Thursday, July 24, 2008

It’s (not so) cool in the Pool (COLUMN)

Too much information

Someone quoted a stat saying that people 2 centuries ago would learn as much – in their entire lifetimes – as in 7 issues of the New York Times. If I add up all the stuff I consume in a single day, and I am a voracious reader, it boils down to:
1) about 10 websites (with 2-3 stories each)- for example
Pollution: Dangerous to Joggers and Trying to Measure the Amount of Information That Humans Create
2) Radio (for news and music)
3) Television (for news, music and entertainment)
4) My computer and phone for networking, google based information gathering and music
5) Then there’s advertising flying off magazines, streetpoles and shop windows, and all the rest – blogs, phone calls and the work buzzsaw of emails and everything else

Plus, I also like to read. Books. And I like to write. On one website alone, Ohmynews, I have written over 300 articles over a 3 year period (100 a year averages to about 1 every 3.5 days). And I like to talk, but since I have few people to talk to, I write.

Today, en route back from gym I went to a Caltex garage in my neighborhood and pumped up my red pilates ball – going to take it to work tomorrow and use it as a chair. I glanced at the magazine covers on my way to buying some milk. Ryk is on the cover, with a message: “I never wanted to be a ‘what if’ kinda guy”. What does that mean? I mean, didn’t he say to himself: “What if I went to the Olympics one day, wouldn’t that be great?” I think he’s trying to say that you either do something, or you don’t, there’s no try, no ‘what if’. Actually, it’s the magazine that’s at fault, because Ryk did throw in the towel in 1999 or 2000 if I remember correctly, and it must have been the ‘what if’ hypothetical that brought him back. Only Men’s Health will have you know that Ryk’s iron will was always iron and always stood him in good stead. Life’s a bit more difficult and complicated, but magazines - the media - still want to sell advertising.

So do newspapers. A streetposter on my way home read: Batman Actor Arrested. Now I have read up about it and as I understand it, he turned himself in at a police station, but no charges were even laid, and the police were under strict instructions not to say any more than that. It’s a play on the publicity of the movie to slag off the leading actor and get people to buy more newspapers - but really its a non-story otherwise, certainly not street-poster or front page worthy. Desperate times call for some questionable measures.

Take climate change. It’s looking obvious that just 3 years after the busiest Hurricane season in human memory (2005 spurned Katrina), we are back…with Hurricane activity already fierce. Having 3 named storm systems operating at any one time is unheard of, it’s never happened before. It's happening now, and these storms are lasting longer and changing quicker than we're used to aswell. But ask around whether people think the reason for this could be climate change. Shrugs. Why? Because there is so much noise, so many theories floating around, so much to do and so much other pointless stuff to distract us that nobody knows what to think or do or say...but the obvious thought to think is this:

When we are talking about the world’s climate, and we know how much each of us as individuals pollute (via our cars, via garbage disposal), on a giant scale that has got to impact severely on the climate. We ought to know this by gut feeling. I know it. Furthermore, even if we decide to be smart alecks and rationalize our lifestyles, the risk of being wrong is catastrophic. Is that an alarmist term? Well what would you prefer? Send an email and I'll replace it with a word that you'remore comfortable with. And there's the rub. People don't want to know, they don't want to worry, because there's so much noise, so much stuff they'd rather deal with. What's climate change? It's not real. It won't affect me or you, so so what!

Well actually it is real, and anything that is real manifests. We’re already seeing those real risk factors lining up like a firing squad. Are human being so stupid and so lazy that they must wait until the sky is falling on their heads before they stand before their motor cars and go, “Oh wait, maybe I shouldn’t, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” Yes, people are that stupid. Some of it isn’t stupidity, it's culture. Why do we smoke cigarettes? Why do we drive cars when 13 000 people die a year as a result of ordinary day to day driving? Why do we drive when we know vast swathes of people can't afford simple foodstuffs now? Why do we eat fatty foods and gain weight when the number one killer in the world is heart attacks? Why don't we try to save the life of someone who is struggling in poverty? The reason is simple, and slightly subtle: we do what we’re comfortable with, and we do it because we don’t care so much about consequences that we can’t put our finger on.

So smoking can give you cancer, big deal, take another puff. But show that person a photo ten years from the future, or an X-ray of how their lungs are atrophying since the first cigarette and suddenly they awaken. What do they awaken to? Reality. Their illusions and reality realign. So what is the problem? First and foremost it is a failure of the imagination. Secondly, it is a cultural failure to respond, and to get those around us to stop. And thirdly, it is a false sense of diconnectedness. See, we are all connected, and that makes us all perpetrators, but equally, possible agents to bring about change, revolutionary change, change that spell the words: SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION.

I got my girlfriend to stop smoking. She put in the effort, but its fair to say if she had never met me she would have continued smoking, probably for the rest of her life (her mother, and brothers and extended family all smoke).

So although we are very clever, and although we have almost godlike access to information (google and wiki are a wicked combination – you can learn almost everything about the world whilst sitting on your rump), it’s not enough. You can tell people how their life expectancy can change with smoking, you can provide stats, but until they see the consequence in a way that they can relate to it (in a way that connects them to their behaviour, and connects their behaviour to the world), it won't matter.

So it’s not enough reading that one ‘expert’ says climate change is a hoax and another says it is doomsday tomorrow. What is necessary is that we simply know what it happening in the world, know what is self-evident, and then begin to respond to that reality. Any creature who cannot respond instinctively to such a basic premise probably deserves to have a big flyswatter with EXTINCTION written on it smack the species a few decent blows.

Whilst in the gym watching the Tour de France I was aware of the mighty hearts that men have. I saw beer drinking students running topless alongside the riders on Alp d’Huez. Yes, humanity has struggled through some tough times. Great plagues infested the Earth, and each time people fought back. I have no doubt we will grit our teeth up the next few mountains. But we have a few additional risk factors that sheer grit and determination are no match for: I'm talking about, for a one, the few thousand nuclear weapons that exist, with a handful drifting in our backpacks, and already an eager bunch of extremists who are happy to kill themselves in order to make a philosophical point.

Many of our number will be lost in this war, while above us, clouds will swill violently with the dark souls of arrogant men and women who thought they knew it all. Those who remain, hopefully, will have learned why critical thinking is a step ahead of being merely ‘positive’. An optimistic smoker is no different from someone who goes unhappily to work each day, or remains unhappily involved with someone they don’t love, or worries that the world might be in trouble, but is too lazy to give those thoughts their due, too lazy to do anything about their situation. This optimism then is a costly fantasy in self-denial, but it's part of our collective delusion, and ultimately, our collective cost.

Think about it. What if we’re wrong?

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