The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
A curated watchlist from Big Think readers.
- We asked Big Think's readers and staff for their recommendations on films everyone should watch.
- A collection of fiction and non-fiction works from around the world, these movies will entertain and expand your horizons.
- The films cover various topics, explore numerous themes, and shed light on several controversial historical events.
Ever find yourself unsure of what movie to watch? Have you spent so much time looking at the options on a streaming service that you could have finished a film in the time it took you to pick one? It's alright. We've all been there.
Thanks to a couple of posts on Facebook and Twitter, we've collected some of your top film suggestions and combined them with a few of our own picks to make a list of 13 films you ought to see. They'll make you laugh, cry, learn, and scratch your head in utter confusion.
This experimental animated film by Richard Linklater explores the life of an unnamed man and his interactions with a variety of people concerning the meaning of life, the nature of reality, and the structure of society. It features cameos and brief scenes with many actors, filmmakers, and philosophers, among others.
The film's surreal and occasionally uncanny animated style was created via rotoscoping, the process of tracing over filmed footage, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. While this style and the general lack of plot may put off some viewers, the film is highly regarded. Roger Ebert included it on his list of "Great Movies."
Mel Brooks' masterful spoof of classic horror makes fun of the monster films, the phenomena of never-ending sequels to films that don't need them, and cinema techniques from the 1930s.
The film follows Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), who has just inherited the estate of his infamous great-grandfather, the original Dr. Frankenstein, despite the younger having worked much of his life to distance himself from his family. Upon arriving in Transylvania, he is met by Igor (Marty Feldman), the great-grandson of the original; the young lab assistant Inga (Terri Garr); and the fearsome housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman).
Being a Frankenstein, he can't help himself and ends up following in his grandfather's footsteps, much to the local villagers' irritation. The Creature (Peter Boyle) is a monster with a sensitive side and some tap dancing talent.
Note that this is a 50-year-old Mel Brooks' movie, and not everything in it has aged gracefully.
Based on the novella by Stephen King, Frank Darabont's film depicts life in the seemingly hopeless Shawshank State Penitentiary from the perspective of two men on the inside. At once a prison drama, an allegory for Christian Mysticism, and a character study, the film overcame a weak box office showing to become a hit in rentals and video sales.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to multiple life terms for murder, despite his claims of innocence. In prison, he befriends smuggler Ellis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), with whom he shares a dream of escaping to Mexico. Despite the brutality and corruption of the prison and its warden (Bob Gunton), Andy's hopefulness, resourcefulness, and professional skills help him and those around him to endure.The story is often praised for the relationship between Andy and Red, which is atypical in both the depth of the friendship it depicts and the fairly realistic conditions that spark it. The film is also brilliantly shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Giuseppe Tornatore's brilliant movie about nostalgia, going home again, youth, cinema, and what it costs to be the best version of yourself centers around the projectionists at a small theater in Sicily and their mutual love of movies.
Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), a famous Italian filmmaker, is told that his old hometown friend Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) has died. He remembers in flashback the circumstances of his youth that brought the two of them together. The film follows their friendship and mutual love of movies as Salvatore grows older and considers where his life will take him.
Stanley Kubrick's burning satire of Cold War thinking might be the greatest example of a satire ever put to film. While it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, it is also possible to take large parts of the film as a serious and terrifying depiction of what could go wrong with nuclear weapons when the wrong people are in charge of them.
Insane US General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) exploits a loophole in the nuclear command structure to order a first strike on the USSR in retaliation for their evil plot to fluoridate water. President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his advisors, including the childishly warmongering General Turgidson (George C. Scott) and "ex"-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again), frantically try to cancel the attack. During these attempts, The Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) informs them of a Doomsday Machine that will destroy the world if the attack is not prevented.
Oh, and ignore the disclaimer at the start of the film. Everything that it depicts was entirely possible for decades, several of the characters are based on real people, and the Russians really did build a Doomsday Machine.
Sleep well tonight!
A Pixar film by Andrew Stanton, WALL-E is the story of a lonely robot that cleans up garbage. While that might not sound like the beginnings of an animated masterpiece, the film is a beautifully animated story of love, environmentalism, and humanity.
Centuries after an environmental disaster, WALL-E (Ben Burtt) is the last cleaning robot on Earth. His lonesome existence is interrupted by the arrival of a sentry bot named EVE (Elissa Knight). Their adventure takes them into the depths of space, where they encounter the descendants of the people who left Earth so long ago and a host of other robots.While the film's environmentalist and anti-consumerist messages are often the focus of most reviews, the gorgeous animation is also a key element of the picture. Operating with minimal dialogue, the expressions, movements, and physical interactions of the characters carry much of the story. This is done so well as to make the lack of dialogue almost unnoticeable.
Once deemed the "Greatest Film of All Time" and universally considered one of the most influential movies ever created, "Bicycle Thieves" (also known as "The Bicycle Thief") is an Italian film by Vittorio De Sica noteworthy for its extreme realism.
Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a poor man in post-war Italy, manages to buy a bicycle (which permits him to hold down a job) by selling his family's possessions. On his first day at work, a thief steals the bike. Doomed without it, Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) pursue the man through increasingly destitute sections of Rome.
The film was made on a shoestring budget, filmed on location, and features non-actors in all the major roles. While most of these actors did not translate their roles into film careers, a young Sergio Leone appears in a bit part.
The second Kubrick movie on our list, "2001" was co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Its story also features input from experts and scientists, including a young Carl Sagan. It explores ideas of extraterrestrial intelligence, machine sentience, emotion in a scientific world, and possible future evolutionary paths for humanity.
While the plot isn't always easy to follow, the film traces the evolutionary history of humanity, from the rise of tool-making apes, to the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence and the journey of a crew through space. Among them is humanity's greatest creation, the HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain), who will protect the mission he serves at all costs.
The film has long stretches without dialogue and limited performances by most of its actors. It is also the greatest science fiction film ever made and the one to which all others are compared.
Steven Spielberg's film depicts the story of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Schindler (Liam Neeson), a member of the Nazi party, cashes in on military policies in occupied Poland. This allows him to make a fortune, which he uses to save his workers from the Holocaust. His accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), desperately balances the needs of the Jewish workers and his German bosses' greed while trying to keep everyone alive. Both of them interact with Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes), the psychopathic commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, who often complains of the tedium of his work. All the while, the multitude of people working for Mr. Schindler try to do as best they can in unimaginable circumstances.
The film is a powerful reminder of the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, several of which are depicted in graphic detail.
This is an adaption of the novella "Heart of Darkness" set in Vietnam and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It blends elements of a war film, surrealism, psychological horror, film noir, and a bad acid trip into an epic that dives into questions of morality, sanity, and existential nihilism.
Captain Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) is given a mission to "terminate" the command of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) with "extreme prejudice" as the US army fears the Colonel has gone insane. As Willard travels upriver with the crew of a river patrol boat (which includes a 14-year old Laurence Fishburne), he sees the depravity of the Vietnam War on full display. Along the way, they encounter Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his love for Wagner, endless battles fought for esoteric reasons, and a mad photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who considers Kurtz to be a genius.
Three major cuts of the film exist. In addition to the original, there is Redux, which adds 50 minutes of deleted scenes that provide some extra explanation while smoothing out some transitions. The most recent version, The Final Cut, is director Coppola's favorite and scales back some of these changes.
Our first staff pick is a documentary by Ava DuVernay. "13th" focuses on the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—which bans slavery while allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime—and the horrors it has wrought.
The film dives into the post-slavery social and economic history of the United States, demonstrating a link between the second half of that amendment and the rise of Jim Crow and mass incarceration. The film features interviews with various intellectuals and political figures, including Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Our second staff pick is a documentary by Errol Morris on the life and worldview of former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Often considered the architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara reflects on his philosophy of war and how it can be applied or misapplied in different parts of life and warfare.
The interviews in the film were shot using Morris' interrotron device, which reflects the image of both the interviewer and the subject in a way that allows for the subject to face both the camera and an image of the person they are speaking to at the same time. The effect is that, unlike other interview formats, McNamara appears to be speaking directly to the viewer as he responds to Morris' questions.
The parallels between McNamara's era and today are striking, which makes for an excellent insight into current events.
Our final staff pick is a three-part, five-hour, Spanish language documentary by Patricio Guzmán on the rise and fall of the Chilean government under Allende.
Filming close to the action on Chile's streets before and during the 1973 coup, the crew interview people from all walks of life as the left-wing government tries to guide Chile along the path to socialism through democratic means before being overthrown. The film also includes newsreel footage from Leonardo Henrichsen, a journalist who filmed his own murder.
The film has a clear bias in favor of Allende's government. After the coup, one of the crew members even "disappeared" due to their left-wing politics. The worldview of the filmmakers is obvious and pervasive, but a dedicated watcher can see around it.
James Gillray's 'plumb-pudding' caricature is "probably the most famous political cartoon of all time."
- The fight for world dominance always seems to involve a contest between two superpowers.
- Back in 1805, it was the British versus the French, and this cartoon pokes fun at both.
- Pitt and Napoleon are carving out the big slices of the world-pudding – an image endlessly copied since.
The Great Game
August 1804: Napoleon addresses the Grande Armée in Boulogne-sur-Mer, preparing to invade England.
Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Great Game remains the same: how to gobble up most of the world, or at least more of it than your opponent can swallow. It's just the players that change. In our times, the two top dogs are the United States and China. During the Cold War, it was the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. And in 1805, the year this cartoon was published, the main contenders were the British and the French.
Across the top, the title reads: The Plumb-pudding in danger: - or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper. The pudding is of course the earth itself, steaming on a plate between the two 'state epicures'. Seated opposite each other and armed with an oversized knife and fork each, they are carving into the pudding, eager to indulge their insatiable geopolitical appetite.
On the left, we have William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. On the right: Napoleon Bonaparte. No longer content to be called First Consul of France, Napoleon had only recently crowned himself Emperor. Both are wearing their 'work clothes', i.e. military uniforms. Pitt is dressed in the red coat typical for the British army of the time. Napoleon is wearing the blue coat of the Imperial French Army.
And it's not just by these primary colours that the artist underlines their opposition. Pitt's hat is a tricorn, Napoleon's a bicorn (festooned with a cockerel-like plume in the French tricolor). And, perhaps most obviously, Pitt is tall and spindly, his French counterpart–true to the caricature already current at the time–short and stocky.
What they're doing to that poor pudding between them is also rich in symbolism. Clearly visible at the center of the globe are the British Isles – obviously, the most important part of the globe, at least to the cartoon's British audience.
Invade or reconcile
William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon, dividing up the world amongst themselves.
Credit: Public domain, via the British Library
Both Pitt and Napoleon are using a carving knife and fork to cut slices off the pudding. Pitt's fork is a trident, reminiscent of British sea power; Napoleon's knife resembles a sword, perhaps referring to French supremacy on land. Pitt is slicing off a big chunk of the ocean, while Napoleon is helping himself to continental Europe.
Napoleon's fork is sticking into a part of Europe labeled 'Hanover' – no doubt a reminder to the British audience that the French now occupied the ancestral home of the Hanoverian dynasty sitting on the British throne. Perhaps also to please his audience, the cartoonist shows Napoleon's piece as significantly smaller than Pitt's.
Pitt and Napoleon each have a golden plate in front of them to put their slice of the world on. Pitt's is emblazoned with the British Royal Coat of Arms, Napoleon's with the Imperial Crown. Pitt's chair shows a lion carrying the Cross of St George, the emblem of England. Napoleon's chair has an imperial eagle holding on to a Phrygian cap, the bonnet that came to symbolize the French revolution.
So, what's going on? The publication date, February 1805, marks a curious lull in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). A few months earlier, Napoleon had amassed a potential force for invading Britain in Boulogne-sur-Mer. But now he was making overtures for reconciliation with his enemy across the English Channel.
Spheres of influence
'Jack Tar' – the nickname for a British sailor – slugging it out with 'Buonaparte', back in 1798.
Credit: Public domain, via the National Museums Greenwich.
As the cartoon suggested, peace with Britain would entail both parties establishing a sphere of influence: for Britain, the seas and its colonies (the map shows the West Indies but not Britain's recently lost North American possessions); for France, the European mainland.
As it turned out, both the invasion and the reconciliation fell through. Later that same year, Nelson would defeat a Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, establishing Britain's maritime dominance without having had to resort to political compromise with France.
For a while at least, Napoleon would continue his victorious streak on the mainland – meaning the cartoon was a prediction that came true. But in the end, Napoleon would be defeated – not once, but twice; at Waterloo in 1815 for the final time (see also #1050).
Sold in hand-colored prints, this is likely the most famous work by James Gillray (1756-1815), one of two contenders for the title of Britain's most influential caricaturist – the other being William Hogarth. Martin Rowson, cartoonist for the Guardian, calls it "probably the most famous political cartoon of all time."
Interestingly, it's a thematic elaboration of one of Gillray's earlier cartoons. In 1789, he depicted 'Jack Tar' and Napoleon sitting astride the globe, with the British sailor punching the Frenchman a bloody nose. At that time, Napoleon must have been an unknown in Britain, because he is depicted as a scrawny, full-figured person, not the "little corporal" of later times.
Perhaps this cartoon is less popular than the later one because the world is explained not as a delicious 'plumb-pudding' but as a less appetising 'dunghill'.
Strange Maps #1076
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: Best science fiction show ever. That is a pretty audacious claim and it means I've got some explaining to do. But with 58.5 years of nerdom behind me, including years of watching "Star Trek", "UFO", "Space 1999", "Battlestar Galactica" (the original one that sucked except for the special effects), "Stargate", "The X-Files", "Farscape", "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one that didn't suck) and Firefly I have seen a thing or two concerning science fiction on TV. That's why I'm here ready to stand my ground and proclaim for all nerdom to hear…
"The Expanse" is the greatest science fiction TV show ever. EVER!
For those of you who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system (slight spoiler alerts follow). Based on an amazing book series by SA Corey, in this future there are three major political factions in constant conflict with each other. First, there is Earth which remains powerful but is stretched thin by climate change and overpopulation. Then there is Mars, a former colony of Earth, that's now an independent militaristic republic whose technology generally outpaces that of humanity's homeworld. The final faction is "The Belt" which refers to the asteroids and moons of the giant planets. Belters are resource extractors, and they are the oppressed underclass. After generations living on ships and in low-gravity environments, their bodies have changed, making it impossible for many of them to handle the crush of gravity on the inner planets.
The story begins with all three factions at each other's throats. Mars and Earth are in the midst of a long cold war that, occasionally, turns hot. What Earth and Mars have in common, however, is keeping their boot on the neck of the Belters who are, themselves, poised for bloody rebellion. This simmering political, social and military conflict would be enough for a hundred episodes but it's into this pile of dynamite "The Expanse" drops an alien artifact that changes everything and propels the narrative.
Now, the individual elements in what I described above are not really that original. You can find many versions of them in many TV shows across many decades. So, what does "The Expanse" do with these elements that makes it so special? For me the excellence of the show manifests in three distinct ways: characters and acting; universe building; science.
The level of attempted scientific realism in the show is wonderful, extending even to little details like how whiskey spirals out of its bottle due to the Coriolis effect when poured on a rotating space station.
Let's start with characters and acting. No matter how good your science fiction ideas may be, you have to tell your stories through actors pretending to be characters interacting with each other. By its nature, science fiction shows can ask a lot of actors. They have to stare at green screens, pretending to be in awe of an alien mothership that won't get added till post-production CGI; or they dangle from wires emoting through a screen set in the weightlessness of space. It takes serious acting chops to maintain the gravity (or levity) that makes it all believable or better yet relatable. That's why the depth of performances in The Expanse is its best surprise. The recent season, for example, had actor Dominique Tipper killing it across three episodes as Belter engineer Naomi Nagata. Nagata is caught alone on a booby-trapped ship, exhausting herself trying to signal her friends to not attempt a rescue. It's a solo performance reminiscent of Tom Hanks' great work in "Castaway".
Across the seasons, other actors have also filled out their characters with an empathy that's comparable to anything else in any other genre on TV. Thomas Jane's detective Josephus Miller was an epic noir depiction of a man broken by circumstance but still moving towards something better. Shohreh Aghdashloo's foul-mouthed UN leader Chrisjen Avasarala is a skilled politician who will kick your ass and save your world at the same time. And, perhaps best of all, is Wes Chatham's Amos Burton. Born in the worst the streets can offer he became a killer then escaped to become a spaceship mechanic. Chatham plays Burton as simultaneously dangerous, kind, and slightly bewildered, always wanting to do the right thing if he just knew what that was. And don't even get me started on how good Cara Gee is as Belter captain Camina Drummer.
Next, we come to what's called 'universe building' in science fiction. All the great acting needs a fully fleshed out, lived-in world to ground it. How, for example, do the trams work on a hollowed out, spinning asteroid like Ceres that's used as a space settlement? This isn't a physics question. Instead, it means if you arrived on Ceres, where would you find the tram station? What do the maps look like that would help you get around? These are the kind of details that fall both to the writers and the art department. Getting these details wrong means the world your show inhabits will either look cheesy or, worse, sterile, as if all your expensive sets never had anyone live in them.
Happily, everything in "The Expanse" looks lived in. Everything looks like part of an organic whole. The sets and scenes give us a world built by humans for human purposes even if it's a city built into the side of a Martian cliff. From visions of New York City under siege from climate change to the claustrophobic interiors of Belter ships (all webbing, ductwork and grimy computer screens), the universe of "The Expanse" is endlessly rich, interesting, and believable (Adam Savage has a great set of videos on production design in "The Expanse").
Finally, we come to the science, because, after all, this is science fiction. I am not one who demands that my science fiction always get the science right. What matters is that the writers create a self-consistent universe where whatever "science" is invoked remains constant as constraints imposed to provide obstacles and make the story work. But, to my joy, for the most part the "science" used in "The Expanse" is the science I teach in my physics classes. For example, there is no imaginary "artificial gravity" babble. Instead, there is thrust gravity when the engines are on, accelerating spaceships. There is also spin gravity when you're on the inside of something rotating. Other than that, you are "on the float." Just like what will happen in real spaceships and space stations in the future.
The level of attempted scientific realism in the show is wonderful, extending even to little details like how whiskey spirals out of its bottle due to the Coriolis effect when poured on a rotating space station. Most importantly, the writers use the real physics real people will really encounter in real space travel as a kind of extra character in the show. During space battles, as ships roll and pivot, Newton's first law (inertia) means unsecured tools are sent flying across the cabin. That makes them dangerous projectiles our brave heroes must dodge while fighting evil and advancing the storyline. It all makes my physicist's heart weep in gratitude.
Of course, not all the science in "The Expanse" is valid or accurate or correct. But that's OK. No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building. I often rewatch episodes of "The Expanse" just to get a sense of "Oh yeah, that's how it might look." In a way, the show is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a Rotten Tomato average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
The work consisted of 20,000 small green plexiglass squares, with intricate holes cut in each one, depicting vanished or endangered pieces of global cultural heritage, including buildings, monuments, and sculptures. Attached to fencing about 40 feet high, the squares collectively formed an image of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra, Syria, an ancient treasure destroyed by fundamentalists in 2015.
Lit up at night or shimmering in daytime, this installation — the “Memory Matrix" — was a powerful reminder of the fragility of our cultural creations in the face of conflict and strife. But it also represented human resilience and the strength of collaboration: About 700 people helped construct it, including MIT community members from 11 different departments and programs, and participants from Egypt and Jordan.
“That project was amazing, because of the solidarity-building it created across campus and internationally," says MIT Associate Professor Azra Akšamija, who created the idea for the installation.
Akšamija is an uncommonly versatile artist, architect, and scholar whose work explores cultural identity and conflict. Her own career exemplifies resilience: Akšamija experienced displacement as a Bosnian Muslim whose family left in the early 1990s to escape the war at home. Having spent much of her life in Austria, the United States, and Germany, her work frequently explores encounters between Islam and the West.
Among other distinctions, Akšamija was given the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for her design of a prayer space's symbolic elements, at Austria's first-ever Muslim cemetery, in Altach (the cemetery itself was designed by Bernardo Bader). Some of her best-known designs are wearable art, including her "Frontier Vest" from 2006, a garment that works as a jacket for refugees and can be transformed into a Jewish prayer shawl or an Islamic prayer rug. Akšamija has detailed many of her ideas in a 2015 book, "Mosque Manifesto — Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence."
She has also been a program-builder at MIT, founding the Future Heritage Lab (FHL), which focuses on cultural preservation. At the Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, FHL members, along with their partners at German-Jordanian University, have helped Syrian refugees document their lives through photography, design, and poetry; the work was displayed at the 2017 Amman Design Week.
Over the past three years, camp residents, FHL members, and MIT students have developed a book about refugee inventions, which will be used in MIT's first design studio-based online course, "Design and Scarcity" (co-taught by Akšamija and FHL program director Melina Philippou). The book will also be translated for the camp and the wider region.
The Al Azraq camp refugees, Akšamija says, "design artifacts that are partly utilitarian, but are about preserving human dignity and memory, and keeping the feeling of who you are. It's powerful."
"Making things since I could think"
Akšamija grew up in Sarajevo, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of her grandfathers was an accomplished architect who had studied in Prague and, she says, "brought Czech modernism back to Bosnia." Design grabbed Akšamija's interest from a young age.
"I have been making things since I could think about myself," Akšamija says. "As a child I was completely obsessed with drawing and sculpture, which I would do for hours. Also, to get out of my piano lessons, I would make these plasticine sculptures and then display them on the piano, to distract the piano teacher."
At the time, Sarajevo was part of the larger republic of Yugoslavia. But in 1992, after war broke out in the Balkans, Akšamija and her family moved to Germany, then Austria, to escape the conflict. As an undergraduate, Akšamija studied architecture at the Graz University of Technology. Still, she says, the university "had these awesome art classes," and she wanted to incorporate art into her career.
Akšamija attended graduate school at Princeton University, receiving her MArch in 2004, while becoming active artistically; by 2004, her work had been displayed in high-profile institutions and exhibitions in Vienna, Valencia, Leipzig, and Liverpool. Joining MIT's PhD program in the history and theory of architecture, Akšamija continued to create art; in addition to "Frontier Vest," she produced noted works such as "Survival Mosque" (2005), a wearable and portable mosque equipped with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, earplugs (to block out the insults Muslims might hear), books, and more. Soon her work was exhibited in major art museums in London, New York, and Berlin.
Some of Akšamija's projects from this period went in novel directions. With nine other artists and architects, Akšamija co-curated the "Lost Highway Expedition" in 2006, a trek in which 300 people walked the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity that connects the capitals of the former Yugoslavia.
"After the war I had thought, 'I'm never going to Serbia again in my life,'" Akšamija says. However, for the trek, "we had events in cities and you had to find your own way, you had to make friends. And this is the way I went for the first time to the territories my country had the war with." Though the project was challenging, she says, "It was important to start discussing difficult topics. It doesn't mean they're fully resolved. Unfortunately, there are still many people denying that genocide happened in Bosnia."
For her dissertation, working with MIT professors Nasser Rabbat and Caroline Jones, as well as Harvard University's András Riedlmayer, Akšamija looked at the systematic targeting of cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war, examining how Bosnian Muslims restored mosques that had been destroyed.
"These buildings were attacked because nationalists wanted to revise history and alienate people to an extent that they would never want to live together in the future," Akšamija says.
The questions driving her research apply anywhere, Akšamija says. "From the Balkans we can learn important lessons about how we live in spaces of fragmented commons. When that falls apart, how do you reconnect? What kinds of cultural institutions do we need to bridge divides and hold governments accountable? It is relevant globally. Who has the right to write their history, to be visible in public space, and who decides those things?"
After joining the MIT faculty, Akšamija earned tenure in 2019.
At MIT, Akšamija has found it gratifying to see students gravitate to her classes, to projects like "Memory Matrix," and to the Future Heritage Lab.
"MIT students care," Akšamija says. "They really want to do something to contribute to this world. This place is so inspiring."
At the same time, she notes, the Institute can be an intense academic setting, and instructors need to help sustain the sheer enjoyment of learning.
"You [can] lose sight of why you started doing things and what initially drew you to them, and it can be overwhelming," Akšamija says. "You see it with students. I like to create joy in things, especially in classes. That's why it's so amazing to teach here, because the students are so full of enthusiasm and joy. But also sometimes anxiety, and I think we all have responsibility here as teachers to take care of that. It's not about students performing for someone else, but becoming better versions of themselves."
Akšamija calls the current direction of her research "Performative Preservation." This is an approach to cultural preservation that uses "methods of contemporary arts and participatory art." She emphasizes that participation and co-creation are crucial to cultural restoration; physical structures can be rebuilt, but they will lack meaning without community involvement.
Her work is now on view at the Gallery for Contemporary Art, in Leipzig, Germany, and at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, with a new work slated for the 17th International Architecture Exhibition for the Venice Biennale, in May 2021. Curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, the Biennale's theme is "How Will We Live Together?" Akšamija's project, "Silk Road Works," a symbolic construction site for a pluralist society, will be part of a section at the Arsenale titled, "Among Diverse Beings."
As always, Akšamija hopes for a thoughtful response from her audience, without knowing exactly what that will be.
"When you work in public space, it's not about finding a consensus, where we all have the same opinion and are happily living together," Akšamija says. "It's about accepting and coming to terms with conflicting attitudes and ideas, and making space for them."