Quote Library: Challenging our idea of normal
I collect quotes. Thousands of them. Good quotes are little gems of insight that help us see the world with new eyes. And sometimes they are just reminders of cool facts. This is the first in a series of posts where I will share quotes that have spoken to me for whatever reason, with some of my own thoughts, in the hope that you can benefit too. Here goes:
This quote from The Future We Choose* stopped me in my tracks. It highlights the huge gulf between the lifestyles of those in a minority of wealthy and powerful nations and those of the vast majority of people on Earth. It’s likely that everyone reading this (including myself of course) are in those 6% of people for whom flying is normal and expected. I fly several times a year. I have family and friends who live abroad and although I feel a certain amount of middle class guilt, flying still feels normal to me. But most people in the world will never fly anywhere, missing out on the hyper-mobility that Europeans and North Americans feel is a human right. Luckily for the rest of us, they also miss out on the emissions associated with flying.
Let’s move past flying for now. I’m not sharing this quote to make you feel guilt but to highlight the tendency of Global North citizens to assume that everyone lives - or should live - like us. Our high-emissions, high-mobility lifestyles are a strange aberration in a world where most people live local and low-emissions lives.
Another example: on podcast episode #40 Disability Mobility , Micah Lusignan shared with me this stat: Only 20% of the world’s population drives a car**. In many parts of Britain and North America, living without a car is almost impossible due to decades of corporate lobbying, misguided urban planning and a sense that people have a right to own cars. Forward-thinking cities like Paris and Barcelona are trying to undo this failure of urban design through projects like the 15-Minute City and Barcelona’s Super-Blocks.
However, while we fix problems at home, we have exported car-centric urbanism to the Middle East and Global South, locking these places into decades of poor air quality and sedentarism. Worryingly, the fact that most of the world’s population does not drive or fly means there is potential for an ungodly expansion of these polluting industries across the world. In fact, the CEO of Boeing sees this as an opportunity to drive economic growth.
The Global North is responsible for 92% of excess emissions. If the rest of the world rises to our emissions levels in the Global North, we are almost certainly headed for environmental collapse.
What I take away from this humble quote is that we need to redefine our concept of ‘normal’. For a long time there has been a narrative that the lifestyles of those in wealthy nations is the bar that all should aspire to. This points to a severe lack of historical literacy and imagination on our part. Poverty in the Global South is directly linked to historical and contemporary colonialism. The solution is not structural adjustment programmes, privatisation and the importation of western norms into foreign lands. A truly radical (yet incredibly sensible) approach would be to let local people define what there own definition of normal is, accept that it will look different from our lives, and see what we can learn from them.
*The figure of 6% is debated. Recently the CEO of Boeing said that only ‘less than 20%’ of people have flown. Other estimates say the number is lower at 4%.
**This figure is also difficult to report with certainty, but looking at the stats suggests 20% is a good estimate.