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Interview with Danny Dorling, author and Professor of Geography, University of Oxford

Did you discover or learn anything new in lockdown?

Yes, I learnt a huge amount. The first thing was how much I normally personally travelled – including by air. I had no idea how addicted I was to travelling. That is what I learnt about myself. About society as a whole – I learnt that people are far more fearful about death than I thought; and also that government thought. It is a long time ago now, so not easy to remember; but one reason the government gave for delaying introducing lockdown was that they thought people would not tolerate a lockdown for long.

What was the most positive aspect to come out of the past year for you personally?

Slowing down. Slowing down myself – not trying to do quite as much as I was doing, and also not being able to because other aspects of my work – for instance looking after the concerns of students about the pandemic. More widely, I’ve seen people looking out for each other more – helping get shopping for those who cannot leave their home, although that time has come and gone now.

At a time when many have had time to reflect upon what matters most in life, what can we take from your book ‘ Finntopia, what we can learn from the world’s happiest country’?

With Annika Koljonen, my co-author of Finntopia, I have just been writing the introduction to the paperback of the book which concerns the pandemic and Finland. What is interesting there is that there was at least as great a concern about the pandemic as in the UK despite having far less then 1000 deaths from the pandemic in total, more than one hundred times fewer than the UK (and almost entirely not due to having a smaller population). Finnish people have become people who care more about each other than people in Britain do. The key underlying reason for that is just how low economic inequality has become in Finland. The much smaller gap in salaries means that people in Finland are far less to view those below them as ‘feckless’ and the rich as ‘deserving’ than we are in Britain. This then helps people be far happier with their lives.

The forecast for post Brexit Britain looks rather bleak in the general media, yet in ‘Rule Britannia, Brexit and the end of Empire?’  you put a positive spin on Brexit

Yes, in a way we are lancing a boil – the boil of the idea that the British Empire can be recreated: “Empire 2.0” as it was referred to during the Brexit years. Similar things will have happened in the decline of previous world empires (although the British empire was the largest the world has ever seen). Without Brexit, Brexiteers and all those movements from the 1950s ‘League of Empire Loyalists’ onwards;  could continue to claim that Britain’s future place in the world was at a heart of some renewed empire/anglo-economic-block. As it doesn’t happen people will hopefully come to realise it could not happen.

In your most recent book; ‘Slowdown, the end of acceleration and why it’s good for the planet, the economy and our lives’, you take a look at the benefits of societal slowdown. What positives do you consider that the imposed lockdown has had on the planet, the economy and our lives?

There are having many negatives of lockdown – terrible effects on younger people in particular; and (in hindsight) it could have been done without having done so much damage to the young. One effect societal slowdown has had worldwide is to increase the rate at which population growth is slowing, this has now been seen wherever births statistics have been released. Birth rates were already falling remarkably almost everywhere worldwide before the pandemic began; but that has been accelerated so we will possibly see global human population peak earlier, maybe a decade earlier than it would otherwise have done. But we still do not know when in the second half of this century that is most likely to be!

Which changes, that we have undergone during the Pandemic, do you consider may be adopted in some form for the long term and how might we adapt them so that they work?

Much less air flight, and no short distance air flight where there is rail. We do need to start looking at private airplanes as well now and introduce taxes to really encourage the rich not to fly so much (which they did during the pandemic as well!)

What inspired you to create, which shows who has the most and least in the world?

That was the release of the millennium development goals, which meant that for the first time ever we had enough data for some of the poorest countries of the world to be able to do such making. The Worldmapper technique does not work unless you have an estimate of good quality of what is happening everywhere in the world. So I was inspired because it became possible around the years 2005/2006 and 2007. Before those years we knew so much less about some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, especially where there had been recent wars.

What fuelled an interest in writing about social inequality?

Growing up in a part of a city that had very large inequalities but also going to a school which was very mixed. The secondary school I went to was very near to being the average school in England in terms of the exam results children got and the proportion who went to university in the 1980s; but unlike most other such average schools it also had an intake which reflected society as a whole from poor to affluent. I suspect that was what fuelled the  interest – but then the huge increase in inequality that occurred from 1979 to 1990 fed that fuelling. Nowhere in Western Europe saw anything as remarkable or has had such a long term high cost.

And finally, do you think that Covid could have any effect on our attitude towards inequality in this country?

It could have a small effect. People who were poorer were much more likely to to catch this disease and die than well-off people. Within the city of Oxford, mortality rates in the worse weeks were five to eight times higher than in the more affluent (older) areas. However, the government are trying to paint the pandemic as a “war” that they won; and to use this to divert attention from how it revealed those who have so little choice over their lives and who it killed.

Danny Dorling will be in conversation with  Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator for the Guardian, on Friday 14th May, via a live stream, click here for further details.