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Global anxieties, local hope

My current job takes me out to talk to young people. I visit schools, and also they come to our university to discuss the Arts and Sciences (BASc) degree.

I enjoy these occasions a lot. Occasionally I get a little carried away and can’t contain my enthusiasm, and end up confusing the message a bit, but generally these are really good occasions – particularly when the students have plenty of time to ask questions and the visit becomes a genuine exchange, a conversation rather than a lecture.

But there is also, in the background, looming, a big, dark ghost – something I very rarely get to address directly. And that is, bluntly, the entire state of the world’s economy and where we might all be heading in terms of jobs, standards of living, lifestyle etc.

‘Give over’,  you might say, ‘it’s not your job to predict the life, the universe and everything to these young people; your job is to educate about the Arts and Sciences degree.’

That is of course, true. But whenever we talk education with young people we must address the relevance of that education – its intrinsic and instrumental value (see this blog on values in education) – what this education will mean for the lives of our students, and so on. One cannot escape the fact that if one is talking about future lives and future careers, there is an obligation on the educator to give at least some idea of what they think this future looks like.

In some ways I hate this. I would like to have tattooed to my forehead: ‘I cannot predict the future’. Because nobody can predict the future, right?  (Except maybe the odd Italian neutrino.) People in the past that seem to have predicted the future have just got lucky, I reckon. It would be so much easier in these situations just to put aside all questions of the future and argue for values: education is a good, education breeds tolerance, education helps to foster better societies for all. But this is not enough. Predict the future we must, in some small way, if we want to talk to young people about their education.

Now there are at least four big scenarios one could try to outline as giving some idea of what the future, en gros, will be like. We have the ‘business as usual, wonderful economic growth in your lifetime and beyond’ scenario; the ‘Japanese style “stagnation”‘ scenario; the ‘things may gently decline but we can survive if we’re canny’ scenario – the one which Greer thinks is manageable; and the ‘it is going to get very nasty, very suddenly at some point, there will be massive unrest and people will starve and die’ scenario. Then there is the further complexity that not all of these states of affairs may come to pass in all parts of the world at the same time.

I hope to blog on these big pictures elsewhere, but for now, in this context about education, let’s just focus on two broadly contrasting scenarios: 1) economic growth will go on, it will be more of the same, only more exciting with more material prosperity, more internet, more green tech, more travel etc; 2) we are going to have to downscale and think very differently about the level of technology, energy consumption and mobility in our societies.

The first of these scenarios is really hopeful and fun. This is where I can give local examples of all the wonderful things that people will be able to do with their lives if they are bright enough and work hard enough. The world of work is opening up and is a dynamic mix of arts, sciences, politics, economics, engineering and so on. Careers there will be in additive engineering, international health, psychology and economics, artistic genetics, neuro-marketing and so on and so on. This is what our Arts and Sciences degree will endeavour to prepare you for. There are wonderful modern combinations that you can put together that make brilliant intellectual, personal and economic sense. If one doesn’t have to think of anything else, then this is all one should focus on – all the opportunities and excitement such a future holds. This is what I would like to focus on. This is the future I would like for my children. But…

If the second scenario comes to pass, then all of the wonderful stuff about web 2.0 (and, coming, web 3.0), additive engineering, global health projects, sustainable cities etc is just a dream, really. All the exciting stuff which one might do locally, would then be made impossible by the global situation which would simply not allow for the macro-political structures needed to sustain and promote these sorts of developments. But do I tell this to my students? If so, in what context? What advice can I really give about the appropriate education if this is the way I really think things are going?

On gloomy days I see the metaphor of us all partying hard on the good ship Society  as we sail down the river towards the mighty drop of the waterfall that is economic collapse. Some of us are now trying frantically to paddle upstream, to turn the boat around, some of us are just enjoying the moment – because that really is all you can ever do, right? – and some party harder and harder than ever, down more cocktails, put their arms around more girls and boys, because they believe that with the right energy and some fantastic innovation they can find a solution and make the boat sprout wings and fly, just before it careens off the edge of the fall and into oblivion.

Of course, I cannot tell the future – even though that is not tattooed on my forehead. I have only pictures and possible scenarios. I do not know what will happen to our boat.

So let me end with two short messages of local hope.

1. When I was growing up, we all lived under the anxiety of global nuclear war. Many, many times we thought the world was going to end, more or less, and that the exploding of nuclear bombs would lead to horrible death, nuclear winter and so on. It didn’t happen. And it is not a serious geopolitical worry at the moment. ‘See, it didn’t turn out that bad’, as I might say to my kids. Sometimes we just worry for nothing, and that’s stupid. It could well be the same with all the ‘end of energy’, ‘climate change’, ‘destruction of the environment’ angst.

2. Even if the West does suffer some kind of serious depression, it is by no means clear that all the world will feel an economic ‘fall-back’ in the same way. China and India will suffer a bit because their economies depend somewhat on exporting to richer countries, but their domestic economies are pretty robust now and chances are they will carry on doing just fine, as long as they can get their hands on natural resources from Africa, Australia and elsewhere. So it may be that the Western students I talk to will have to travel far and wide for the sorts of wonderful careers I tell them about. That, in itself, is no tragedy; such migrations make the stories of world history.

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