May 2009 Archives

Water Tap What will be the fundamental 'currencies' of the future? What, if we are serious about global sustainability in all its forms, should these currencies comprise now? It's likely, if we collectively are ever going to achieve a level of long-term viability for the human race, that we will have to shift the emphasis from money (or the gold standard) to the really basic requirements for life on earth - carbon, water and nitrogen, plus knowledge of all sorts to keep the whole show on the road.

Knowledge Economy and Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Money is self-evidently important to individuals (how else do you secure the roof over your head and food on the table, in complex modern societies?); and it's one indicator of collective economic well-being.

But it's 'only' a measure or tool. It's not a fundamental requirement in its own right for living.

We can, at least hypothetically, survive without money, but we can't survive without water and - in its many forms - delicately balanced amounts of carbon, and of course nitrogen. In all three instances, it's a case of not too much, not too little.

Back to basics
Water, carbon and nitrogen are the fundamentals of life.

To my mind we shall all need to understand the significance of these fundamentals much better at every level from the local to the global; and when we've grasped this, the next step will be to trade in the universal units - not just as now for some specialist concerns, but as globally recognised everyday currencies.

Climate change and polar ice caps are critically important, but they don't easily interpret into something which the person on the street feels empowered to do much about.

Making it meaningful
The problems and the indicators have to be far closer to home to be meaningful in terms of action for most people. And ideally there needs to be a recognition in the discourse that we're all in this together.

Our neighbours are global as well as local when it comes to the future of the human race on the planet. (The planet itself will of course 'survive'. It's people and other currently living things which are imperilled by human activity in the twenty-first century.)

Convincing currencies
So let's see how we can reconfigure the notion of currency to have wider meaning for survival.

We all share the need for water, carbon and nitrogen, in suitably balanced and sustained ways.

The additional (secondary) critical currency is therefore knowledge; not least knowledge about how to maintain and sustain our planet. This cannot be just scientific and abstract knowledge, but needs to be shared by us all.

And that's before we even begin to consider knowledge and knowing of very many other sorts also as a basic currency of the twenty-first century.

Knowledge and knowing
Knowledge in its formal sense will, in time, become recognised as the major currency of formal activity; and 'knowing' will be the currency in everyday life which keeps us all going.

Knowing is the social glue which can keep communities sustainable and simultaneously open our eyes to new ideas and scenarios. It enables us all together to engage, empower and explore.

Cash won't be king
We can't eat cash. We can run out of formal finance and still somehow survive.

But we need the fundamentals of life, and we also desperately need ways to share our common humanity, and our connections too with other living things. This is where the eco-system meets the communalism which must bind us all together.

No return to mediaeval ways of thinking
The difference between this time around and previous eras where the good earth was the known fundamental, is this:

In the twenty-first century we can create new, non-static way of life which incorporate the very basics of life but also lets us explore the vibrant and exciting challenges of science, humanities (in every sense) and our actual selves.

A more holistic view
The time when carbon and water, if not as yet nitrogen, are recognised universal currencies, measured formally as commodities of exchange, may not be long in coming.

As we understand that knowledge and knowing are the fundamentals of our existence in communities, we will also want to emphasise the basic currencies of life.


Read more articles about the Knowledge Economy and Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Science & Music books C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and 'literary intellectuals', arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.

Science & Technology.

Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 - 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.

For me that's certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 - 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science 'works' - especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) - have helped to bridge that science - humanities chasm.

Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn't even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.

But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 - 1978) made on C.P. Snow's thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.

Not always incompatible
Isn't it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?

There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and 'science', but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.

The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don't seem to understand the nature of evidence (not 'science') ... that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.

Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere.... the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.

Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we're nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.

When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society 'knew' less than we do now. It's difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is 'worse' than it was in the 1950s and 60s - and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn't perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.

For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.

The longer view
It's said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it's worth. But what I'm sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people - including me - over several decades, with the debate he sparked.

Snow's perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.

You don't need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.

Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world... and never has that been more true than now, with the 'one planet living' challenges we all face.

Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

Bridging the gap
I'm not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called 'standards'; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.

If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.


Read more about Science & Technology.

For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the 'Two Cultures' Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.

08.05.05 garden table, hedge & nest In the garden in early May last year, a broken piece of ivy jutting out from the hedge caught our attention.
Then a thrush darted into the greenery, and we realised this was in all probability the site of a nest - as indeed it turned out to be, a neatly solid little structure with three beautiful blue eggs in it.
Waiting patiently, carefully positioning the camera well away and using a zoom lens, this is what we then saw emerging, almost at our back door....

08.05.05 thrush blue eggs & nest hidden in hedge

08.05.05  thrush blue eggs hatching & nest

08.05.05 thrush blue eggs, newly-hatched chick & nest

The other eggs hatched later, and we saw the adult birds going about their parental duties for several days thereafter, flying to and fro with titbits for their young. And perhaps the process is being repeated again this year, now the gap in the hedge has covered over, for the garden thrushes seem to be very active once more.


Read more articles about Living Things, Nature & The Seasons and The Philospohy Of Hedges, and see more photographs at Calendar & Camera.

For more information on thrushes, their nests and eggs, click here.