The very grainy photograph above shows me sitting at 2am in a packing crate on a folding camp chair with a powerful rifle at my side, guarding my sleeping companions from attack by polar bear, 500 miles from the north pole at the northwestern-most tip of the Spitsbergen archipelago. I was fifteen.
My seven weeks in the High Arctic on a mountaineering and scientific expedition started a lifelong fascination with all things Polar. Some years after my youthful adventuring, a few hundred miles to the south and 120 metres inside a sandstone mountain, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was opened with the intent to insure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises. The seeds are kept in specially designed heat-sealed, four ply envelopes at a constant, moisture-free temperature of minus eighteen degrees Centigrade. At 130 metres above sea-level, they are secured even against a wholesale melt of the polar ice caps.
The kind of seismic global catastrophe that might see us needing to make a withdrawal from the vault doesn’t really bear thinking about. But we live in times when it so often seems to be the correct course of action to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. The recent report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills into the future of work in 2030 makes for pretty bleak reading (and this excellent post by my friend @FlipChartRick does a great job of summarising the key issues). Of course, this report, as well researched and balanced as it is, presents a possibile future which might not necessarily come into being. Working lives might well be impacted by the same global disaters that might require use of the seed vault but a great many of the factors shaping the world of work are more readily under the control of people, both individually and collectively.
Assuming we reach 2030 with the polar ice caps relatively intact, we’ll only be lamenting the accuracy of the UKCES report if we merely hope for the best. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they are proven wrong (in the nicest possible sense of that phrase). We cannot lock our best and brightest minds away in a hermetically sealed vault in a mountain and re-animate them in the future by way of insurance. Neither can we propogate the germinating talents of our children at school by heaping on the manure of past failed and failing orthodoxies.
Efforts to shape better work and working lives must see any benefits equitably distributed. Pete Seegers’ “Where have all the flowers gone” is a lament for a lost generation. It’s message still resonates today. If we’re not to lose a generation to precarious, uncertain, low-paid work we should hope, and prepare, for the best.