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COVID-19, Young People and the Convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the 6th Mass Extinction – Part 1

In a presentation to a ‘packed room’ just a few months ago – though it seems like another world, another lifetime – I was invited to speak about UNEVOC@RMIT’s School of Education agenda for Co-designing sustainable futures for young people in times of crisis and disruption

I started that presentation by referencing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 2015 resolution titled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Paragraph 14 of that resolution is titled:

Our world today

14. We are meeting at a time of immense challenges to sustainable development. Billions of our citizens continue to live in poverty and are denied a life of dignity. There are rising inequalities within and among countries. There are enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power. Gender inequality remains a key challenge. Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is a major concern. Global health threats, more frequent and intense natural disasters, spiralling conflict, violent extremism, terrorism and related humanitarian crises and forced displacement of people threaten to reverse much of the development progress made in recent decades.

Natural resource depletion and adverse impacts of environmental degradation, including desertification, drought, land degradation, freshwater scarcity and loss of biodiversity, add to and exacerbate the list of challenges which humanity faces. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and its adverse impacts undermine the ability of all countries to achieve sustainable development. Increases in global temperature, sea level rise, ocean acidification and other climate change impacts are seriously affecting coastal areas and low-lying coastal countries, including many least developed countries and small island developing States. The survival of many societies, and of the biological support systems of the planet, is at risk. (United Nations General Assembly, 2015, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, p.5)

At that time, I suggested that many people would still want to deny this narrative, and some would say that the UN’s sense of crisis is not urgent enough.

In that presentation I also asked: What will you do when the robots grow up? 

In posing that provocation I cited Michael Koziol, in an article in The Age from February 2018, who introduces Bruce Reed as the former top domestic policy advisor to US President Bill Clinton, as the former chief of staff to US Vice President Jo Biden, and as a co-chair of the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative. In that article Reed is cited claiming that:

‘…The so-called “gig economy”, symbolised by the explosion of services such as Uber, will rapidly expand the proportion of workers who are freelancers, while increasing automation in the workplace will reshape the skills and jobs for which [education institutions] will need to prepare students…’

‘But Uber and its like are only “the first inning of disruption”’, claims Reed.  

The ‘rush to develop self-driving cars, buses and trucks, Boeing’s testing of autonomous planes and Dubai’s plan to replace taxis with single-passenger drones…’ signal, for Reed, and many others, the trajectories of disruption that are heralded by the changes that we see in our presents and in our futures.

For Reed: ‘“The question used to be, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ The question now is, ‘What will you do when the robots grow up?’” 

Again, there will be people who suggest that the potential of AI to replace jobs is overstated, and that new technologies always create new jobs…

But, possibly, this ‘revolution’, this ‘disruption’, might not be like earlier ones – for example, just consider how far mobile phones have come in 30 years.

So, as we joked about not shaking hands and bumping elbows, I suggested that by many measures we are living in and through some profound disruptions, and on a trajectory to some profound, existential crises.

Rosi Braidotti (2019) – who grew up in North Fitzroy in an Italian-Australian family – is a world leading philosopher of the posthuman who provides a powerful way of naming these times we live in. As she says:

‘…we are currently situated in a posthuman convergence between the Fourth industrial Age and the Sixth Extinction, between an advanced knowledge economy, which perpetuates patterns of discrimination and exclusion, and the threat of climate change devastation for both human and non-human entities…’

Click here for a video of Rosi Braidotti’s lecture on Posthuman Knowledge at Harvard.

At that point in the presentation I indicated that I wanted to be a little provocative and suggest – as a sociologist, that if we do not account for the ‘c’ word – capitalism – and another ‘c’ word – class – then we will continue to focus on the consequences of this convergence. 

And we will ignore the driving forces of this unfolding disruption and crisis, and the impacts that these are having on the planet, and on different groups and communities.

Because we know that the opportunities and the burdens of disruption and crisis are never shared evenly. Some populations, some young people are more vulnerable, more at risk in these crises.

Which brings us to the now, the dangerous present, and to our increasingly uncertain futures, as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on, and the social, cultural, economic and political fallouts are starting to loom large on our near horizons. In the next post I will develop the discussion about how we can understand the emergence of COVID-19, the disruption and crisis it produces, as having to be situated in the convergence that Braidotti identifies – if we are to build productive scenarios for young people’s sustainable futures in places and lifeworlds that can’t return to ‘business-as-usual’.

As Professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondizio and Dr. Peter Daszak argue in, COVID-19 Stimulus Measures Must Save Lives, Protect Livelihoods, and Safeguard Nature to Reduce the Risk of Future Pandemics:

There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost. We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.   

Diseases like COVID-19 are caused by microorganisms that infect our bodies – with more than 70% of all emerging diseases affecting people having originated in wildlife and domesticated animals. Pandemics, however, are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct contact and often conflict with the animals that carry these pathogens.

Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people. This often occurs in areas where communities live that are most vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Our actions have significantly impacted more than three quarters of the Earth’s land surface, destroyed more than 85% of wetlands and dedicated more than a third of all land and almost 75% of available freshwater to crops and livestock production.

Add to this the unregulated trade in wild animals and the explosive growth of global air travel and it becomes clear how a virus that once circulated harmlessly among a species of bats in Southeast Asia has now infected more almost 2 million people, brought untold human suffering and halted economies and societies around the world. This is the human hand in pandemic emergence

References

Braidotti, R (2019) Posthuman Knowledge, https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/event/rosi-braidotti/  [Accessed, 24/02/2020]

Koziol, M. (2018) What will you do when the robots grow up?, The Age, Wednesday February 28, p.11.

United Nations General Assembly, 2015, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

By Peter Kelly

I lead the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University.

3 replies on “COVID-19, Young People and the Convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the 6th Mass Extinction – Part 1”

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