Published: 16/07/2012 16:35 - Updated: 16/07/2012 16:44

We need a moral compass to guide us

Are new kinds of maps needed to help us understand the contemporary world?
Are new kinds of maps needed to help us understand the contemporary world?

I WAS wondering what the Victorian explorer, David Thompson, would make of the modern, globalised world we live in today. It’s certainly been transformed beyond recognition.

Thompson (1717-1857) was, by all accounts, a remarkable man who “explored and mapped Canada”. He dedicated his life, as a Hudson Bay Company employee, to chartering the unknown territories in the hope of opening up new trading routes and networks.

Over the course of his career he mapped over 3.9-million-square kilometres of North America and has been described as the “greatest land geographer who ever lived”.

In Canada he is famous and held in high esteem but the native Londoner is virtually unknown in this country. Yet back in his day the Hudson Bay Company was the biggest landowner on the planet.

The television broadcaster and bushcraft expert Ray Mears profiled the work of Koo Koo Sint – “he who gazes at the stars”, as the First Nation peoples named Thompson – in a recent episode of his travel series, Northern Wilderness.

Most of us take maps for granted yet we have all relied on them at one time or another to guide us on road journeys, to help us find places, ramble over the hills or chart sea trips.

I have a stash of Ordnance Survey maps, a bit tattered around the edges I admit, which I’ve used down the years to help me explore the Highlands and Islands. Maybe you remember when your classroom had huge wall maps depicting the vast pink-coloured spread and reach of the British Empire?

Of course nowadays we have sat nav to guide us from A to B. Amazing to think the average car’s GPS technology is much more sophisticated than the computers the ultimate frontiersmen, on the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, relied on...

“Globalisation”, according to the OU academic, David Held, “is a complex phenomenon and capturing its meaning in words is not always easy”. I think Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling would agree with that!

When the UK economy spiralled into a seemingly uncontrollable tailspin the former Labour bosses blamed the impact of globalization for the run on the banks and the crisis in world fiscal affairs.

Held believes we should use maps to explore the meaning and consequences of globalisation. But not the traditional map formats that we or Thompson are used to. It seems academics have developed a whole new means of representing global transformations. It’s one way to overcome the bias of northern and western hemisphere supremacy they argue.

So some of the new mapping representations depict the world in terms of industrial trade, the interconnections between world cities or global national purchasing powers. Different!

In any case the world is a constantly shifting place. With the break up, for example, of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia even traditional map makers have been busy!

Our Viking ancestors were probably ahead of their time. Their northern-centred orbit saw our neighbouring county, Sutherland, literally as the “souther-lands”. All that mattered to them was to secure and defend their medieval kingdom – at all costs! What did the rest of the world matter to them?!

SO it seems our perspectives can be shifted – even skewered.

Thompson wasn’t just a man with a compass. He was, as Mears suggests, “the right man, in the right place, at the right time”. He was brave to step out boldly into unchartered territories to map an unknown continent. His maps had the effect of opening up Canada and he is credited as the man who helped to shape and modernise an emerging nation.

It got me wondering who is the man – or woman – of the moment these days?

Obama perhaps? But even he is struggling to transform the enormous financial difficulties – albeit ones he inherited – afflicting the US.

And as I thought about it I realised, obviously, it’s not a man – or woman – with a compass or sextant that we need in the world today but someone who offers a moral compass.

If you look closely at the British establishment, not a pretty sight admittedly, it’s well nigh impossible to retain any sense of faith in our once-revered institutions.

Remember the MPs’ expenses scandal – how could you forget – which brought shame and disgrace on the Houses of Parliament?

Who wants to try and fathom the banking crisis? Just last week heads rolled at Barclays following admissions of a lying-for-profit culture which rigged interbanking interest rates. Up to 20 other banks are being investigated for the same thing.

“The public are more likely to be robbed by the financial services industry than by burglars or muggers. The difference is that criminal theft is usually a single event,” according to Labour MP Paul Flynn. “Robbery by the financial institutions continues every week for decades.”

Prime Minster David Cameron says, “the banking scandal is appalling – outrageous frankly”. He claimed, “crime in our banks and banking services will be pursued and punished like crimes on our streets”.

Oh yeah? That would be a first then...

SPEAKING on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live the right-wing commentator, Richard D. North, suggested “bankers’ greed is good”. The author of a new book, Rich is Beautiful, he argued, “we need to stop seeing greed as the enemy”.

Eighty-four per cent of viewers responding to an online poll disagreed with him.

We await with interest the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry into the roles of politicians, the police and press in the phone-hacking scandal.

It seems the institutions we once relied on to defend the public good got too close to one another and fed their own self interests.

As I write this column, I’m remembering the words I once considered outrageous of the Irish folk singer and republican, Christy Moore, who described the establishment as “well-mannered thugs”. I think now I know where he’s coming from.

So our past respect and trust for that establishment – however you map it – has been replaced by cynicism and contempt. And yet, as we are oft reminded, “we are all in this together”.

Held suggests “new kinds of maps are needed to help us understand the complex geography of the contemporary social world” we live in. In Thompson’s day it was simply “my word is my bond” (that’s what it says on your bank notes).

Today’s world seems riddled with corporate greed, tax avoidance and an endemic bonus culture that rewards unlawful conduct.

I much prefer the prospect of an honest frontiersman like Thompson going about his business in a northern wilderness.

Removed from the modern globalized world, and the “well-mannered thugs” we seem surrounded by, I think bushcraft survival in the Rocky Mountains (where I could become a “stargazer”) is infinitely more appealing!

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