Life, but not as we know it

A guest post by Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. This article originally appeared as part of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme Forum on the Pandemic and Sustainability, convened by Dr Andreas Antoniades.

Amid the fear, uncertainty and personal loss that surround the current Covid-19 pandemic, people are starting to think about what form a ‘just recovery’ to the crisis might take. But what if sustainability was also one of the guiding principles of efforts to re-build economies, communities and societies?

Here I highlight three key dimensions. Firstly, behaviour change. People have shown themselves to be remarkably able to adapt to constraints and adopt new norms of living, accepting limits on their behaviour requested by the state in order to address this threat to our collective well-being. No one will welcome further or permanent restrictions on their freedom, of course. But there may be scope to further encourage positive behaviours around re-localisation and resilience: from supporting local businesses and sourcing local food and reducing food waste to enabling more people to work from home and making virtual conferencing the norm to avoid unnecessary flights.

Historical evidence suggests that once behaviours shift, even if induced by crisis, they can become the new normal. One example, would be the shift towards a four day working week that was introduced as a temporary cost-cutting measure and became so popular that it remained in place.

Secondly, fighting roll-back. Just as the crisis has provided an opportunity to avoid aspects of business as usual that are clearly unsustainable, so too the rush to kick-start the economy, combined with the losses they have suffered, is emboldening airline industries and fossil fuel firms to claim bail-outs and state support of around $2 trillion in the case of the US alone. This is in addition to the $10 million a minute that the world already spends on fossil fuel subsidies according to the IMF. They have already had some success with commitments to suspend the enforcement of environmental laws in the US, for example, and pressure for further de-regulation of hard-fought environmental protections.

Ensuring these basic safeguards are not eroded is vital to our ability to deliver the SDGs. Beyond providing compensation and re-training opportunities for workers, this is not the moment to resuscitate industries whose business models are incompatible with delivering the Paris agreement when there are so many other sectors deserving of state support. Rapid transitions out of these sectors were required before the crisis; the coronavirus has served to precipitate their decline and provides an opportunity for an economy wide re-think.

Thirdly, re-set around the aims and priorities of economic life. We have seen widespread support for prioritising welfare and prosperity over growth at all costs. This has implied strengthening the resilience of our life support systems: health services and the environment which sustains us all.

The industrial conversions we have seen in recent weeks could be extended to a broader re-purposing of the economy through new investments in jobs and infrastructure along the lines of the proposed Green New Deal to ensure the economy we build from the crisis is built on stronger foundations of sustainability. The basis for this could have to be secure and decently paid work as part of a just transition; a deliberate move away from casualisation and precarious contracts for the poorest in society.

Alongside this, there is renewed interest in cooperatives, social enterprise, B-Corps and non-traditional business models that put welfare above short-term profit maximisation.

This is a key moment to change the economy by design and not just in the mode of crisis management. The goals of strengthening resilience, enhancing well-being and guaranteeing social justice need to guide our efforts.

Things won’t ever be the same again, but nor should they be. If normal was the problem, pushing us beyond planetary boundaries, getting back to normal spells disaster. Is it possible that we might make something positive come from this most devastating of crises? For the sake of future generations, we have to make sure the answer is yes.

Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Peter is a specialist in the politics and political economy of environment and development.

Find out more about his Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project on ‘Climate Resilient Agricultural Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa‘.


Released earlier this month, Different Geographies by Collectress:

Different Geographies is a record named in response to the realities of close collaboration at a distance. The phrase, the idea and the method grew out of the fact that we have been living quite different lives, in often far flung spaces for the last few years. Like the slowly evolving layers of the landscape speak to a geologist, the tracks on the album are a record of the ways that our individual lives and experiences have inspired, interrupted or influenced our collective music making over the last 5 years.

Collectress are Alice Eldridge, Alice Eldridge, Rebecca Waterworth, Caroline Weeks, and Quinta. Also feat. Andy Waterworth and Pepo the dog.

Open Workshop: Text Data Preparation

UPDATE: As you may have guessed, this event has been postponed for the foreseeable future.
Wednesday 19 February 15:00 until 17:00
Digital Humanities Lab, Silverstone
Speaker: Jack Pay
Part of the series: SHL Open Workshops

The workshop is most suitable for staff and postgraduate students, but all are welcome.

An eventbrite to sign up is available here.

The purpose of this workshop is to introduce researchers and interested parties to two key aspects of data preparation. A common problem when starting work on large scale processing of text is that it can be noisy, hard to analyse or structure in a machine readable manner.

In this workshop we will cover two common examples of problematic texts: crawled or downloaded web documents composed in html and (poorly) OCR’d texts taken from some historical corpus. The purpose of using these examples is to introduce participants to the tools and methods used in web-scraping and data wrangling.

The workshop will comprise of a presentation and semi-practical session; where the presentation will introduce the key problems and solutions to these methods and the practical session will present an illustrative example solution.

This workshop is not intended as a complete tutorial on how to prepare data, but serves as an introduction to provide participants with the information and knowledge of the potential tools to begin working on these problems themselves.

If you have any questions about this workshop, please contact the convenor, Ben Roberts.

Digital forensics methods in humanities research

Last year SHL was lucky enough to have the brilliant and lovely Thorston Ries working with us on his Horizon 2020-funded DFitHH project, undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. Thorston’s project …

… used three born-digital archives as case studies: the personal digital archives of novelist, playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, technology journalist Glyn Moody, and the Mass Observation Project Archive. “The work with the archives resulted in awareness and advice for future improvement of archival workflows, tools and standards,” says Ries.

Full write-up here.

Thorston’s presence in SHL was enough to convert a number of us into digital forensics NERDs (Nothing’s Ever Reaaallllyyy Deleted).

Critical Data Studies in Kesh

Ursula Le Guin writes in Always Coming Home (1985):

PAN: You destroy valuable books?

ARC: Oh, yes. Who wants to be buried under them?

PAN: But you could keep important documents and valuable literary works in electronic storage, at the Exchange, where they don’t take up any room–

ARC: The City of Mind does that. They want a copy of everything. We give them some. What is “room”—is it only a piece of space?

PAN: But intangibles—information–

ARC: Tangible or intangible, either you keep a thing or you give it. We find it safer to give it.

PAN: But that’s the point of information storage and retrieval systems! The material is kept for anyone who wants or needs it. Information is passed on—the central act of human culture.

ARC: “Keeping grows; giving flows.” Giving involves a good deal of discrimination; as a business it requires a more disciplined intelligence than keeping, perhaps. Disciplined people come here, Oak Lodge people, historians, learned people, scribes and reciters and writers, they’re always here, like those four, you see, going through the books, copying out what they want, annotating. Books no one reads go; books people read go after a while. But they all go. Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.

Pan then complains that Arc is starting to talk like a utopian, with a long, elegant, persuasive answer for everything. Fine, says Arc. How about ask a few questions.

ARC: Who controls the storage and the retrieval? To what extent is the material there for anyone who wants and needs it, and to what extent is it “there” only for those who have the information that it is there, the education to obtain that information, and the power to get that education? How many people in your society are literate? How many are computer-competent? How many of them have the competence to use libraries and electronic information storage systems? How much real information is available to ordinary, non-government, nonmilitary, nonspecialist, nonrich people? What does “classified” mean? What do shredders shred? What does money buy? In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful—another piston in the great machine?

CfP: Speculative Art

Call for Submissions: Speculative Art
“I want to be a machine” Andy Warhol

For the next issue of Vector, we invite contributors to explore modern and contemporary art in relation to science fiction. At a time when avoiding science fiction is as difficult as avoiding technology, the news, or reality itself, it’s no surprise we encounter SF in art galleries as well. Yet it’s difficult to provide a definition by which some works of art may be considered works of SF. Should such a definition be based on aesthetics, concepts, methods, or something else? Are there works of art that may not evoke SF at first glance, but are fruitful to consider in the context of SF culture and theory? We welcome submissions that explore technology, alterity, time and space, posthumanity, artificial intelligence, and other science fictional and fantastic themes through visual art, sound art, installation art, performance art, relational art, new media, conceptual art, ludic art, and any and all other forms.

The deadline for submissions is March 1, 2020. We strongly encourage you to get in touch with us to discuss your ideas in advance. Academic articles between 3,500 and 5,500 words may be considered for peer review, and shorter articles, exhibition reviews, interviews, and other features are also welcome. Imaginative and left-field interpretations of the call are also encouraged.

Queries and submissions to:

For inspiration, here are just a few artists that draw on SF in their work:

Vector is the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. It is edited by Polina Levontin and SHL’s Jo Lindsay Walton.