It’s Systemic, Stupid.

“It’s the economy, stupid”

Strategist James Carville in advising Bill Clinton in his successful 1992 campain against George.H.W.Bush

On Monday, we got the IPCC report on climate change, which has generated “code red” headlines and apparent soul searching as we come to terms with what we are facing is systemic and of our own making.

On Tuesday, we learned the results of school exams and discovered that over forty-four per cent received top grades, compared to around 25% pre-pandemic. An immediate outcry of “grade inflation” as I listened to a hapless secretary of state for education struggle to explain any coherent approach to how we assess our young people’s education whilst apparently failing to appreciate that education, like climate change, is a human problem, not a technical problem. Both are systemic.

It raised a question in my mind – for whose benefit is the exam system designed? Is it to assess what students understand and help them evaluate the direction of their lives, or is it a forced ranking system for the benefit of employers and the university industry? The answer seems to lie more in the latter. It is a way of filtering people based on a very narrow spectrum of mainly academic ability, as though that ability alone defines their potential. 

Those young people who received their grades yesterday will likely live another eighty years through what will be a momentous period of change. I want to see them exercising every ounce of their potential in search of something rather more worthwhile than a mundane job in a mediocre business in pursuit of shiny coins. Something that will enrich them as people, and along the way, enable them to help dig us out of the mess we have created by chasing those shiny coins.

Just as I felt the gloom of frustration at the lack of imagination of those who run “U.K. plc” descending, relief arrived in a short piece on Vision Zero, an initiative started in Sweden to reduce traffic deaths to zero, and now spreading elsewhere. Its start point is that it’s not about the people – we are human, with all the genius and flaws that come with us, and we’re not going to change. Instead, it’s about the system and designing opportunities for fatalities out of it – everything from road design to car design to city design and creating transport systems built around people, rather than trying to shape people around systems.

It is not the biggest leap of imagination to consider the same approach for education – designing it around human potential rather than commercial convenience. Likewise, developing businesses around balancing a broader concept of human and planetary wealth for more than a narrow definition of shiny coin collections for a small minority.

We need to more than hope. We have been shaping the planet and ourselves around a psychopathic idea of perpetual growth, which has to change. 

First, the pandemic, and now the IPCC report, clarifies that what we face is not a technical problem to be addressed by bureaucrats and technocrats; it is a systemic problem faced by all of us.

We cannot treat people, and especially our young people, as cash crops to be harvested as efficiently as possible. 

Whether we regard what has to happen as a renaissance or politics, or a movement depends on our point of view – I think it is at least all three – but whatever it is, we all have our part to play. 

Talking about the forest fires in Greece, the Greek Prime Minister spoke of “a battle with nature”. And there we have it. However, nature doesn’t do battles; it just evolves. If we want to be part of that evolution, we must recognise what we are part of and never control.

Somewhere between the extremes of climate protestors and the corporate world sits the majority of us. We each have a voice and a choice. How we use them will determine what happens next.

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