Saturday, October 18, 2014

Where we travel (and why it matters)

Over the past week I have had the privilege to, among other things, review a book for the journal Environmental Values. The book is called NatureTM Inc. and is a relentless critique of neoliberal conservation strategies. I am not going to say much more about it here but the case studies in the book reminded me of to what extent our perceptions of the world are shaped by where we travel (and likewise, where we chose not to venture).

Looking at my own bookshelf above, I can tell that Africa (with the exception of Morocco and Cairo) is still largely a white spot. So is all of South America. And Russia. I think that the fact that I have not been to these places helps explain a bit of my sometimes naïve worldview, that I generally see social progress, that, even if I would never suggest that the path is going to be straight by any means, I still think that we are moving towards global convergence in terms of living standards and values. But if I err too much towards optimism, the opposite is definitely true for those who only see exploitation, corruption and ecological devastation.

As I, somewhat rhetorically, asked when I was discussant in Sydney some weeks ago, what did you expect? Of course it was going to be difficult for humanity to emerge as a planetary civilization, of course it was going to be difficult to contain, yet make wise use of, our Promethean energies. And of course many people will fail to see the broader picture and jump to the wrong conclusions (such as that humanity should be forced back to some kind of romanticized Arcadia). Yet, I have trust in that most people will ultimately recognize the value of civilization and stand up for democracy, pluralism and an open future. The dynamics of globalization alone are such that once the genie has been let out of the bottle, people may moralize about long haul flights or the shallowness of consumption, yet the next moment plan their own hikes in New Zealand, want their kids to study abroad or set up auto-replies announcing that they are off to a yoga retreat in Bali (in order to get away from materialism). The challenge of course is to make these things universal and not just the privileges of a tiny minority. With social investments, open trade and public innovation, I believe that we already have some of the tools but that we still lack the necessary commitment to politics, we lack the courage to stop running and instead realize that we are the masters of own fate as a species. 



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