[Science Solitaire] Time to rethink the power of crowds

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] Time to rethink the power of crowds
Here are just some ways we can turn the crowd to work for a better normal

Maria Isabel Garcia

When humans all over the world were mostly quarantined, we noted how nature was “coming back” as if it had left us like a prodigal child. During quarantine, certain sounds of animals have been recorded to inhabit the break of dawn different from pre-quarantine dawns. Air pollution dramatically went down in cities around the world. Even fake videos of dolphins now swimming in Venice proliferated as if faking videos would fool nature into doing what we wanted it to do. But if we think about it carefully, nature never left us. We took over it. We crowded nature.  That is how we got ourselves into this pandemic in the first place. 

With the pandemic, we were all asked to stay apart, to avoid crowded places. But crowding is human nature. It is one of the striking features of being social beings. It can be a mountain and a pit or both at the same time. It can boost our causes and morale as in peaceful protests or concerts. It can also be negative when they amplify infections or our darker tendencies as in looting or mob behavior.  It can also be complex like the way we have invented towns and cities where we all crowd and make possible an incredible amount of exchanges in creativity and commerce that uplift lives but also lay waste its waterways and air, and also revealing deep divides in who really gets the net benefit from the urban hype. 

As we re-inhabit the places we temporarily allowed to “rest,” one of the things that will define what kind of “normal” we arrive at is the way we view and behave as “crowds.” And maybe it will help, before we re-enter the crowded scene, to know what “crowding” in the old normal meant, how it could have betrayed us in many ways but most importantly, how we could re-configure the power of the crowds we make.

There is a new map that shows land areas in the world with the degrees of human impact – not just where we live but where we farm or mine or extract resources for human consumption. It is a layering of 4 independent mapping efforts.  

One of the layers shows that 95% of the entire world’s landmass has been modified by humans and 84% has had multiple human impacts with most of the world in critical thresholds. It also makes us realize that we do not have to have many humans present in a given space to make for a crowd with serious human impact. We do it when we use spaces to serve humans who are crowding in other places just like we clear up forests for cattle-grazing such as the Amazon where there are no crowds, to serve the overwhelming crowds of burger fast food chains. It goes for agricultural areas where there are no crowds but have taken over a third of the planet’s landmass  to feed crowded humans elsewhere. 

Another layer is the Global Human Footprint Index. Explore it by zooming in on the places in the world you want to see. Zoom in on Metro Manila and see that it is colored black. That means that the human impact there is extreme. So it is no co-incidence that the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Philippines is in Metro Manila. “Human footprint” is how we can measure the impact of human crowds on ecosystems. It could also indicate the quality of life that human crowds have in the spaces they crowd, so it goes both ways. 

That is the kind of crowding we did that gave way to this pandemic. This would not matter if there were another planet we could move into but even with the recent success of space tourism, the space tourists could only get as far as the International Space Station. And it is silly and foolish to hinge our new normal on hopes for new real estate development in Mars. There is no Planet B. 

But there is also NO Species B. Out of the about 9 million species estimated to inhabit the planet, we humans turned out to be both the most destructive and most creative, so far. Because we humans are the way we are, we made this heck of a mess and good or bad, we are also the only ones with the ability and capacity to change the direction that the human crowd is headed for. 

So it is crucial that we redefine how much we can afford crowds in certain “critical areas” such as the few remaining wild spaces left for nature to do its thing to give us clean air, water and do its web-of-life turns to keep life – all of life in a balance. 

It could mean serious changes for many aspects of lives that depend on crowds. Here are just some ways we can turn the crowd to work for a better normal:

For tourism, it would mean an abiding respect and adherence to carrying capacity of the areas for tourism and definitely not on how many people want to tick those areas off of their FOMO or YOLO lists which are endless. It would also mean an imperative for tourist crowds to make it an essential part of the nature of tourism itinerary to do restoration activities such as planting trees, beach clean-ups (even in nearby areas that are more affected), wildlife rescue, recycling, and upcycling activities. 

For events that rely on physical crowds to gather insights, or cheer them on like conferences, concerts, and sports events, it should be an imperative and not a favor to give visible and audible space for messages on the grave human impact on nature and why no one is exempted. The human impact of any event, especially high-profile ones with crowds should always carry a publicly delivered measurement of carbon footprint – not just what they consumed but more importantly, what measures were taken to save on the carbon footprint. 

For commerce especially with online delivery, you can do a powerful positive pivot for the impact of the crowd if you worked with groups to help make your packaging work but matter so much less in terms of environmental impact. The online ordering crowd is a powerful player in human impact in nature. I found it gravely sad and ironic during the pandemic when I try to order an item made sustainably but will come in paper, bubble-wrap, and plastic packaging that negates all that. 

“Data mining” as the tool to get to the “wisdom of the crowd” has always been glorified by many as the edge that will define the success of many organizations but I remain very skeptical. I am skeptical not because I do not understand the math or its power but because I do. All that math and power by AIs still rest on the value settings made by individuals who are given to both the Jekyll and Hyde (and the gray in-betweens) of human nature – the complex nature all humans possess. Data-mining for consumer behavior did tell us what the old normal valued and we all fell for that “wisdom.” Look at where it got us. 

But this Species A who is capable of data-mining and more importantly, ethical value setting, should make sure that data-mining from all kinds of crowds can be married with what we know about the pitfalls of our own human nature. That our own behaviors can be self-destructive and worse, consummately destructive if we all did it as a crowd. We have this window of a chance now set a new set of values and make the crowds, including the ones we belong to, work for a better normal. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.

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