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A world in flames: The Mad Maxus and the olive tree.

By Andrew Harmer
on May 28, 2024

It’s hard to gauge how much of the world’s attention is focused on the World Health Assembly this week. It does, after all, coincide with the launch of Chapter 5, Season 3 of Fortnite, the popular online shoot ‘em up video game. I imagine most people under the age of twenty care more about that than they do about global health.

For the uninitiated, each Season of Fortnite has its own theme, with the latest one being a ‘Mad Max’ theme where heavily armed Furiosas in similarly armed vehicles career around a map destroying everything in sight. It’s called ‘Wrecked’. If one were looking for a metaphor for the world we see today – a world of seemingly endless destruction – you could understand why someone might choose this.

But consider a different metaphor; one that was presented to participants at a workshop in Geneva last week, hosted by Médecins Sans Frontières and coordinated by Geneva Global Health Hub. The workshop ‘World in flames: civil society lost in the impotence of international law’ brought together activists, scholars, journalists even, for a day of discussion and reflection on various ongoing crises: genocide in Gaza and Darfur; airstrikes from Israel on Lebanese health workers; and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Bleak as it was at times, underpinning the discussion were accounts from those who were undeterred by the bleakness and were determined to hold true to their convictions. We heard from a conscientious objector in Ukraine who was under house arrest by the Ukrainian authorities; a student from a Gaza protest camp in the Netherlands; an activist working to hold to account corporations such as US weapons manufacturer Boeing, which supplied Israel with the Joint Direct Attack Munition that killed seven volunteer paramedics in al-Habariyeh in south Lebanon on 27 March. I found them incredibly inspiring.

Which brings me to the metaphor of the olive tree. This was described towards the end of the workshop by one of the participants. It goes something like this: as an alternative to the ‘wrecked’ metaphor from Fortnite, the olive tree is a stubborn tree, and its fruit – the olive – even more stubborn. You might water the tree for years without it bearing fruit. You water it again and again – nothing. In fact, you might water it your entire life and you never see a single olive. Indeed, it’s only the next generation – those who come after you – who see the tree bear fruit and get to enjoy the olives. To describe a world in flames, I prefer the metaphor of the olive tree to the metaphor of ‘Wrecked’.

The speakers at the G2H2 workshop last week reminded me that there were many, many good people in the world who cared little about how their actions might affect their own lives: they were watering the olive tree so that the next generation could get to eat olives. In times of crisis – when everything around us is in flames – the present is all that we have: for sure, what we do in that moment can wreak havoc, but it may also yield olives – eventually.

About Andrew Harmer

Dr Andrew Harmer is a Senior Lecturer in Global Health at Queen Mary University of London where he directs an online MSc in Global Public Health. He is also an activist and has participated in various direct actions to raise public awareness of the health consequences of climate breakdown.
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