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Is Humanity in Crisis?
By Mark Levene
September 11, war over Iraq, floods in Central Europe and Russia, drought and starvation in southern Africa, the break-up of Antarctic ice sheets, the collapse of fish stocks in the oceans, massive pollution as SE Asian rainforest burns, AIDS, BSE, the threat of nuclear war in the Indian sub-continent, the possibility of economic melt-down: the horror headlines bombard us practically every day and from every conceivable angle. But the big question is are these things unrelated and thus, as far as academic research is concerned subjects which require careful scrutiny in separate compartments. Or should we rather be seeing them as symptoms or by-products of some much bigger, deeper and all-pervading malaise?
The answer to the question may depend heavily on where one is coming from. Indeed posing the question in this way at all might be considered heavily loaded. To propose that what we are really dealing with are a series of epiphenomena which point towards some inherent dysfunction in our global political economy is a serious charge. To go one stage further and to insist that unless we can find ways out of that dysfunction we are going to be in serious trouble as a species is hardly the sort of pronouncement likely to have anybody cheering to the rafters.
So, how can people make a judgement? And what role can academics provide in getting us nearer to that goal? This is what a series of linked lectures at Southampton this forthcoming year proposes to consider. It is the product of the Crisis Forum, shorthand for the Forum for Study of Crisis in the 21st century, an initiative by two Southampton academics who do believe that world is in serious crisis and that universities have a rather important role not only in providing a more broad cross-disciplinary analysis of its manifestations but also in providing lateral ways of thinking to help us meet its manifold challenges.
Needless to say not everybody in the university is going to agree with these ideas. Academics, almost by defintion, have trenchant opinions. So, it’s very unlikely that even invited speakers are going to arrive at any consensus. On the other hand getting people from entirely different disciplines talking across boundaries may be a valuable start. The big paradox about Southampton is it is brimming over with experts: climate change is high on the Oceanography, Enviromental Sciences and Geography agendas, we have researchers in politics and economics on globalisation, nuclear proliferation and Aids, a whole raft of people working on potential palliatives in Engineering, Medicine and Maths, not to forget many more committed academics in the Humanities whose work on the political, social and cultural implications of crisis is often keenly comparative and historically grounded. Certainly, if the issues at stake are as urgent as the organisers claim, breaking down specialist barriers and getting disciplines and departments to talk a common language with one another may be a singular achievement.
That still, of course, begs the question about ways forward. If humanity is in crisis, is the right response to leave it to the experts to provide us with some big technocratic fixes or is the road to sustainability and survival founded on forms of social and cultural as well as economic and political self-liberation? There’s certainly all sorts of challenges here and something the Crisis Forum proposes to engage in through a series of interdisciplinary projects on specific aspects or symptoms of the problem. In the interim, the Forum seminars are an opportunity for anybody and everybody who cares about our planet to come along, listen and participate.
First published in The Dolphin (The University of Southampton magazine) October 2002
Is Humanity in Crisis?
A PUBLIC LECTURE SERIES 2002-2003
21 October Aubrey Meyer (Global Commons Institute, London)
11 November Milan Rai (Active Resistance to the Roots of War)
2 December International Relations Group (Southampton)
10 February Dr Peter Middleton (School of Humanities, Southampton)
3 March Prof. David Coggon (MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit)
last updated 26 March, 2004
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