JEREMY DOBBIN | How we need to turn the tide
Just imagine if meteorologists discovered a massive tsunami heading towards the Bay and they tried to warn all of us that, unless urgent action was taken to stop the wave, everyone would suffer.But then denialism crept in: stopping the wave would require difficult, costly emergency measures, or the powerful elites on this imaginary day insisted that this entire wave idea was fake news, a scheme cooked up to trick them out of power.Honestly, if the scientists voicing concerns about this (hypothetical) coming wave were simply putting pen to paper in the local news, I wouldn’t be sure that they really believed there was a big, scary wave after all.If the scientists simply continued to spend their time sitting in conferences and ceremonies, I would think that perhaps my fictional politicians were right.After all, people who believe in an approaching tsunami don’t just sit around waiting.Let’s be frank – the state of Nelson Mandela Bay’s economy is in many ways an unnatural disaster.Put simply, the local economy is growing far too slowly and Nelson Mandela Bay has the worst unemployment rate of SA’s eight metros.Namibia, Cambodia and Mauritius – countries with similarly sized economies to our metro’s just a decade ago – are now producing far more than us.Ten years ago, the economy of our metro was more than twice the size of Rwanda’s.Today, the Rwandan economy is practically equal in size.What is also concerning is that the Bay’s contribution to our provincial economy is shrinking in relation to that of our neighbouring municipalities (who are mostly growing poorly as well).I could go on, but want to just say that, despite not all being expert economists, our people know all this, and both rich and poor are leaving the city and province to find opportunities elsewhere.So what about those of us who are left behind?Every citizen in Nelson Mandela Bay knows, on an intellectual level, that the local economy is not just a problem, but the problem.So why do we continue failing to act differently, knowing the truth about our problems, but remaining unmoved or unable to effect change?Here’s why I think this is the case.Like most people, I am typically sceptical in that I am not very comfortable defending a “scientific” consensus that I cannot prove myself.If someone approached me with arguments supposedly proving that climate change wasn’t happening, I wouldn’t know how to prove that it, in fact, was.I know that I can’t become an amateur climate scientist overnight to defend the position rationally.I have to defend it with an appeal to authority, namely the authority of climate scientists.From the inside of any profession or scientific field, the difference between nonsense and reason might be obvious.But from the outside, for people who are not experts, the differences are far from obvious.Just in the last week alone, I’ve read four separate newspapers giving isolated and conflicting accounts of the state of foreign direct investment in our country.Which one are we, dear readers, to believe?Across local business, government and academia, those of us concerned about the state of the metro’s economy are therefore asking people to indulge in an act of faith: to believe, without understanding the underlying research very well, that the current warning of a tsunami-like crisis is true. This is a major ask. It requires citizens to trust that the so-called “industry experts” would never mislead them.It’s no wonder then that, around the world, people prefer the comforting denials of Trumpian figures; the insistence that experts and intellectuals are so full of it, and that everything will work itself out just fine.The question here is then how, if most people are sceptical like this, can they be moved to support the necessary serious action to improve the situation they find themselves in?The answer, I believe, is that we (the people) simply need reasons why expertise can be trusted.We need experts who work to persuade us, rather than just dismissing our ignorance as stupidity.We need successful business leaders to act as if their warnings will come true, rather than going on with their quiet and comfortable lives in our coastal enclaves.A crucial lesson for the armchair expert is this: it’s not enough to be right, you also have to be persuasive.It’s going to require more than just an “I told you so”.A vast but apolitical movement needs to be built if there is any chance of reversing the worrying socio-economic trends in our Bay.Doing so will require more than just having the facts about the state we are in.It’s going to require figuring out what it takes to get people to truly believe something can be done about it, and then behaving accordingly as both leaders and examples to others. ● Jeremy Dobbin is head of research at the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber.