the oceans. At some point that’s going to be released.” When it is, the rise in atmospheric temperature won’t simply cause a single crisis for the agriculture of the tomato; it will trigger crises throughout every aspect of human existence, many of which are unforeseeable.
It almost makes you look back fondly on an age when we knew less. Science today means that we know enough to know that we’re in big trouble, but not enough to understand exactly how these interconnected crises will dictate the future of the human race and what we can do to influence that future. Ignorance was bliss. Perhaps the ultimate crisis we face today is a crisis of connection.
Nafeez doesn’t blame individuals for the crises we suffer, but rather the dominant global socio-economic system of capitalism. However, he says we must understand that, although the fault is systemic, we as individuals are complicit in perpetuating that fault.
“So much of what happens in the world today is not the result of one person’s decision,” he says. “It’s the result of a system, it’s the result of multiple processes, multiple decisions made in different ways.” The complexity of this decision-making process is such that, as Nafeez says, “no one has to take complete responsibility”.
Who is responsible for the global increase in carbon emissions that is leading to the crises of climate change? The men pumping oil out of the ground in Iraq? The Chief Executive of Shell? The manufacturers of cars and aeroplanes? Thomas Cook and the international tourism industry? Thomas Edison, inventor of the first mass-produced household electrical product, the light bulb? The President of the United States? The United Nations? The Chinese? You and me? Such responsibility is an impossible thread to untangle because it runs through each one of us. The crisis of connection has led to a crisis of responsibility.
Unfortunately for Nafeez and the rest of us, those who have the most power to take responsibility don’t allow for alternative ways of thinking about the problems we face. “The people who essentially run the show,” he says, “think that the way they do things is the best possible way.”
More ominously for the rest of us, according to Nafeez, it’s not the Department of Health or Transport or Environment who have been charged with managing the shocks of crisis on society, it’s the military. “If you’re going to ask a man with a gun how to solve the problem of the Arctic melting, what’s he going to do?” Nafeez asks. “Blow the Arctic up?” He laughs. “Yeah, that’ll solve everything.”
In fact, far from helping prepare society to withstand crises, governments are investing in programmes that are more about protecting themselves from the social fallout of those crises. Nafeez tells us about the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, a social science research programme set up in 2008 and funded to the tune of eighty million dollars every year, which will use social media to predict domestic “insurgencies”.
As part of the project, Arizona State University are developing a data mining programme that will allow authorities to analyse threats from the information we share on social media. “This was about tracking dissent,” Nafeez says. “This could end up determining who goes on the drone kill list.” Rather than addressing the crisis of responsibility in a positive way, governments are turning on their own citizens.
Nafeez sees his job as helping to solve the crisis of responsibility by addressing the crisis of connection. He tries to “create narratives, join the dots of crises and create meaningful visions for people”. As part of that mission, Nafeez has recently published a science fiction novel, set in a not-too-distant future where the US and UK have re-occupied Iraq to quell an Islamist insurgency. He didn’t realise, when he started writing six years ago, how soon that not-too-distant future would be: Now.
Nafeez, whose writing career started in academia, before moving onto journalism and film-making, is exploring fiction as a new way of reaching out to people. “As someone with an academic background,” he says, “it’s been a challenge for me, trying to find ways of communicating what appear to be really complex ideas in a way that most people can actually find accessible and engaging.”
Critical to Nafeez’s approach is engaging people emotionally; he believes that emotional involvement leads to reflection and action. “If you can tell stories in a way which can engage people,” Nafeez says, “I think that gets to the heart of how to get someone to reflect creatively in a way that actually impacts on their life.”
The bare ideas and concepts that you find in academia or journalism, by contrast, can be very theoretical and abstract, without bringing people to the point of change or action. “Fundamentally, it’s really about where you think change is going to come from,” Nafeez says. “Can you do change just by having dry academic conversations amongst people who agree with you? Or do you need to use different methods to make these ideas accessible to a mass audience?”
The way Nafeez has made his novel more accessible is “loads of blood, action, violence, swearing” – all the stock ingredients of a thriller, not usually found in a sober academic tome. “We don’t always have to look at these really serious issues in a way which is gloomy and depressing and uninspiring,” he says.
This is precisely what Antonino D’Ambrosio is talking about when he talks about creative-response. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why politics, law and economics are bogged down in interminably boring jargon is precisely so that most people don’t get engaged, don’t get involved and don’t look too closely: they are subjects made boring by design.
Creative-response, however, is demotic and popular. It is fun by design and there is no reason why it can’t be applied to these so-called boring subjects. Nafeez agrees. “That’s really what I’m excited about looking at,” he says. “How you can use mediums like fiction or art or music to engage people emotionally with these radical ideas.”
For Nafeez, engagement and action will only come if people feel they are able to do something. For that reason, we have to be careful about the way we talk about these crises. “It’s important to frame our predicament in the right way,” he says. “Otherwise you end up with frustration and overwhelming: What can little old me do?”
Echoing John Holloway, Nafeez says we must re-frame the crisis of capitalism. “It’s not that the world is dying, it’s that paradigm that’s dying,” he declares. “By the end of this century – and that’s using the most optimistic figures – this system will be over.” What system will take its place depends on how we respond now.
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.