The latest episode of Global Humanist Shoptalk reflects on what we can learn about our social contracts just from walking down our streets.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Humanist Light Source Global Humanist Shoptalk

In this Season One closer, we explore the history of the light bulb, and what aligning ingenuity with literal illumination has done for us as a culture (for better, and for worse). When we consider how best to uplift fellow humans today, what lessons can the light bulb and its histories teach us about how not to measure success?
  1. The Humanist Light Source
  2. The Humanist Monument
  3. The Humanist Punk Aesthetic
  4. The Humanist Sneakerhead
  5. The Humanist Fire

One of the toughest parts of witnessing a global crisis unfold (or more than one, simultaneously) is trying not to let despair deplete our sense of agency. Can you fix the invasion of Ukraine? Can you provide a definitive end to this latest pandemic (and maybe throw in an end to cholera, too)? Or what about climate change? Can you stop the rising tides and temperatures, with all the attendant costs to human life, livelihood, and land?

I mean, if so, please do. I will send cookies, cake, or pie.

But the immediacy of the news can deceive and demoralize us. The way late-breaking coverage reaches us is always training us to see everything as so urgent, that if we can’t do something about it all right now, what’s even the point?

When I first considered creating a podcast for “thinking slow,” a space to sit with a topic without leaping to conclusions about it, I didn’t have any expectation that people would flock to listen. We’re urgency junkies! We love our intense trend cycles.

You know what I flipped through for two straight days last week? News coverage about updates from Ukraine, yes, but also an absolutely bonkers Kickstarter started by an already highly affluent SFF writer, Brandon Sanderson, which attained 20 million USD in its first three days. Were either of these good media habits? Of course not. They were both emotional popcorn, easy for a quick reactive fix that I’d surely regret soon after I’d finished it.

Trying to do better anyway

But in some ways, Global Humanist Shoptalk was designed to acknowledge what I needed to get better at, and what I think a lot of us need to get better at, too. I’m practicing here, and I hope to keep practicing until I can reliably count on myself to have healthier media habits.

What kinds of “healthier” media habits?

Well, I know that we need to be walking away more often from addictive trend cycles.

And that we need to get better at holding ideas in tension, without leaping to conclusions.

What can we learn about our world if we do? What happens when we take the time to estrange ourselves from the quotidian, the things we take for granted because they’re all around us?

In this episode, I think about how the simple sidewalk reflected very different approaches to a community’s social contract in Canada, and then again in Bogotá, and finally in Medellín. These are not at all supposed to be definitive statements about The Sidewalk. They’re simply an illustration of what happened for me when I was estranged from what I had taken for granted.

How I learned, simply by shifting focus, what sort of culture and values my Canadian sidewalks were upholding, and what other choices (for better or for worse) are being made elsewhere.

Walking, where you are

Your sidewalks will differ, of course. And that’s fantastic. For the opening episode, I mentioned that if my “thinking slow” podcast even helps you fall asleep, great! Sleep is wonderful.

But today I’ll say that I’d be delighted if my reflection on different priorities for and manifestations of mobility on the streets inspires you to think a little bit more about where you’ve been walking, too. What kind of community is created, served, and enforced by what’s underfoot in your neck of the woods? When you’ve traveled, what differences have you noticed, and what impacts on societal well-being do you think they’ve had?

There is no single “right” answer for all sidewalks in relation to public policy. Every culture, every community, has a slightly different way of doing activism. In some places, labeling everyone and everything with specialized needs is necessary to bring about state action for change. In others, communities expect to collaborate and support one another as a matter of course, and problem-solve over infrastructure without constant institutional oversight.

Which is truer for yours?

Do you like it? Does it serve you?

And what changes to mobility infrastructure do you want your communities to dream up next?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.