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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Editorial 230: June 2015

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

On being a peace activist

Those of you reading this are likely to have a particular interest in peace and nonviolence, whether you consider yourself a 'peace activist' or not. What does it mean, however, to have this concern? And where does it fit into wider political change?

Being politically aware in any form, conscientised, about our country and the world is not without pain. It is possible to sail through life, for good or ill, focused only on yourself and your immediate family, with meaning in life being provided by a relatively conservative form of religion, other personal beliefs, family, and possibly bread and circuses (or their modern equivalent as the term is well known). But if you become aware of injustice, violence, corruption and greed, it is difficult to unlearn that consciousness. The genie of awareness cannot easily be put back into the bottle, and too much awareness of other people's pain could drive you to seek solace in a different kind of bottle.

Our first duty of care is to ourselves. We cannot function effectively as activists, of whatever kind, if we neglect to look after our basic needs. Being active – in the community, in politics, in peace or other political activity – can easily take a toll and we reach burnout, something neither good for us nor the cause we espouse. So we have to pace ourselves. We do need to recreate ourselves through rest and involvement in other enjoyable activities. It is difficult to achieve a balance; the demands of the political work we engage in may be so great, not to mention the expectations of others, that we can destroy our own wellbeing. Commitment can so very easily lead to over-commitment.

Being a political activist, over and above work or study, can be stressful because it is taking so much time. Personal relationships, with partners, family and friends, can suffer. How can we balance the personal and the political? There is no easy answer and everyone has to do their own balancing act. However an acute awareness of the issue, and the need to take 'time out', can mean that we make appropriate decisions and do not let our personal relationships deteriorate. And not allowing our particular political persuasion to take over our homes and our lives can be difficult.

Even if we find ourselves in the (fortunate?) position of being a 'full time activist' (i.e. paid, or possibly unpaid, to work for an organisation on an issue or issues we agree with) the position is not too different. Where does 'work' begin and end? When does work begin and end? The expectations are that much higher, we can again be sucked into feeling we have to be involved all the time, and not take time out to recharge ourselves. This also requires real discipline.

'Peace' can seem a nebulous concept, a lofty and unobtainable goal. We can fall into the trap of defining ourselves solely by what we are against. Even the term 'nonviolence' is constructed by saying what it is not. Yes, we do need overarching goals, an ultimate goal, however we might define 'peace'. But we also need measureable and achievable goals, even if it is only to raise an issue, produce a publication, or organise a meeting or demonstration. We could easily be driven to distraction by what we have not achieved; we need to take comfort and some satisfaction in what we have achieved. We do not bear responsibility for the whole of the world; we do bear responsibility to do what we ourselves can, where we can.

Looking after our own wellbeing can take many forms. We can engage in spiritual, philosophical, meditative or recreational practices which help us to be grounded. This may or may not relate closely to our motivation for being involved in peace and political work. We can listen to our partners and friends. One Peace People activist in the late 1970s was surprised to be told by her young daughter that since she had become involved she was always grumpy and never at home. Taking 'time out' and structuring our involvement is essential. It is important that the individual activist gets to define the extent of their involvement rather than finding themselves enmeshed in the syndrome of becoming 'secretary of the group at their second meeting' and trapped into something they do not want.

What do we engage in and with? There is an exercise on the INNATE site which is designed for group use but can be used individually: This can be used to help people consider what is most important to them. In a world of injustice and violence there are many demands on our time; how do we decide? How can we decide between conflicting claims for our time commitment? Global warming is an overarching global crisis. Human rights issues are pressing in many parts of the world. The effects of violence of one kind or another around the globe are far reaching and destabilising of any efforts for a normal life. We also have our own homeland to consider – those of us living in Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland, have a duty to concern ourselves, in some way, with peace issues here. And these issues haven't gone away, you know.

In deciding what to engage in, we need both our heart and our head. Analysis (as in the above exercise) can help us to decide what we think we should be involved with. But if we have a particular grá for some place, or aspect of work, then that should also inform our decision. We are emotional as well as rational beings. When we feel something strongly, when we identify strongly with an issue or cause, that may be the clinching factor which determines our involvement, and it should not be different. So long as we use both the intellectual and the emotional parts of our brain, then we are likely to be true to ourselves.

'Peace' may seem to be too esoteric, too far removed from immediate concerns, to demand our attention and involvement. But if we break down 'what is required for peace', what peace means in a particular situation of more generally in the world, then we can understand better why such involvement can be vital. Many building bricks are needed and many roles need to be filled. What is our role? However, as with INNATE's set of posters we maintain that we cannot be peace activists without having a concern for ecological and human rights issues.

As peace activists we have a duty to work to be effective; half hearted activism is good for no one. However while it is important to set short term, achievable goals we also need to look to longer term opinion forming through education and consciousness raising. It is always the case in life that we can be so busy doing the things we are expected to do that we do not get around to the things which are more likely to make a difference. So we have to step off rollercoaster occasionally and assess what we are engaged in, and what we have time to do. Imagination and creativity are key.

The range of activities 'we' collectively engage in can be massive and wide-ranging. However most of us may prefer to specialise in particular activities which we are happy or relatively happy with, and which we feel we can do well. What is appropriate can also vary according to the stage a campaign.

Being a peace activist can be a lifelong vocation. Within that, we may find ourselves involved in many different projects and issues, and supporting other people and issues as we go along. As well as involvement with an issue or issues on a long-term basis, we also need to be spontaneous. When something important crops up, which we can respond to and feel we should, then we should feel free, and be free, to jump in, even if it is only for a short time period. We should not be so programmed – in either direction or in time commitments – that we cannot afford to be spontaneous.

A good rule of thumb for involvement can be to ask myself, 'Do I think I can make a difference, can I make a contribution?' This may be as one of many in a broad based campaign through to being the prime mover and shaker in an issue or enterprise. What we choose can be for complex reasons but looking to do what no one else is doing, but needs doing, is certainly one way of choosing what concretely to do; this may be a solo effort initially or it could be identifying a task within a much bigger effort which no one else is attending to.

Whether it is our main focus or not, climate change cannot but be an issue of concern and some involvement. Life as we know it on earth is predicated on avoiding the worst effects of global warming, and limiting the temperature increase to a couple of degrees at worst. Beyond that, not only will much of the globe currently habitable become hostile but levels of violence will increase to almost unimaginable levels as millions, or billions, struggle to survive, and move to territory currently occupied by others to do so.

Progressive political change should all be part of making life better for people, at home and abroad. The rich world has to make major changes in its resource and carbon use but it is doable. The violence which is so much a part of our lives, as human beings, has to be overcome to establish for humanity a wellbeing that everyone deserves. These are massive goals but they can be achieved, one step at a time, one poster at a time, one meeting at a time, one person at a time.

We can be proud to stand up and be counted. That pride has to be tempered by an awareness of what we can achieve and how we can achieve it. But when our grandchildren, literally or metaphorically, say – "what did you do in the struggle against violence, global warming and injustice?", we can stand up and say "I did everything I could." There could be no prouder goal in life.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column

Pope Francis' Environmental Encyclical

"The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." - Pope Francis, Paragraph 21

Pope Francis's eagerly awaited encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, was published in five languages on the 18th June 2015. It has received widespread acclaim by everyone except that powerful economic and political minority who consistently deny the incontrovertible link between climate change and human behaviour. A papal encyclical is a Church position on moral and ethical issues and is usually addressed to the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. But this encyclical is different. The Pope believes the health of the biosphere transcends narrow religious interests and has addressed it to "every person living on this planet." Donal Dorr, an Irish theologian and missionary priest, described the encyclical as a radical document, comprehensive, scientifically grounded, confrontational and courageous. (The Irish Times, 19 June 2015) A Guardian editorial said it was "the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years." (19 June 2015)

NGOs such as Oxfam, Trócaire and Friends of the Earth will be familiar with the philosophical and political insights that underpin Pope Francis's second encyclical. They would share Pope Francis's view that the destruction of the biosphere is linked to mass poverty and material wealth, the signifier of a successful life. Keith Warner, a Franciscan friar at Santa Clara University, uses the term 'integral ecology' to convey the indivisible link between human wellbeing and environmental issues. (The Irish Examiner, 19 June 2015)

Most people would probably find the idea of integral ecology radical as it articulates the view that nonhuman nature has intrinsic value and therefore it is sinful to harm it. This widens the circumference of moral responsibility creating a whole new dimension to the idea of what it means to be a good Catholic, and a decent morally responsible person. Integral ecologists would assert it is just as sinful to buy figurines made of ivory as it is to kill the elephant. Integral ecologists would like us to be ecologically mindful shoppers. This means we should ask where the palm oil in margarine, biscuits, soap and at least 2,000 other products originated from before making a decision to buy a product. Perhaps one of the implications of the encyclical for practising Catholics will be in the confessional box where they will have to do an eco-audit as well as a social and inter-personal audit of their sins. In addition to confessing impure thoughts they will have to confess to buying clothes made by underpaid, ill-treated workers, or of littering, letting water run unnecessarily from their kitchen tap and travelling by car on short journeys rather than walking or cycling.

If enough people heed the encyclical then the norms and values of humanity will change, leading in time to a global-wide ecologically sustainable society with human and nonhuman beings living happily ever after. The cultural change required to realise this is unlikely to happen any time soon. We are all imbedded in political and economic structures that have an invested interest, in spite of the fog horn warnings, to continue exploiting the Earth's resources until the point of bio-collapse. Even the most ecologically sensitive, compassionate and resourceful of people are caught like summer flies in the sticky web of the fossil fuel monoculture grid. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill being discussed in the Oireachtas is an example of calculated short termism. The bill has been wilfully formulated to ensure that Ireland does not make a speedy transition to a low-carbon economy. (The Irish Times, 9 June 2015) The recent UK government decision to end subsidies to onshore windfarms in April 2016, a year earlier than planned, is another example.

After reading the encyclical how many people in Dublin and Belfast will sell their cars and turn their lawns into fruit and vegetable gardens? Since the publication of the encyclical, how many politicians have spoken in favour of moving towards a steady-state or circular economy? Even Pope Francis is trapped in the moral paradigm of the institution he heads. It is notable that he did not advocate the use of contraception to reduce the rate of population growth. He believes that "demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development." (Paragraph 50) Would a trillion people living on the planet be compatible with human and nonhuman wellbeing?

The reason few make radical eco-changes is because we live within social, political, economic and legal structures. As the American environmentalists Bill McKibben says, as quoted by Sylvia Thompson in The Irish Times, 20 June 2015: "For a very long time the environment movement focused on personal responsibility, but climate change is a structural, systemic problem rooted in the power of the fossil-fuel industry." Hope for humanity and other species lies in changing the political and economic structures that currently regulate our global economy. The encyclical was published at this particular time in order to stimulate serious debate in the months leading up to the UN sponsored Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. If our civilization is to survive, it is critical that the 196 participating countries agree to take meaningful measures to move the global economy away from dependency on fossil fuels.

It remains to be seen what if any influence the encyclical will have on the outcome of the Paris Conference. We don't, however, have to be interested onlookers, we can write to our political representatives and the CEOs of transnational companies asking them to put the interests of humanity and other life-forms before perceived short-term economic advantage. We can also help organise and take part in peaceful pro-environment protests, join an environmental transition group and, to use a cliché, be the change you want to see. Although a relatively small number of people living in an eco-sustainable way is unlikely in the short-term to lead to structural changes they can expect to live healthier, longer more fulfilled lives.

Copyright INNATE 2021