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LES ECHOS

Madness And Wisdom: How Dickens Might See Our Fraught Times

The world faces a set of challenges not unlike the tumultuous​ times depicted in the classic British novel A Tale of Two Cities.

Reflections in the water, Singapore
Reflections in the water, Singapore
Charles-Édouard Bouée*

-OpEd-

PARIS — Not all human societies follow the rhythms or same life paths. This is the painful observation Charles Dickens made in his 19th-century novel A Tale of Two Cities, which tells the story of a family caught between Paris and London and torn apart by the events of the French Revolution.

His novel, although historical, still speaks to us because it is about a phenomenon we recognize to this day: the issue of divergence. It touches on the political divergence between two countries, however close they may be, but also highlights the technological divergence of an England in the midst of an industrial revolution launched at full speed, and a France, in the meantime, plunged into terror.

Between the two is the distress of those seeking a middle way, who refuse to choose between social progress, political freedom and economic progress. People who have the impression that the epoch they're living through is "the best of times and the worst of times, the century of madness and the century of wisdom," as the book's opening lines famously read.

The serial "Tale of Two Cities," 1859 — Illustration: Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons

And in today's world? Who represents Paris and who represents London? There are several possible answers to this question, as the world plunges further and further into divergence between political leaders who don't even know if they're democrats or not, and between the giant tech companies and consumer citizens who grow increasingly worried and suspicious.


To continue benefiting humanity, technology — which is more powerful now than ever — must subject itself to a set of shared standards, particularly with regards to algorithms​. Just how intelligent should they be? What norms should they adhere to? What can they do and what can't they do? These questions are crucial, and they're being asked every time a technological advance transforms how we go about our business.

This is the case we find ourselves in today with artificial intelligence. Technology can be a tool of great convergence, of bringing together our practices and vision of the world. Today, wedged between the two technological giants of China and the United States, Europe knows this better than anyone. And those who don't want to choose between social progress, political liberty and economic development must do so urgently.


*The author is French business executive and former CEO of the German consulting firm Roland Berger.

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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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