The Ultimate Race on a Warming Planet: Education vs. Catastrophe

Wells: Visionary and cautionary

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,” said H G Wells, British writer and social activist (1866 – 1946).

This is one of my all time favourite quotes. With amazing economy of words, the author of science fiction classics such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds has summed up the story of human civilisation.

For much of history, our race has managed to outrun and outsmart an assortment of perils – and sometimes winning with only a wafer thin margin. Individual civilisations that lost the race were doomed to extinction, and now live only in history books and archaeological ruins.

As a whole, however, our species has managed to outlive famines, plagues, ice ages and nuclear weapons. But how are we going to fare with the latest peril – global climate change?

Coping with this phenomenon may well be the Ultimate Race to save our species and our planet. To increase our chances, we need to invest more on education — in its broadest sense.

This is the point I’ve been making in recent weeks, when giving talks about the role of information, education and communication (IEC as its practitioners call it) in preparing communities and societies to live with inevitable climate change. I have addressed diverse groups – from academics and science students to science journalists and civil society activists. Often, my audiences have been multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary.

Fortunately, I didn’t find anyone disagreeing with me – but some were uncertain on methods and means to unleash education on an unprecedented scale.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Education for Sustainable Development is an attempt to strengthen humanity’s prospects in the Ultimate Race.

TVE Asia Pacific’s latest Asian TV series, modestly named Saving the Planet, brings some dispatches from the frontier of that race. It shows how some people are working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action to live in harmony with the planet.

Increase our winning chances in the Ultimate Race!

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Now on MediaChannel.org: Good communications to combat swine flu?

They turn the spotlight inwards...

They turn the spotlight inwards...

MediaChannel.org has just published my latest op ed essay titled: Good communications to combat swine flu?

7 May 2009: New Age newspaper in Bangladesh has reprinted the essay

24 May 2009: The Hindu newspaper in India has reprinted the essay in its Sunday Magazine

In this essay, I have expanded some points originally made in two recent blog posts, on 30 April and 1 May 2009.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Flu shots, quarantine measures and hospital care alone cannot counter the current flu outbreak. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and other communicators to mount the public awareness response. Ideally, they should reinforce each other.

“For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, a majority of them in the developing world. Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) have access to the web, even if at varying levels of bandwidth. Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.

“Can these information and communication technologies (ICTs) help disseminate the right kind of flu awareness? How fast can we mobilise 24/7 media outlets and telecom networks to inspire preventive and curative action? What can the blogging, texting and twittering new media activists do in such efforts?”

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Looking for models of communicating against an infectious epidemic, I recall the Asian experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) . I summarise in this essay the public interest roles played by Asian media during the SARS crisis, which has been studied and analysed in considerable detail.

I then return to one of my favourite points about communicating disasters and crises: the need for credible messages and credible messengers. This was a core theme in the Asian book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in 2007. I also highlighted it in this interview given to APC in early 2008.

Here’s how my essay ends: “Whether it is SARS, HIV or tsunami, many Asian governments have suffered from a credibility gap in managing information about emergencies. For example, the initially slow and guarded media reporting on SARS allowed the virus to spread quickly in China, with devastating results. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes with the latest flu pandemic.

“Nearly a century ago, British author H G Wells talked about human history being a race between education and catastrophe. In the coming weeks, we would find out if humanity has what it takes to outrun and outsmart a stubborn virus.

Read the full essay at MediaChannel.org

Read my op ed essay in SciDev.net in Dec 2005: A Long Last Mile: The lesson of the Asian tsunami

MediaChannel have published my op ed essays before. They were the first to publish, in June 2006, my global call for the broadcast industry to recognise poverty as a copyright free zone. And when Al Jazeera English channel was launched at the end of 2006, MediaChannel carried my essay on ethical news gathering as the biggest challenge for the new global TV network.

My latest essay is a humble birthday present to MediaChannel.org as it completes 10 years. Unique among websites, MediaChannel.org holds the rest of the media accountable with the best of the world’s media criticism and analysis — offering news, diverse global perspectives, and commentaries tracking international news flows. They cover breaking controversies, showcase change-makers, trends and cutting edge issues that you need to know about – produced by journalists for journalists and citizens.

MediaChannel’s co-founder Danny Schechter is one of my media heroes – he was Moving Images Person of the Year 2008.

“Our survival alone is a cause for celebration – a decade of growth and impact is impressive in ‘Internet years’,” wrote the website’s founders in a special 10th anniversary message. They added: “Over the past 10 years, we have survived financial crises and organized hack attacks. We have managed to remain relevant and on the cutting edge in a quickly evolving online landscape when many other sites and organizations have come… and gone.”

The team is making an urgent appeal for donations to keep this excellent service going. I’m very happy to amplify this – few services can deliver better value for money, and our troubled times and troubled media sure need the soul-searching constantly provided by MediaChannel.org

Ten years of kicking ass!

Ten years of kicking ass!