Does mappa mundi deliver social change? If you had a certain amount of resources (like energy, time, money) and you wanted social change, would it be efficient and effective to put it into this project? Is social change measurable? Take Clarkson for example.
I mean, of course, Thomas Clarkson. At what point along the trajectory between him writing about slavery for an essay competition when he was a student at Cambridge in 1785 and the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 and its amendment in 1843, can be said to be the most significant moment of social change.
Was it the moment while resting on a trip from Cambridge to London at Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, a few months after the publication of his essay, filled with anger at injustice and suffering, he promised to himself that he would dedicate his life to the abolition of the slave trade?
Was it the moment when the twelve men (including Clarkson) met in a London print shop in 1787 and formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade?
Or was it the passing of the Act?
Of course the outlawing of the trade by Britain was not an end to slavery nor to racism so the continuum of change didn’t stop there. This was only one of the first expressions of moral outrage against the human impact of imperialism.
The first public collective expression of opposition to slavery by people in the ‘perpetrator’ societies was made by a group of Quakers in Germantown Pennsylvania in 1688, the very year that our own current regime, founded as it was on imperialism and constitutional ‘parliamentary’ monarchy, was established. The development of the legislative and constitutional processes and the articulations of opposition to slavery were a part of a continuum into which Clarkson’s urgency arrived and was continued by him and his co-campaigners.
Social change happens in long movements, like rivers whose different tributaries are at first almost invisible and subterranean. It is very difficult to say at what decisive stage it has been accomplished. The legislative moment is undoubtedly significant but this may be nothing more than a superficial sign.
Unlike rivers social change can go in contrary directions. The underlying trajectory may be towards humanisation, liberation, consciousness, enhanced capability, enlightenment. Our changes, apart from temporary obstacles and reversals, may be towards our becoming more ourselves, realising ourselves and our potential. Also, people wish a better life for their children. An enormous sense of grief takes place amongst populations who do not feel they have the ability and conditions to create, at minimum, a generational continuity of conditions and circumstances.
This issue of the trajectory of humanity, the human project, is an existential question. On any given day our sense of other human beings, and our assessment of what prospects there are for the human species, may be influenced by what happens in ordinary routine interactions, like at the bus stop. It may be derived from our reflecting on ourselves and the distance between what we imagine we are going to do and what we actually manage to achieve or how we want to behave and how we really do respond to others.
There is an obvious difference between something that is written on the back of an envelope and something that is written ‘on the statute book’ of a given country’s legislative assembly. Collective recognition and agreement does have material impacts. Behaviour changes, attitudes shift, beliefs are abandoned or adopted, values are asserted and accepted or rejected and repulsed. These movements are real events.
What is the relationship between the invention of a pedagogy (or a system of learning) and the construction of a school building? The former needs some substantial space where it is put into practice and the latter, if it does not house an ongoing learning practice, is not what it purports to be. From the point of view of efficiency and effectiveness the latter may seem, in principle, more attractive to those who want to put their resources into social change.
mappa mundi provides a space for collective expression. This space is made up of two spaces: the online interactive ‘map’ and the creative space of enacting or dramatising stories. It is the way these two kinds of spaces are linked up that gives to both their vitality and meaning. This linking is also the way in which mappa mundi (the whole work) takes its place in the public realm. In other words, its significance, the reason people will take notice of it, is to do with the way it links different participants’ creativity in a collective work.
Does this provision of space deliver change?
Thomas Clarkson after his essay writing and after his personal avowal in Wadesmill set out to accumulate as much information as possible on the slave trade. He gathered testimony from those who had direct experience of methods of entrapment, captivity and exchange and the conditions on the transports and shipping vehicles. The process for him was to combine an enormous weight of information with an appeal to the sense of a justice based on an affinity with those enslaved (i.e. ‘they are human just like you, how would you like it?’). The information was conveyed through documents, meetings of key players and public address. Thomas Clarkson was on an almost continuous lecture tour from 1787 onwards. People learnt, through attendance or contact with this process, about what was happening. The fact that there was a potential legislative process meant that people could feel they had both a responsibility and a power to effect change.
The kind of changes we are going through now are different. National legislative assemblies do not have the same kind of power over commercial activity. The impacts of imperialism, or of the commercial-industrial production and exchange system that seems to have replaced it, are more complex. The appeal to the human project effective in the affinity-plus-information-plus-legislative action array that characterised the abolitionist movement and that which which is effective within the conditions that characterise the current movement for social justice and environmental sustainability are different. For example, in the latter ‘the appeal to the human project’ is made in circumstances where that project is faced with the prospect of extinction.
This prospect gives rise to all kinds of problems. Not least is the mythic apocalyptic language that connects knowledge and action on change to ‘saving the world’. Implicit in this is a more general current problem about information and knowledge.
In 1798, during the period when Clarkson and his colleagues continued their campaigning for Slave Trade Abolition, William Wordsworth was touring the Wye Valley in the West of England. On July 13th of that year he wrote ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ (the title shouldn’t be taken too literally!). This was published later that year, along with other poems by him and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Lyrical Ballads. Both these poets were supporters of the Abolitionist movement. Coleridge was outspoken and published articles on the issue. He was black.
A few days after Wordsworth wrote his poem the French Army led by Napoleon Bonaparte took Cairo. The progress of the Abolitionist movement was protracted. In 1833 the legislation abolishing the Slave Trade in territories ruled by the British Crown was passed by Parliament but even then it excepted the territories in possession of the East India Company and the islands of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and St Helena. These exception were only revoked in 1843. Thomas Clarkson died in 1846.
“For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
Lines (89 to 103) written above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth
How do we know about climate change, atmospheric pollution, economic systemic, energy resource depletion? We hear stories. News of environmental change is accompanied by photography. We are connected up through the media to both documentary record as well as scientific information. The latter is conveyed to us in graphic images. We see lines going up or down and/or correlating on charts. We are given statistics. At one point science had a relatively simple array of instruments: the telescope, the microscope, the thermometer, the barometer. Now the results of complex interactions of systems of measurement give data that is then processed by computers to give data that is then readable in ‘infographics’ in a variety of illustrative sophistication.
A variety of buoys that measure sea surface temperatures have to have their reading related to satellite readings that correct for wind speeds, this is extrapolated in the measurement of flows beneath the surface important for understanding transmissions of heat in the thermohaline circulatory systems that drive through the oceans of the earth connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific in a continuous movement of energy transmission, of heating and cooling, that takes place at different speeds at different depths so that some ‘belts’ transmitting water take hundreds of years to move from ocean to ocean. The oceans are a complex system. One of the critical impacts of the ice caps melting is the introduction into the oceans of large quantities of fresh water. Fresh water conducts heat differently from salt water and there is a chance that this incursion could change the ways in which heat is transmitted by the thermohaline conveyor belts.
We are connected in our knowing to a massively complex array of instruments through which we learn what is happening to our earth. Does this knowledge alone, derived from scientific measurement whose results anyway have to be interpreted before we interpret them, change us, change our view of ourselves, change our habits, our practices, our behaviour? Presumably there has to be other co-ordinate experiential events.
I leave out of account here how we similarly receive information about our economic system, equally scientifically verifiable with graphs that snake along the walls of TV studios and plummet into some kind of abstract abyss or climb to a perilous peak. We know about energy bills, food prices, pension schemes, unemployment, impoverishment and enrichment by means of more immediate apprehensions.
We are left hoping, when we have the time to pay attention, that those who know can communicate with those who can do something. These are supposedly the scientists and the policy-makers.
In Wordsworth’s poem he describes an experience of a landscape that is animated by his affection. I think this is called a pathetic fallacy. He is conscious of a kind of energetic power that flows through him and the landscape that makes him feel at one with it. He talks about standing on this particular piece of earth as if he, the knower, is joined with it, the known. You can read for yourself. It is a description of a kind of transcendent experience where his love and feeling for his sister is interfused with his love for the earth. He talks about the solace this heightened environmental consciousness gives him particularly in helping him deal with living in a city.
What is the relationship between a agronomist climate scientist at a university, international and local policy-makers and a peasant rice farmer in the Mekong delta? A really significant and (if this is the right word) influential bit of the earth’s structure is the Himalayan mountain range. The immediate cause of this landscape feature is the collision between the Indian subcontinent and the Euro-asian landmass. This was one of the last and most dramatic movements that took place during the period when the current terrestrial configuration took shape. Our knowledge of this particular process was confirmed by the geological evidence derived from our discovery of tectonic plates. The Indian subcontinent is one such! Tectonic plates were detected, analysed and proven to exist only in the late 1960s at around the time the first photographs were taken of the earth from space.
The Himalayas are the highest mountains on earth and as a consequence are the most massive. Their protrusion into the atmosphere leads to large precipitation. The run off of water from the Himalayan are related to no less than eleven river deltas, of which the Ganges/Bramaputra, the Yangtze and the Mekong are the best known. This means that these locations are sites of maximum interaction between fresh water and sea water. The tidal and seasonal flows of these river deltas provide extremely fertile locations for rice agriculture. The rising level of the ocean consequent on global warming is having impacts on them of decreased river discharge and saline intrusion. This means that things are changing and rice crop yields are endangered. Farmers in the region have traditionally managed the volatile interactions and have made assessments about rice seed types accordingly. To change rice seed strain involves various complex consequential impacts and has economic consequences in terms of the number and timing of crops and the markets for the types of rice produced. The farmer will be bringing together a knowledge of soil, tides, water salinity, types of rice, markets for crops.
The crop scientist will be able to create a computer model of crop behaviour and link this modelling with the information about possible sea level changes derived from regional extrapolations of climate change computer models and apply these to GIS modelling of the topography of the river delta to predict changing patterns of fresh/saline water mix. They will be able to make recommendations to research biologists who are able to create strains of rice that respond well to certain levels of salinity. They will be able to give advice to investment bodies who are looking at various forms of sluice-gates to control saline incursions or rice seed producers.
In between the scientists and the farmers may be representatives of the public authorities who have an oversight of the production location. The Mekong delta is divided between China and Vietnam so there may be conflicting interests being played out between these political entities.
The crop scientist and other ‘climate change impact’ scientists may well be aware of the arguments about the conflict between local and scientific knowledge. They may well be working with social scientists who are advising much closer collaboration.
Consequences of this complexity are numerous. One is a rethinking what scientific truth is. Some of these ideas are expressed as ideas about post-normal science and the co-production of knowledge in the work of Jerome Ravetz. Another impact is the growing tendency for scientists to work in interdisciplinary teams. For example, ecological economics originated in ecologists and economists working together.
This raises the question of the impact of scientific knowledge in regions of the world where the impacts of climate change are not so immediate as the river deltas of Asia. I am talking about the societies of the temperate West. Does this knowledge lead to change? How are climate or environmental change transmitted and what are the impacts of this transmission?
Paul Samuelson is one of the most influential and best known economists of the 20th Century. When challenged by physicists to name any law discovered by economists that was true and non-trivial, he proposed David Ricardo‘s Law of Comparative Advantage. This law is an argument that a given economy (usually defined by national boundaries, that is, by monetary unity) will always have a comparative advantage in the production of a certain commodity that will make trade a benefit to it. (Apologies! There are better definitions around!) This is the argument used by economists to make economies concentrate on a particular sector or crop or commodity. At one point Ruanda was persuaded by an IMF structural adjustment programme to concentrate on coffee with disastrous consequences. Countries that are rich in natural resources are persuaded against economic diversification with the consequence that they become dependent on transnational corporations and their government are weakened by corruption. China clearly has a comparative advantage in labour i.e. it is able to cheaply produce people. The UK even more clearly has a comparative advantage in financial services and so should concentrate on this ‘industry’. Apparently we are really good lending and borrowing money!
Just in case anybody should suppose that this ‘law’ is the discovery of an intrinsic and natural property in the material world and is an eternal verity of human organisation operating as a truth in all circumstances known to human beings like it may be said of tectonic plates, we know from Ricardo’s diaries that the work of analytical thinking precedent to him coming up with this ‘law’ was seventeen months after the Battle of Waterloo was fought in June 1815. This battle was the final act of a protracted history of conflict for the domination of global markets started in the late 17th century when, after the glorious revolution of 1688, William of Orange put together the Coalition Army of the Dutch and British to fight the French. It established British Imperialist hegemony for 100 years. This was the battle that was said to have been ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’.
I am simply making the point that whether or not ‘comparative advantage’ is true depends on what point of view it is viewed from. I am emphasising its historical genesis and the social context in which it was thought up. It’s true if its useful and its more likely to be useful for developed countries in their relations with less developed ones. Also even scientific laws are relative. On the development of relativity and quantum physics there was a tendency to assert that these theories rendered Newton’s work invalid. However Newton’s Laws of Motion are true for the behaviour of a certain level of matter. The point is they are not universally true. The idea of absolute truth in science had to be reframed with the development of ideas about probability and uncertainty.
Looking at Goethe’s scientific work, based on the perceptive capacity of the whole human being i.e. the concept that the human being is the ‘greatest and most exact scientific instrument that there is’, we can see intimations of forms of apprehension that bring the ‘knower’ and the ‘known’ into a more complex interaction than a strict division of subject and object will express. See Philosophy This also reflects the perception that at a certain level of particle analysis the object of examination is produced by the instrument of examination. This is to do with the activity of knowing and is a problem associated with Werner Heisenberg‘s ‘Uncertainty Principle‘
This means that knowledge and action cannot be causally connected in a simple way. There is no direct relationship, for example, between the strength of proof of anthropogenic global warming and the coherence of action to mitigate climate change through changes in policy and thus in production processes. People are not going to change more radically as the evidence becomes less open to question and as uncertainty is dispelled. People are not going to change the economic system simply because there are clear arguments undermining classical economics.
It is through struggle, communication and action (in which knowledge and information play a part) that people become activated and societies change. The only way that people can learn is by doing.
We live in a culture that systematically divides up our capacity to know the world and divorces analytical knowledge from creative knowledge. This takes its most obvious form in the division of arts and sciences at school. I think this division is a key element in the regime we have here in the UK. It is installed in the institutions that were formed in the regime building process that occurred after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.
What is the relationship between the ‘knowing’ expressed by Wordsworth as he communed with nature on July 13th 1798 on a hill top overlooking an abbey ruined during the state nationalisation of the monasteries in the early 1530s and the knowing of a Vietnamese rice farmer in the Mekong delta, and a crop-modelling climate scientist (Andy Challinor is a good example), and David Ricardo working out scientific arguments for so-called ‘Free trade’, and us watching polar bears struggling with smaller and smaller ice bergs sequenced with computerised modelling of arctic summer ice cover and statistics turned into graphics on excel to depict the same?
How are we on the earth?
If there was a proportional formula that captured a kind of recipe for social change would mappa mundi be an ingredient? Is making drama video portraying stories of change actually a part of social change itself?
My argument is relatively simple. Unless people can re-imagine their lives there can be no change towards humanisation. It may not be a sufficient condition for social change but it is a necessary one. There is nothing that will force people to re-imagine. Thankfully imagination is only accessible to limited forms of coercion. Whether mappa mundi can provide an inspirational space is open to question. It is certainly possible. It stands a chance because there is no reason to suppose that change cannot be perceived by the people undergoing it and there is no reason to believe that they are not the best people to tell others about it. It is probable that when they do so they will tell it not as a scientific theory but as a story, the recounting of an experience of events. It is possible that those same people will have the skill to enact the story and put it into moving video images. Hopefully they will be inspired to do so by the knowledge that others are doing similar work and that it can be collected together in an online space and then shown at exhibition events.
NEXT: Making a mappa mundi