The awareness chasm

The awareness chasm

Take yourself to a glacier in the Alps.

It is a fine spring day and you are descending toward the green pastures in the valley below. The ice is slippery as the sun beats down on it but all is well as your experienced guide has filled everyone on your trek with confidence and humour.

As the smell of the fields reaches your nostrils the guide stops and raises her hand.

In front of you the glacier has inched forward and cracked right across the chosen path. It has opened a bottomless hole toward the earth two meters wide. In the few hours since your party passed this way the glacier just reminded everyone that they are standing on a frozen river.

What happens if you try to cross this chasm?

There are no ropes or ladders or material for a bridge. You will have to jump.

Realistically, only one of two things can happen.

Success or failure, the latter bringing certain pain and likely death.

What to do then? Take the risky leap or walk an unknown distance around the obstacle? Perhaps decide that either option is too scary and staying where you are is the safest choice.

There is something similar hidden in the minds of consumers.

They stand on one side of a mental chasm where the milk and meat come from the fridge in aisle 3. On the other side is what it takes to breed, feed and slaughter the livestock to actually produce the milk and the mince.

The same applies to aisle 1 where the bread is stacked. How it gets there is on the other side of a mental chasm. Most of us eating the smashed avocado on sourdough toast know very little about where the deliciousness came from beyond the Blue Moon cafe on the high street.

Only the glacier analogy is a poor one.

Consumers are not on a trek. They don’t perceive the awareness gap at all and whilst there are supermarkets with produce and checkouts there is no need to even think about it. So long as a proportion of household income allocated to food, usually somewhere around 10 to 15%, is available in their current account, it is easy to tap away and load the SUV with the weekly shop. No questions asked.

Now we should say that these generalisations apply to the billion or so people who are at level 4 in Hans Rosling’s development scale, the people that live on more than $64 per day. The 6.5 billion humans on levels 1, 2 and 3 who must survive on less than this are far more aware. Those on level 1 with less than $1 per day of income, acutely so.

However, most of the money flows via those in level 4 and so the supply chain is designed for them. It is long and complex. It makes it possible for seasonal fruits to be on the shelves in all seasons with only modest price fluctuations.

Supply chains mean the shelves and fridges are well stocked and it means that there is no need to even think that a chasm exists let alone be in a position to have to cross it unaided.

There is a chasm of scale though between the individual consumer and the system of production. Most people on level 4 don’t know it exists but they should.

Why they don’t is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone understand what it takes to run one. They are consumers not producers and fair dues. It is enough to know how to select the cut of meat, roast it with sliced fennel and serve with a red wine jus.

It is also important to the psyche to know that there is food in the supermarket at all times. No need to worry or hoard produce. Just rock up and tap your card. Sustenance is a base need that seems surprisingly easy to cheat. We are too easily fooled that supply chain to the supermarket will always work. We don’t see a psychological chasm of food insecurity at all any more, even though this was a primal driver for our ancestors and for over half the global population still.

It may be that this psychological chasm of food security has to open up before we realise it is there.

Instead we have an awareness chasm. Only there is no reason for us to cross. It’s just a precipitous gap in the ice that looks dangerous.

Everything we need is on our side so meh, why worry?

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

Johnny Clegg 1953-2019

In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison. For me, it meant I could now travel across the border from my home in Botswana to visit the fantastic country of South Africa. I went many times over the next few years often to Sun City in Bophuthatswana.

Beyond my own minuscule protest, I was not really present to the truth of what was happening until on one visit to Sun City I saw Johnny Clegg perform. I knew a little of his music but not much about him other than he was one of the few white musicians to integrate himself fully into black Africa.

Near the middle of the set, he introduced what he said was a new song called ‘The Crossing’ dedicated to his friend Dudu Ndlovu who was assassinated during the apartheid struggle. It talks about how the spirit crosses over, the spirit of a friend.

I am playing it now and cannot control the sobs for this truth cradles the soul.

Many years later when Johnny Clegg came to Australia I went to see him play in Sydney.

Older and wiser, and now very familiar with his music, I realised that this man was pure of heart and soul, his songs and his presence letting the world know of his love for his fellow man and for Africa, a love that we should all embrace.

Johnny Clegg passed away this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

My tears are in sadness and memory of a musician and a man that helped me understand part of my own journey.

They are also in thanks for his life and his music that blessed this earth.

Why do landscapes excite you so much?

Why do landscapes excite you so much?

We love a landscape, we really do.

I bet you are familiar with at least some of these names: John Constable, Thomas Cole, Joseph Turner, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh.

Yes, they are all famous painters and are especially remembered for paintings of landscapes.

Likely you are also familiar with this painting by Constable, The Haywain, that depicts a rural scene on the River Stour between the English counties of Suffolk and Essex or perhaps this one rings a distant bell, A View of Arles by Vincent van Gogh.

Many of the most famous landscape paintings are of rural scenes where human intervention has altered the scene dramatically from the original ‘wilderness’.

This was handy for the painters of course. It meant that as they stood at their easel or sketched their charcoal renderings, they could see a long way into the distance. They could compose across open fields dotted with human-made interest.

Presumably for the landscape painter a pristine forest is less interesting visually, has fewer vantage points for the sketch and, critically, it has no obvious human connection. There are no objects or patterns to link the viewer to themselves.

We have already spoken of the biblical instruction in Genesis 1:28 for mankind to have dominion and, over the centuries, humankind has readily complied. Almost all landscape are altered by our hand, our chainsaws and our D-9s.

What most of the famous landscape artists painted was a human-made landscape, there were very few fully natural views that made it onto canvas.

So why do landscapes excite us?

Landscapes…

  • Are familiar to us.
  • Represent the dominion that we feel we have to have
  • Provide an image of perceived security that comes from dominion over nature
  • Under our control make us feel safer.

If we control nature then all her diabolical beasts and storms and winter chills are less of a threat to our person. If we control the profusion of life and can use it as needs must then we feel that security from food and water is easier to find. More viscerally, open land makes it easier to see the danger coming

The rainforest image was taken in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

It looks natural enough, pristine even, but it has been altered by people planting trees they need closer to where they need them. Sure these trees occur naturally in the forest but their locations and abundance have changed over the thousands of years that people have been living in the forest.

Stories

Stories

This definition pops up when you ask Google.

story

/ˈstɔːri
noun
1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
“an adventure story” synonyms: tale, narrative, account, recital;

2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.
“stories in the local papers” synonyms: news item, news report, article, feature, piece

Stories are accounts about the wonders of real or imaginary people told to entertain. We like them so much that every day we listen to them constantly as we gossip amongst ourselves or settle in for a night of Netflix.

We also call items of news stories and that is rather odd.

Evidence, on the other hand, is less popular. It is dry, factual and objective, unlikely to fire the imagination or to entertain, unless, of course, it is dramatised into a story.

Enter the public relations team for a government department. Any department really, but let’s say it’s the Department of the Environment.

The PR team face a conundrum. They have some scientific evidence to communicate only it is dry information that would struggle to cut through butter. Stories though are entertainment and, in the times of personal screens and feeds, are indispensable.

“Do you have a story?”, the PR lead says without any idea of what he is asking.

Well, as it turns out I do. I even wrote a book of them called Stories for a Change. There was also my first book, Awkward News for Greenies, that radically and without success had both stories and evidence in the same volume. It just confused the hell out of the handful of people who read it. They couldn’t tell when the fiction became fact.

Even though Netflix shows about sitting presidents get closer and closer to reality, we know them to be dramas made for television. This means that they are not true. Part of our brain can hold onto this even as we fall headlong into the illusion.

Similarly, modern period pieces are so well made that it feels like what actually happened is right there on the screen. The deception would be complete if they figured out how to relay the stench of Mr Darcy. He was most likely on the nose, given the frequency of bathing in the early 1800s. Into these dramas, we can fall without any controls because no matter how realistic they look they are obviously not real.

No doubt our affection for reality TV is that we can kid ourselves into turning off this safety completely. We can see that the people are real even as their stories are clumsily manipulated by eager producers.

In all of these entertainments, there is part of our brain that knows the truth. The story is not a reality. The thing is that we all must know how to separate the truth from fiction otherwise we go mad.

Our lady from the Ministry asks ‘what’s the story’ on a reflex. She knows that unless the evidence is made into entertainment it will not cut through to the desired audience. She also knows that evidence is more likely to be painful than dramatic, stranger than fiction but impenetrable and dull.

Who would know what to say about the average area of illegal land clearing being consistently greater than the modal area? It means that a few large clearing events skew the average upwards and tells you that the majority of instances are smaller than the average. It also tells you that if the total area of clearing is the worry, develop a policy to reduce the instance of large events, through heavy penalties for example.

So why do the people who should use evidence baulk at it in favour of the story, the fabrication that entertains? It is not just a matter of cutting through for people do want to know the truth and are engaged with it whenever it becomes accessible. A more likely reason is that stories are easier.

Telling the truth requires more than courage, it’s about making it easy for people to grasp when the truth can so often be painful.

Stories do this so much easier than facts.