Not too much text in this post- but lots of images and a couple of videos, used with kind permission of photographer/anthropologist Johnny Miller. His website, www.unequalscenes.com, has many more eye-opening images of inequality.
Long ago my high-school physics teacher introduced me to Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland, a Romance in Many Dimensions”. Abbott's aim was to tunnel into Victorian hierarchies but for me "Flatland" was an exploration of the meaning and possibilities of new dimensions. In Flatland two-dimensional characters live in houses which are polygons with gaps for doors and slide around their two dimensional world. They see only the edge, not the inside, of closed shapes. Its a boring, limited existence but its all they know. The central character meets a sphere from the three dimensional world who moves magically in and out of Flatland and can get inside spaces impenetrable to Flatlanders by entering from another dimension. Much of the book is about a Flatlander accepting the existence of a third dimension, then trying to convince other Flatlanders that there is more to life than they see.
All very intesting to a high school physics student, but to a development specialist? Well, sure the thin green skin of this planet is curved and it's crenellated by mountains-the earth isn't flat- but the bit we inhabit is two dimensional. Our vision is restricted too. The development space we slide around in is limited in so many ways. Just like Flatlanders we are experts at excluding each other with lines- fences and borders. Many of our realities are but social, political and historical constructs. The president of the wealthiest nation in human history is currently constructing a line between the rich and poor worlds solid enough to keep "Mexican rapists" down there but not stop his rich world pouring carbon all over them. In Flatland development would have been educating the population that there is another, more empowering way and encourging them all to seize it. Here on planet Earth too.
Got 100 seconds? Let Johnny Miller take you, in a drone, to another dimension. He'll give you a view from above of realities we've constructed, startle you with demarcations and boundaries easily missed as we slide over our 2-d curved earth. The golfer bursting a dimpled white ball out of smooth white-sand and the black kid a few metres away feeding his baby sister in a shanty town as a train rattles roughly past are stuck, in disparate realities, oblivious. Side-by-side Johnny Miller presents us with both, showing them as human constructs, deliberate choices. He invites us to visualize a life lived in velvet grass, another amidst oxidizing iron and makes us ask "Why?" and "At what cost?"
That's it- Lines! Ridges, rivers, razor wire, roads, fences and borders divide and restrict not only the physical world but also our minds, our vision, our human identity. We choose to live limited by lines.
Now, at whatever scale you wish, consider other ways in which human markers limit people, direct them to different spaces. Some that come to my mind are: numbers in bank accounts, passports that arbitrarily define people as insiders or outsiders, skin colour, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation. Man-made dividing lines- all of them.
There are more. Millions around the world, many of them children, are conceptually divided between "worker" and "human". As workers they're fully inside the Western capitalist system but as people their health care, unfair wages, ability to migrate, access to food and human rights languish beyond the concern of the rich world. There are other, equally sinister lines. Once there was apartheid in Miller's South Africa, there's still caste in my India, your world.
Miller's images are striking because in them disparate realities like golf courses and shanties are visually juxtaposed. But really in a planet where every place is connected by a few-hour flight or an instant internet blink all our dichotomies are side-by side. Photos may not capture it but here on our home planet burgeoning GDP and plummeting biodiversity exist in tension right next to each other. In our home planet the all-time biggest stockpiles of military hardware and lowest forest cover lie side by side. In my India- and yours- hearts are transplanted while bustee children die of diarrhea outside hospital doors. Right now drought and starvation are killing East Africans while for our World Cup air-conditioned soccer stadia are being constructed in Qatar. Look at Johnny Miller's images, see metaphors for all our global and local dichotomies. Let them dig like spurs into your consciousness.
Miller's drone's-eye-view made me re-conceive development as a creative flight in another dimension, visualizing limiting lines and conceptual divides between people, imagining life beyond them and finding pathways through, between or over the barriers. Development should reboot our line-limited realitie.
Impossible? No! I work with a mental health project in India which, without psychiatrists ( England, USA, Australia took them all), builds wellness through inclusion and understanding. They connect communities in new ways, find ways around dividing lines of illness and stigma. There is conservation work in the Indian Himalayas configuring a system- villagers, their stock, grazing lands and predatory snow leopards- in new and different ways. I evaluated a Cambodian project which accompanies marginalized indigenous people towards re-defining and holding their own identity amidst modernity's burgeoning mayhem. These projects are rebooting reality.
That's development - imagination and courage to travel into dimensions beyond the default reality in which most of humanity lives and skill and charisma to take others there. My definition now?
Development is looking at people and environments in ways others don't look, seeing things others don't see, doing things others don't do and thus contributing to positive change.
Thanks Johnny Miller for this insight.
In this 2 minute news article Johnny Miller talks about his work: