Opinion

Human survival depends on our ability to adapt

Our precarious world order is under threat like never before, so Big Issue founder John Bird says we must develop the skills to tackle the coming challenges

Photo: Alex Shute / Unsplash

Is there a way of teaching resilience to people in a world that sees increasing change?

I once suggested at a talk with people who worked in a large City bank that the people to model yourself on in the future were the homeless.

They may not always make the right decisions in life, but they have to develop resilience in order to survive. They have to learn to duck and dive, bob and weave like boxers avoiding the punches.

If we don’t know what jobs are coming down the line in 10, 20 years time then learning resilience, and an ability to respond to challenges, is a good place to put your educational money.

Now, with Covid still hanging around and limitations placed on us all, as well as new threats to world stability through military intervention, it seems adaptability is the big issue.

But how can you develop adaptability if you are not challenged? If you are not made to face up to threats? If you are not educated into reality and all of its ugliness so that you can learn to be one step ahead of the game?

Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World, by Scott Reynolds Nelson, deals with this theme of unpredictability and mankind’s adaptation in the face of threats. Mankind’s use of grain to create the model world which has fed more people than ever before. Where empires, which are built around food, are dashed and broken because of the change in food habits.

He describes how the Arab Spring of 2011 largely came about because bread prices were no longer guaranteed in North Africa, due to shortages and the increase in grain prices. It swept away the governments in a rising tide of disdain and anger because food shortages led to revolt.

Vulnerability is endemic in the system and we have been protected from it for decades. But unless we develop skills now, then how can we handle future threats to our stability? How do we toughen up for a time when we may not be able to predict food chains?

Nature, despoiled by pollution, is under threat. World order is under threat by forces that seek to change the balance of power to their advantage. Vulnerability is the new ingredient. And with a world of leaders incapable, it seems, of second guessing the next crisis – which in many ways helps increase our vulnerability – we are at sea. And at such times we should be looking to increasing our resilience to new challenges.

So much has changed in the last two or three years that we are living in a different world. It is a world of challenges but also of great opportunities. Opportunities to break through our terrible dependency on consumerism and entertainment, on distraction and a preoccupation with appearances; the appearance of democracy, where we are more worried about changing words and avoiding offence than challenging the underlying causes of oppression. 

Poverty is the biggest game changer in the world. It is often dressed up in nationalistic or religious rhetoric. But poverty underlies most of our problems and makes people more vulnerable. If we want to sort society out so it is more just and equal then we must sweep away the evils of poverty which rots the very structure of our society.

I am surprised how more preoccupied we are with the appearance of things than with the things themselves. We have yet to wholeheartedly embrace the reality of our environment’s degradation. We have yet to tackle the poor thinking that turns even young children into supporters of the vast wealth holders and their social media businesses. We have yet to come to terms with the constant need, it seems, to make merely tokenistic gestures in support of people living in oppression.

Resilience has become a buzzword in government, with their ‘levelling up’ agenda. It does not matter to me that the word has become fashionable and has been fetishised in this way. It is important that we move our world into a place where ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving can be the norm. We have to educate people into developing the skills to tackle the threats we face around environment and political/military issues. Face up to the fact that, sometimes, guns and bombs can be used to keep people away from threatening your peace.

Most of all we need to inculcate in people the skills to take on challenges, and that cannot be done by bubble-wrapping people. Surrounding them only with others who agree with them. How are they going to become resilient if they only get to know people of like mind? 

If I learned anything in my rise out of poverty and crime, it was to take on skills that allowed you to survive oppression and need, want and hunger, violence and aggression. I would not recommend that road to anyone. But I would want to extract from that experience, the experience of millions, that being adaptable and tougher makes good survival sense.

We must throw away the bubble wrap, and extricate our heads from the social media cloud, if we are to survive in this ever-changing world. 

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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