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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 218: April 2014

[Return to the related issue of Nonviolence News]

The future: ‘Don’t go there’

Every generation has its fears, its paranoias, its potential or real disasters. We are currently at the centenary of the start of the First World War, the ‘war to end wars’ which caused another ‘world war’ in less than a generation, wreaking havoc and destruction across Europe and further afield. The children from the middle part of the twentieth century and onwards had the very real risk of nuclear war and annihilation (and this risk may have declined but it has not gone away either). Today we face directly into the effects of climate change. Ireland, as a temperate country blanketed by the Atlantic, may fare relatively well in climate change terms compared to many other countries but even ‘relatively well’ may be quite disastrous with massive storm damage, flooding, and coastal loss and erosion, as we learnt this last winter.

Regular readers of insightful media in general or Larry Speight’s Eco-Awareness column in Nonviolent News in particular can be in no doubt of the denial which has been going on. We know but we don’t want to know so we do nothing, or nothing like what is needed. We know we are heading for trouble but we ‘keep on partying’ as if there is no tomorrow. We know what we should be doing but we don’t do it.

A new report recently spelt out the drastic implications of where we are heading. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body on that issue, has issued a report which is the stuff of nightmares. As anyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand (that sand soon to be under sea level) will already know, climate change is already affecting food supply and causing or exacerbating conflict (INNATE has a mini-poster available about global ‘war’ming)..

One of the most worrying aspects of the report in terms of its new analysis is the threat to food supplies and food security. Increased capacity to grow food in some regions will be far outweighed by the effect of drought and temperature increases, especially risky for wheat production whose supply and price is already affected by climate change. Other staples such as rice and maize will also be affected. Food prices will increase, in some cases quite dramatically. A world where a majority find it a struggle to feed themselves adequately will be put under greater stress and that will mean one other thing, apart from hunger, which is conflict. And conflict will then feed back into the hunger equation in a deadly spiral. The conflict which results will have local, regional, national and international outworkings. There are already many conflicts over access to water and this issue will escalate dramatically. On the other end of the scale, sudden flooding will affect others in a catastrophic way.

The IPCC is predicting a 2-4C increase in temperature which is well into the catastrophe zone, for a whole variety of reasons. Natural disasters will not only have a chilling and deadly effect in the here and now as they happen but will put back human development so that whole societies will be running fast to even try to stand still. There are already (2000-2009 compared to the 1980s) a stunning 300% increase in natural disasters, mainly due to climate factors. The health of the sea, and amount of food which can be from the sea, will be adversely affected. Forestation will be negatively affected which may have further knock on effects for the climate. Health will also suffer as vulnerable people succumb to heat, poorer nutrition, and increases in various forms of disease.

Governments, and particularly governments in poor countries which are also likely to be those who have done least to cause the problem, are ill equipped to deal with the issues. They simply do not have the resources and it should be clear that richer countries will be preoccupied with saving their own skin, but even in the rich world poorer people will suffer more.

Depending on how high sea waters rise, most major cities will be threatened in some ways (and if not by rising waters then by water and food shortages and other factors), again indicating a phenomenal cost and possible dislocation. Human migration is a fact of life, and always has been, but the scale of migration from drought-affected and sea-level affected areas may be a major cause of conflict which has the possibility of increased xenophobic reactions. The world, amazingly, may become an even more divided place.

The future is not looking pretty. We are heading for a dangerous vortex, a whirlpool which risks pulling us faster and faster into places we do not want to go.

So what can we do? We know the answers. Cycle. Recycle. Don’t fly. Use public transport. Grow your own when and if you can. Make our expectations modest. Insulate. Above all, and this is the only way in which we can tackle the issue fully, demand change from our governments (and political parties at election time and hold them to account subsequently) so that our societies are not continuing to contribute to the ticking bombs which are climate change – some of those bombs have already exploded as the Philippines knows to its cost.

But, in the end, words fail us, and actions speak louder than words. There is an old Christian evangelical slogan which states “The end is nigh”; it is certainly true that, if things continue as they are going, “the end of the world as we know it is nigh”. This is not melodrama but a statement of hard and incontrovertible fact.

The editorial in the last issue of Nonviolent News on Ukraine already covered a number of the points that we would make about the situation although this was before the referendum in Crimea and its annexation by Russia. We are highly critical of this move, partly through force and violence, by a country, Russia, with a poor current human rights record. Russia obviously has a really terrible reputation in the past under communism for dominating the former Soviet republics and, indeed, the whole of Eastern Europe, and a more recent reputation for intervening on its borders.

But there are so many wrongs and complexities across the board that it would be difficult to know where to begin. The former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was corrupt, but democratically elected. The new government is not democratically elected, and the role of nationalist and far right groups in the ousting of the regime is hotly debated. NATO expansionism, by hook or by crook (openly or covertly) is understandably seen as a threat by Russia, a country often invaded from the west. The aim in Europe should be disarmament, not forming a bigger and stronger NATO which should have disbanded when the Cold War came to an end with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia a generation ago.

The ludicrousness of the USA and Britain castigating Russia for intervening in the way that it has done in Crimea is astounding given US and British involvements in extremely violent wars far from home over the last decade or decade and a half. Obviously when ‘we’ invade a country that is all right but when ’they’ do it with relatively little violence (and with considerable majority support in Crimea, not that this justifies the act) on their doorstep it is totally unacceptable. It is an historical anomaly that Crimea was part of Ukraine although we say again that this does not justify Russia’s move, and the refusal to allow in international observers is telling.

As we all know, there are very great dangers in the situation as it stands. If chaos grew in Ukraine, fomented or unfomented by Russia and nationalist forces in Ukraine, Russia could have, at least so far as itself and its population is concerned, a reason to intervene militarily in Russian-oriented eastern Ukraine. This is in no one’s interests. Nor is having dichotomous, ‘choose east or west’ politics in anyone’s interests. Ukraine needs to be left, in peace, to rebuild some kind of modus vivendi between its people with different orientations. This cannot easily happen if the EU, NATO and Russia all seek political advantage there. And if east and west Ukraine have major problems pulling together, Russia’s desired federalisation of Ukraine may not be the worst option, even if it is not the best.

. - - - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Green Party Challenge

The opportunity for everyone in Northern Ireland, bar those under 18 or in prison, to play an active part in determining the policies and ethos under which they are governed is weeks away in the form of the European and Local Elections scheduled for May 22nd. Innumerable studies have been done on elections and just as many books written about the subject. George Lakoff in his New York Times bestseller Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004) refers to research which shows that it is a myth that people vote in terms of their self-interest. Rather he says:

“They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with.” (p.19)

The truth of this is verified by the polling patterns in both parts of Ireland extending back through the decades. Voting on the basis of identity poses a challenge for candidates who have no tribal affinity and ascribe to a worldview that is outside the left – right political paradigm. It is often the case that tribes locked in conflict share a belief in the same economic model. In Northern Ireland it is the conviction that neo-liberal economics will deliver economic prosperity. (See Northern Ireland FOE Newsletter, Issue 25, Winter 2014) When personal and political identities share the same macro-economic values fundamental change in how society interacts with nonhuman nature is at best a slow train in motion.

Given this contextual reality, how can environmentalists such as the Green Party persuade enough of the electorate to step outside the circumference of their ascribed identity and vote them into power? Preaching, proselytizing, chastising and fear do not persuade people to change their values and sense of identity. Rather these approaches to persuasion serve to keep the herd together reminding those who might stray, who engage in critical reflection that tribal loyalty is what counts.

The key strategy of those who seek radical positive change should be to persuade the electorate to widen their sense of identity to embrace nonhuman nature; the flora and fauna, habitat and life processes that underpin wellbeing and have value independent of human interests. The continued prevalence of identity that excludes nonhuman nature, thereby placing it outside our concern, will in time mean that the cultural heritage people value and want to pass on to their children will be rendered nought by the impact of climate change, loss of biodiversity, the scarcity of fresh water and other environmental woes. The electoral challenge for the Green Party is to awaken in the sleeping dēmos the realisation that we are the universe, 13.8 billion years old, sustained by soil, air and water. When we contaminate these we contaminate ourselves.

Susan Murphy, a Zen teacher, articulates the identity challenge as follows. “Until we expand our scope beyond self-centered and purely human concerns to hold in mind the trillion worlds alive on this one earth at any moment, and to glimpse ourselves in that vibrant, seamless web of interconnectedness, we are living a kind of madness – which is to say, not living in reality.” (Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, 2013, p. 116)

As you read this, billions of people are suffering the consequences of the failure of the majority of humankind, especially the economically and politically powerful, to extend their identity to embrace the biosphere and value simple but nevertheless rewarding ways of living. An example of the suffering is the 700,000 people who die prematurely every year in south-east Asia from the effects of air pollution. John Vidal in The Observer, 23 March 2014, writes:

“Every year ... more than 2.1 million people in Asia die prematurely from air pollution..... According to the Lancet report ... Asia loses more than 50 million years of healthy life from fine particle air pollution per year. ... In a separate report last month, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed that Asian air pollution was now affecting climate change around the world making cities like Beijing uninhabitable.”

Positive change is unlikely to be realised while narrow definitions of identity act as blinkers that prevent us seeing the 360-degree reality of our interwoven relationship with each other and the biosphere. Using metaphors, framing issues in terms of values and vision, and encouraging people to nurture their sense of identity with nonhuman nature through mindfully experiencing and celebrating it, are ways for groups such as the Green Party to persuade society to address our systematic destruction of the environment that sustains us. Kirsten Weir in an article in New Scientist, 22 March 2014, sub-titled ‘You only see what you want to see’ writes:

“The most shocking events can easily pass under our mental radar without you as much as raising an eyebrow.”

While we are fixated with narrow identities, and as in Northern Ireland use our energies and Exchequer contesting identity issues such as when and where to hoist flags, we will fail to register the unfolding environmental catastrophe that will render narrowly defined identities superfluous.

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