Some of my favourite blogs – Matt Jones, Pat Kane and Paul Miller – have already used this quote from Philip Pullman, but it so Purposive Drift that I can’t resist posting it here:
“…It’s when we do this foolish, time-consuming, romantic, quixotic, childlike thing called play that we are most practical, most useful, and most firmly grounded in reality, because the world itself is the most unlikely of places, and it works in the oddest of ways, and we wont make any sense of it by doing what everybody else has done before us. Its when we fool about with the stuff the world is made of that we make the most valuable discoveries, we create the most lasting beauty, we discover the most profound truths. The youngest children can do it, and the greatest artists, the greatest scientists do it all the time. Everything else is proofreading.”
Early last year I posted a short piece, “Mostly Luck”, where I drew attention to an interview in Edge with Nassim Taleb and his view that the key factor in whether someone became a millionaire or not was luck. I was reminded of that post by another interview in Edge with the social pyschologist, Philip Zimbardo where he says:
“When you grow up in a privileged environment you want to take credit for the success you see all around, so you become a dispositionalist. You look for character, genes, or family legacy to explain things, because you want to say your father did good things, you did good things, and your kid will do good things. Curiously, if you grow up poor you tend to emphasize external situational factors when trying to understand unusual behavior. When you look around and you see that your father’s not working, and you have friends who are selling drugs or their sisters in prostitution, you dont want to say its because theres something inside them that makes them do it, because then theres a sense in which its in your line. Psychologists and social scientists that focus on situations more often than not come from relatively poor, immigrant backgrounds. That’s where I came from.”
I was going to leave it at that, but writing on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, what he has to say in the rest of the interview seemed too important to neglect. To crudely summarise what he has to say, yes bad people do bad things, but more importantly good people put into bad situations also do bad things. I urge you to read the full interview, where he puts forward a more nuanced argument.
For myself I take away three thoughts from the interview.
The first, is that talk of ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people is largely an obstacle to doing anything to create a more decent human world. It simply puts any reasoned explanations and hence any preventive action beyond anything we can do much about.
The second is that if we want people to behave well we should give more attention to designing in civility into our institutions, organisations and built environments. If you like, an extension of Oscar Newman’s ideas about defensible space.
The third is that we should do more to celebrate those people who ‘do the right thing’ even in situations where everything conspires against it. The sad fact is that those extraordinary people are more often punished than acknowledged, despite the lip service we pay to their moral courage. Perhaps, we should create something like a Nobel prize to celebrate those people who display human decency in intolerable situations.
A touching piece from Bangkok’s The Nation (via William Gibson) about how a group of Morgan sea gypsies survived the Tsunami by following the lore of their ancestors. I particularly liked the attitude of the headman Sarmao, which may have a wider resonance:
“To Sarmao and his people the sea has always been kind. It does not mean to hurt anybody, he says, but we need to know when to be on it and when not.”
The combination of a massive human tragedy and the first days of a new year should prompt a pause for reflection. I don’t mean the usual New Year’s resolution type reflection, but something a bit deeper about our relationship with one another and our collective relationship with the planet on which we live.
My own reflections were prompted by two links from the invariably intriguing 3quarksdaily. The first was to a report from Reuters about how officials at a National Park in Sri Lanka found no dead wild animals despite several human beings being killed by the wall of water. The second was a piece by Jared Diamond, promoting his book “Collapse”, where he examines what caused the societies such as those of Angkor Wat, Easter Island and Norse Greenland to disappear.
The first link led got me to pay attention to an article in Slate, which looked at what it was that could have alerted the animals to the potential danger that faced them and caused them to flee. The author identified two possible mechanisms. The first is that many animals can hear infrasound, so that they would have heard the sound of the quake and its after effects. The second is that they can also sense vibrations, in this case Raleigh waves, again prompting alarming and causing them to move away from the source.
What is, perhaps, still more interesting, as author Christine Kenneally explains, is that we have similar capabilities:
“What about humans- where were our red flags? Humans feel infrasound. But we dont necessarily know that thats what were feeling. Some people experience sensations of being spooked or even feeling religious in the presence of infrasound. We also experience Rayleigh waves via special sensors in our joints (called pacinian corpuscles), which exist just for that purpose. Sadly, it seems we dont pay attention to the information when we get it. Maybe we screen it out because theres so much going on before our eyes and in our ears. Humans have a lot of things on their minds, and usually that works out OK.”
The human capacity to ignore useful information is, in one sense, what Jared Diamond is talking about:
“Today, ecocide has come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases as a major threat to global civilization, and it will become acute within the next few decades. We are faced with even more environmental problems than past societies–specifically, human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earths photosynthetic capacity–and the risk of such collapses is now a matter of increasing concern. Indeed, collapses have already materialized for Somalia, Rwanda, and some other Third World countries. Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be just a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or of wars, triggered ultimately by a scarcity of environmental resources. Our efforts today will determine the state of the world in which the current generations live out their years: Either we solve these impending problems now, or they will totally undermine us.”
The animals in Yala National Wildlife Park survived because they perceived impending danger and acted on what they sensed. The question that concerns me is can we? In Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Diamonds book he notes:
“The Norse colonies in Greenland were law-abiding, economicall viable, fully integrated communities numbering at their peak five thousand people They lasted for four hundred and fifty years -and then they vanished.”
What we often forget is that our taken for granted world is an experiment that has been running for much less time than the Norse Colonies in Greenland. No doubt for much of the time the Norse thought things were going pretty well for them and ignored the signals that things might not be as they seem.
The Tsunami was a natural disaster, but its impact on human life and well-being was as much to do with the patterns of life we have adopted as it was to do with a wall of water hitting coastlines in Asia. It was also a reminder of how fragile human life can be and, perhaps, if we are wise, a signal to be less arrogant and to pay more attention to what is going on around us.