Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 ten years on

It remains one of those events that we can all recall where we were and what we were doing the moment we learned of it. Ten years on from those tumultuous events known popularly as 9/11, it is hard to identify any winners: Osama bin Laden is dead, and the vulnerabilities of the United States have been exposed in surprising ways. But the ramifications have been much more widely felt than in some artificial divide between so-called Islamic extremism and the democratic West. We do well to revisit that dramatic day and analyse afresh the symbolism of the event – something which has so far been difficult to do because the political sensitivities attached. Whether the distance is enough to fully appreciate the events is still a matter of conjecture, but the symbolism is so powerful, and the ramifications felt across the symbols so profound that we dare not take the opportunity for some fresh reflection.

For good reasons, the focus of 9/11 has been firmly upon the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers which dominated the New York skyline, and which tumbled so dramatically before our eyes. It is too easily forgotten that there were two other targets on that day: the Pentagon and the White House, the former suffering severe damage, but in a limited part of the building, while the attack on the White House was averted by the actions of some brave passengers aboard Flight 93. Together, these three buildings stood as symbols – pillars – of American world domination at the turn of the millennium – the political (White House), economic (World Trade Centre) and military (Pentagon) – underpinned America’s status as the sole superpower of the time. The attack on these three buildings was intended to send a strong message, distorted by the total destruction of the towers and the terrible loss of life. An important symbolism is to be found in the method of these attacks: using commercial aircraft – a symbol of American freedom and mobility, turned against its three pillars with catastrophic effect, and all taking place on the date which represents the number which Americans dial in case of emergency - 911. The method employed suggested that the greatest threats to the American way of life lay within - that decay lies within - rather than externally.

Reflecting upon the changes affecting those symbols of American supremacy provide some pause for thought. America’s original response was swift, and somewhat perplexing, drawing on its military supremacy with telling effect. The USA plunged into two wars, taking along other nations with it – wars from which it is finding great difficulty defining victory and thereby extracting itself; wars which were widely regarded at the time as having been pursued on dubious grounds. The long-term effect has been to stretch American military capacities to the margins, limiting their ability to respond in other areas of need. And yet perhaps the greatest effect has been felt economically. The effect of the trillion-dollar plus cost of waging these two conflicts has been to stress American financial resources to the limit, leaving the nation with limited capacity to respond not only in the immediacy of the global economic crisis of 2009, but in seeking to rebuild itself in its wake. In ten years America has moved from a healthy position of a sustainable budget in surplus to a point where both its total debt and per-capita debt ranks amongst the world’s highest, with little potential for finding agreement as to how to rectify the problem. One legacy of flexing of its military might in response to 9/11 has been a significant, though not fatal, erosion of its economic might.

If the military and economic capacities of the USA have been wounded, more profound has been the impact on politics. One consequence of 9/11 is that we have inherited the black-and-white view of the world which the West generally rejects in Islamic extremism, and by which the terrorists justified their actions: the death of “infidels” being morally justified in their binary view of the world. The rising and almost unshakeable suspicion of refugees and asylum seekers has only grown in the last ten years and become an almost unquestioned tenet in political thinking. We have effectively learned to demonise the “other.” A second, perhaps more far-reaching consequence has been the elevation of fear as the primary informant in debate on matters of public policy. No longer does informed debate appear in the public arena as we face global challenges of asylum seekers, or climate change for example. We find ourselves informed by slogans and accusation – reflecting the black-and-white view of all policy matters.

As much as one might find the emergence of the Tea Party in the US and its approach to public policy to be disturbing, one can empathise with their lack of confidence in existing political processes, which feeds their suspicions and fears. No longer do we find reasoned debate and consideration of the best interests of a nation paraded in its public forums, but fear, innuendo and blind partisan politics determining outcomes, to the point where the world’s most significant economy is brought to the brink of defaulting on its debts without consideration of the gravity and complexity of the situation or its consequences. The increased prevalence of minority governments in Australia and around the world reflects a deep disillusionment with the partisan approach to politics which has become more prevalent in a post-9/11 world.

There is no doubt that the 9/11 attacks have left enduring scars on the political, economic and military foundations not only of the USA, but on many Western nations. Unwittingly we have opted to fight the battle on the terms dictated by the terrorists, rather than calling to a higher ideal, and a higher principle. It makes for great headlines and sells more newspapers, but at what cost in the longer term? The challenges presented to us by the events of September 11 have not been overcome ten years on. It is hard to see where the catalyst to change the present tide will emerge from.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Why I support putting a price on carbon

Four years ago, both major political parties in Australia presented themselves to the electorate indicating that they would institute a carbon pricing scheme. Since that time there has been much more heat than light in relation to the issue. There are good reasons and benefits to introducing such a policy which is lost in the argy-bargy of political debate at the moment. These are the reasons I support a price on carbon.

Because it is the smart thing to do
Politicians wax eloquent about the years of coal supplies which are buried beneath the surface of Australian soil, but few lament the untapped sources of clean energy which are wasted every day. Solar, wind, thermal and tidal sources of power are much more plentiful and offer a sustainable way of powering our lifestyles than the use of brown-coal-fired electricity generation. Whether you believe the climate scientists or not, it is much smarter to develop renewable and sustainable forms of power generation, and to encourage a shift in our economy towards more sustainable forms of living.

Because it is the just thing to do
That Australian action to reduce carbon emissions will only result in a miniscule reduction in overall carbon emissions in the world is an oft-cited mantra for doing nothing, while China’s rapid increase in carbon emissions is regarded as an indication of greater blame. It is forgotten that Australia remains per capita the worst emitter of carbon pollution in the world, and tenth on the list of overall polluters. While our own efforts at reduction have minimal impact on overall production, it is patently unfair to shift the responsibility to other nations whose equivalent rate of emission is much lower than ours. The flip side of defending our overall production levels is a tacit approval for other nations to raise their per capita emissions to levels equivalent to Australia. Such an approach is diabolical. We cannot expect the burden of this to fall on those who are not responsible for its production, and who are often less capable of meeting the subsequent costs.

Because we all pay anyway
There is already a cost attached to the levels of carbon emissions in our world whether it be in the decline in the air quality across our cities and into the country, in the impact on the fertility of our soil and its capacity to grow crops, or in the more catastrophic impacts of extreme weather events which appear with increasing regularity. It is barely a generation past when it was considered appropriate for companies to discharge their water by-products into rivers and waterways – a practice we rightly abhor in this day, but which seemed natural at the time. To continue to release carbon into the atmosphere changes the chemical structure of the environment, for which we are already paying the cost. To charge it at the source rather than the fruit seems more equitable. An ounce of prevention…

Because we need a catalyst for change
Many corporations (and consumers) only begin to change their behaviour when the impact is felt in the hip pocket or on the bottom line. The cost of carbon pollution is presently being paid by a more vulnerable and less responsible group of people than those whose actions directly affect it. Making such decision-makers account for the impact of their actions, or at least their contribution to the impact, is a sure way to begin the behavioural change which is necessary. At the moment the system works like a lottery, where those who pay just happen to be in the path of a major weather event. A price on carbon brings this cost back home to its genesis, and provides not only a catalyst for change, but an incentive for innovation.

People either don't seem to understand that the point of the system is to encourage behavioural change, or don’t want to acknowledge that a change is needed. The opportunity is before us now to take action which, even if it makes a miniscule contribution to overall carbon emissions in the world, can make a significant difference to the way in which our lives in Australia interact with the land on which we so much depend. It’s time to swallow some medicine which will only serve to make us all the better for it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New technology - New Language

A response to Bill Keller's concerns about communications technology.

Anyone who has received a message which reads “Tnx. CUL8r” or been rebuked for yelling in an email written in capital letters knows that new communication technologies are more than a simple medium of communication: they are a new language altogether. And, as Bill Keller points out, this new language brings with it a new culture, with its own mix of skills and rules for engagement. While Keller rues the loss of familiar skills (some long since diminished), his half-glass empty response fails to embrace new and demanding challenges to which this new language will be required to respond (and for which we will require some new language!)

For those who grew up in earlier eras and now thrive on skills which were the bread and butter of their time, the diminution of emphasis on selective skills is often lamented. But good analysis tells us that today’s children will be working in ten years in occupations which are not even thought of as yet. And they will be facing challenges of which we presently have but a hint.

Developments in technology and in science have laid many challenges at our feet over the last twenty years with which we are still grappling. DNA, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, cloning, stem cells, and genetic engineering are just a handful of the technologies which have birthed a new language and a new set of moral, ethical and cultural issues which previous generations could barely imagine. Throw into the mix the potential of cybernetics, nanotechnology, transgenics and artificial intelligence, the fundamental question of what it is to be human is laid bare before us alongside the challenging ethical and social challenges, echoing Keller’s final (and perhaps most important) concern. The ability to gather information and synthesise insights of disparate and rapidly-evolving fields will be a far more valuable skill than the capacity to recite entire texts.

It is easy – and almost traditional – to deride the younger generation for their apparent shallowness. Blaming short attention spans associated with digital technology may be an easy target, but we do well to remember that the exponential rate of growth in available knowledge – generating more information in the past 18 months than has previously been available in the entire history of humanity – demands that new thinking require quick assessment and assimilation/rejection. We should also ask ourselves whether is it realistic to expect teenagers to gather the sufficient combination of information, experience and worldview to fully comprehend and shape the environment in which the world now finds itself. Sixty-five years on from Hiroshima and we still haven’t resolved the nuclear question, yet we are prepared to deride a generation’s learning in relation to technology which is less than a decade old. Are we being fair?

Assuredly social media has changed the rules of engagement. No longer do we meet people face-to-face as often, or for as many reasons as previous generations did. On the other hand, social media enables interaction with a larger and potentially more culturally-diverse group of people than when we were limited to neighbourhood engagement. Granted, much of what transpires as “updates” is meaningless dross and faux camaraderie, but in this year alone we have seen significant social change – the so-called “Arab Spring” – largely facilitated by this very media.

But Keller has hit on an important point, every step of progress is accompanied by a sense of loss, whether it be loss of ability to recall large reams of data, loss of community as we once knew it or, more simply, a loss of innocence. The challenge for educators and community leaders is to evaluate the trade-off, and provide support for values and infrastructure which needs to be retained or reshaped. We cannot turn back the clock, or seek to close off access to such technology. Education, society, and its laws is forever chasing technology into the future.

We need to be clear about what we expect from different forms of media. I do not complain when a comic book contains no deep political or social analysis, nor when I fail to gain a laugh from a serious work on psychology or technology. Keller’s expectations of Twitter are - in part - a case of unrealistic expectations. In noting that serious responses to his tweet “TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss” utilised a different media to respond, Keller highlights the limitations of Twitter, rather than the stupidity of its subscribers, or the impact of using it. Were it the only form of communication available for serious discourse, we might have cause for concern. In a similar way, its penchant for being a distraction is something to be noted. It is a mark of maturity that we learn as users to control the technology, and not be at its constant beck and call. Early indications of the impact on brain structure and function, while a pointer to change, still presents us with uncertain implications, in the same way that its social impact is still seeking understanding.

It is an easy thing to fear that which we do not know – and we do not know where this revolution in social media will take us – but that has never stood in the way of exploring new ways of being, and new ideas for development in the past. We feel and think our way into a future which is only partially able to be predicted, and for which the consequences of present actions are never fully clear. But as long as the questions are able to be raised – in whatever form of media available to us – the prospects are improved.

And of course, without SMS, how would I ever know what brand of cereal I was meant to buy!? Many an opportunity for marital disharmony has been averted… but perhaps this only serves to prove Keller’s point about memory.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Sound of Scratching in the Ceiling

As I sat in the kitchen supping a late-night hot drink, the sound of scratching overhead announced the unmistakeable presence of a possum in the ceiling. I pause long enough to acknowledge the sound and announce its presence to the family before returning to the drink and the book I was reading. It was an experience not unlike the previous week’s budget and the reply speech – I lifted my eyes long enough to acknowledge them before resuming what I was doing. The distinct lack of any narrative, let alone an inspirational or aspirational one, relegated the budget speech and the reply to the recycling bin and the back of our minds before the week was out. All that remained was that unmistakeable scratching in the ceiling, annoying but ultimately meaningless.

The budget was delivered without any connection to a narrative, failing to ignite passion, resonance or ownership through a story about who we are as Australians, or who we are becoming. I took a quick mental survey of Australian history and brought to mind a sample of narratives which are deeply engrained in our national psyche, which our political leaders could have drawn upon for inspiring us to their grand plans.

Much of our early Australian iconic imagery is marked by the willingness to rise up in the face of adversity – often in the face of the establishment – to bring about change and the emergence of a fairer society. The Eureka rebellion is an enduring image of a small band of Australians standing up for an important principle, leaving a hallmark of justice which still stands as a powerfully evocating symbol in our day. In a different way we similarly look back with romance upon many of our Bushranger legends, preferring to lean on the side of fighters for justice and equality against an unfair establishment over against the lawless rebels they could so easily be painted. Over time this morphed into the loveable larrikin image, epitomised in, but not limited to movie character Crocodile Dundee, whose knockabout and casual approach, with its running commentary on establishment, takes the world by storm. Without taking ourselves too seriously, we can still show the world a better way of being and doing.

The turn of the twentieth century brought the enduring narrative of a nation riding on the Sheep’s Back, resonant in the ballads Click Go the Shears, and the enduring Waltzing Matilda. These stories remind us that we are a nation born of the land, and built with blood sweat and tears. We overcame the obstacles of the land, in particular its harsh and often unforgiving climate, to forge a new nation.

The legend of the ANZAC, born on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 has endured as one of the most important symbols of our nation, adapting to new generations and new situations. That it was a moment of defeat on the battlefield is less important than its capacity to represent enduring and key qualities to succeeding generations: sacrifice, and mateship, and boldness as we seek to forge our identity as individuals and as a nation. The ANZAC legend has risen to a place of pre-eminence among all Australian narratives in recent years, but its focus remains squarely on history – to remind us of the need for gratitude for those who have gone before.

As the post war years of building and construction unfolded, the dream of owning our own home was symbolised in the Quarter-Acre block, often partnered with the Hills Hoist and Victa motor-mower. These symbols – paraded at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics – became emblems of our egalitarianism. The Great Australian Dream came to be regarded as the right for all, a story which has faded and now directly challenged in the pursuit of higher-density housing, and as the impact of negative gearing pushes the dream out of the reach of many.

One of my favourite narratives is the much-maligned Tall Poppy Syndrome. I believe it to represent one of our most precious attributes. Popularly understood as our capacity to pull down successful people, it proves itself to be much more selective and strategic. Not all successful people find themselves subject to this, as memorials to Lionel Rose this past week have attested. The Tall Poppy Syndrome represents the Australian capacity to bring back to earth successful people who have lost touch with their roots – or worse – turned their back on them. Australians have never resented the success of its own on the national or world stage – unless and until we sense that the individual has lost contact or turned their back on their heritage. As we have moved away from the ideal of an egalitarian society, we see this characteristic less.

Being a small country in terms of population, it has always given us great joy to see one of our own leading the world on the sporting stage. Black Caviar’s catapulting itself onto the top of the world rankings has raised the interest of many Australians in the sport, bringing to mind the feats of another great horse, Phar Lap. We have all held our collective breath with Greg Norman in his quest to conquer the great golf tournaments of the US, and when Australia II finally lifted the Americas Cup from the US. The feats of The Don are legend, not just as a cricketer, but as an Australian icon, his domination against all comers. Sporting heroes remain an enduring symbol of our ability and perseverance.

Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country birthed a mantra of good fortune which paradoxically undermined the challenge he articulated. In popular terms it articulates the belief that we are destined for good fortune, in contrast to Horne’s warning that we not squander the opportunity afforded us by the riches of our land. It has, in many ways, inspired a lethargy and complacency which, in times like the present, allow us to be satisfied with what we have and not strive for even better.

And herein, perhaps, lies the core of the problem facing our political leaders: we have never developed a sustainable narrative of success. Our celebrations of triumph on the international sporting stage have that mark of the upstart about them – that we a young nation with a small and remote population are able to triumph over seasoned adversaries reminds the world of our presence and capabilities. The celebrations still have that air of the younger child beating an older sibling in the back yard… less a sense of we have made it, but that we are capable of punching beyond our wait. In a similar way the Lucky Country imagery retains a deep sense of Horne’s irony, even though we deploy it in denial of that.

But the last two decades have taken Australia on a long ride of economic growth and success. Even as the rest of the world ground to a long and deep pause, our economy merely slowed, retaining a resilience and resourcefulness which gave flexibility to respond. And now that this moment has passed, politicians find themselves unable to articulate a story to carry us – to inspire us – on to the next stage. Some might point to the single moment when Kevin Rudd lead the parliament in an apology to the stolen generations, but it withered on the vine as a symbol of the future. It is with a deep sense of angst that the only narrative we find lingering is one we would rather deny – the xenophobic Australia, encountered most keenly by early immigrants from non-English background, who endured the cruel taunts – and more – of early Australians. In the dog-whistling which accompanies political posturing on refugees (more accurately, refugees arriving by boat) there is a not-too-subtle nod and wink to the racist tendencies which have long marked the experience of new immigrants, and of Indigenous Australians, conveniently masked by the relatively harmonious nature of Australian society. We celebrate many of the benefits of this cultural diversity whilst still managing to impugn the character and motives of many recent immigrant communities. There is a good story to be told here which is drowned out by the dog-whistling.

And so we find ourselves mired in the present moment. Our political leaders apparently aren’t able to fashion a story to lead us into the future – it surely can’t be obtained through opinion polls and group samples. It requires an ability to lift the eyes of the people to a future worthy of our aspirations and energies, one which is attractive enough, and within the realms of possibility that we can all be motivated towards paying the price of achieving it. As long as we continue to think small, and seek only to offer small targets (which are quickly fired upon), the hope of such a narrative emerging are small, quelled and quenched by a media and an opposition which reward point-scoring in relation to minor things – of which they are being supplied in plenty.

Many of the narratives outlined above have periodically found their way into the political narrative. Some of them were historically more readily associated with one side of the political spectrum or the other. But they have all, bar the ANZAC legend, largely disappeared from our political discourse. Narrative itself seems to have disappeared. Both sides of politics seem to have given up on the idea of a unifying story which leads us into the future.

Can such a dream be born in the midst of plenty? Is there someone who can raise our eyes to a future which fulfils our sense of destiny and purpose? Or must we wait for such moments of injustice that inspired Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? Or times of desperation such as inspired Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches” oration. Only JFK’s vision of putting a man on the moon stands out as a narrative born of possibility and hope – of attaining something significant out of prosperity. Without a vision and a narrative which calls us to be what we CAN be we will find ourselves wallowing in the mire of petty nitpicking and naysaying. For which we will all be the losers. We wait to be inspired to lend our full creativity and ingenuity, along with a preparedness to pay the price to a future worth striving for. Until such a passionate cry emerges, the sound of budgets and leaders will, like the possum in my roof, distract me for a moment before I return to what I was doing, to what we have always been doing.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Who won?

I cannot celebrate the triumph of violence, no matter the victim, for violence remains the only victor and humanity the perennial loser.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Why I can't celebrate bin Laden's death

The reported death of Osama bin Laden has saturated the news media all day. In style of this communications era, I heard via SMS. My response was minimal, if slightly saddened. I often find myself saying words at a funeral which intimate that the death of the person is the death of a part of each one of us. I’d take that one step further – our response to the death of another is indicative and formative of who we are. As I have listened to reports and responses in the hours since, I find myself ever more deeply saddened. The first words I read were those of President Obama, who lauded the American achievement. "Tonight is a testament to the greatness of our country," he said. I wondered if he really meant what he said, or even fully understood it. After all, it only took 10 years, more than one trillion dollars, the death or mutilation of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the almost complete destruction of two countries, and the sacrifice of hard-fought freedoms, but this great nation caught its one target. Perhaps we should take the president's statement with a little hint of irony, I thought.

And then I cringed at the response of our Australian political leaders. Osama bin Laden “had been brought to justice,” declared the Leader of the Opposition. Really? I thought he was dead. No court on this planet can bring justice now – at least not in the way I thought the West understood it. And our PM welcomed not only the news of bin Laden’s death, but the death itself. His death is one more tragedy in a long line, bringing about neither greater peace nor security.

People rightly point to the terrorist acts which bin Laden designed and/or inspired as justification for their rejoicing in his death. The use of destructive force against other human beings is rarely, if ever justifiable. We too easily overlook the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, regarded as collateral damage in pursuit of a larger cause. That this justification could readily be employed by both sides and gain a supportive hearing depending on the context is a stark reminder that the line between terrorism and pursuit of justice is an indistinct one, and is shaped by where one is born on this planet. Even President Obama recently declared – unashamedly – that resorting to violence to solve an argument was inappropriate. Such a response underlines the insanity which pervades political debate about war and violence.

Ought we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden? He was a human being created in the image of God. What motivated him remains a quandary, but in order to find the way of peace and hope, we must find our common humanity with him, and others like him. It is when we dehumanise others that it becomes easier to kill them, to regard their lives as less than our own. Al Qaeda and its supporters celebrated the deaths of those in New York on September 11. While we celebrate his death we demonstrate ourselves to be alike him in ways we would not care to admit. From the perspective of his supporters and those who loved him, such celebrations are insensitive in the same way we regarded the earlier 9/11 celebrations of his supporters.

It always intrigues me to see photos of infamous killers as babes-in-arms, innocent and hopeful, loved and embraced... it gives me pause to wonder at what transpired to shape them into cruel and sadistic killers. Osama bin Laden was such a babe-in-arms once. What life, what world, took him down the pathway which was his life? The answer to that question might give us pause for thought when we consider celebrating his death today.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A 6-year-old writes a letter to God. And the Archbishop of Canterbury answers

The six-year-old's letter was very simple: “To God, How did you get invented?”

The archbishop's reply:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

Read the Times Report

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Saturday, April 09, 2011

We have nothing to fear… but truth itself

On a wall in our home hangs a painting which always draws comment from visitors – a striking sunset bouncing its light across the waves at the beach. It was painted by my wife at the age of 15. Her teacher’s response was curt: “I’m glad you’ve got that out of your system, now get onto some real painting,” (by which she meant abstract). It took some years for my wife to regain her confidence.

A friend who is now a university professor still vividly recalls the day he went to enrol in his first post-year 12 course. The person taking the enrolment looked at his grade and turned to a colleague, asking out loud, “Do I have to accept students with these results?” A few years later that same person sought to recruit my friend into his research lab, without success.

A young lass in her first season of basketball is told by her school coach that she’ll never amount to anything, and is left on the sidelines for whole games when there was opportunity to give her time on court without jeopardising the team’s chances. She hung on through the season and began to flourish under another coach in the ensuing years.

On my way out of school one afternoon a mother pulled me aside and informed me that her child had been told by the teacher that her parents were going to hell if they didn’t go to church.

These four events are alike in every respect bar one: no-one seriously suggests that we should refrain from teaching art or encouraging students to take on challenges in education or sport because some teachers have performed badly. But to listen to many of the complaints about religious education in schools is to encounter this type of thinking underpinning the desire to banish it from our schools.

In every educational pursuit there are two questions that need to be addressed: what is the purpose of teaching a particular field of study and what are the qualifications of those who teach? Age-appropriate instruction by qualified staff is important at every level of education, and should introduce students to various fields of learning in the hope of awakening a thirst for further knowledge, alongside the need to prepare students to live as part of the human community. There is an unfortunate arrogance amongst those who would banish religious education which mirrors the very attitude which is despised in the worst of religious education: the belief that they are right and beyond question. The arguments are not primarily about quality of teaching, nor about its purpose, but about the right to be taught at all.

There is an interesting paradox at work here: this attitude which seeks to drive religious education from schools is the same attitude which drives parents to choose an education which is entirely framed within a Christian religious cultural framework: it is a fear of the truth. If we truly are committed to the quest for truth, and are convinced that our perceptions of truth are accurate, then what is there to fear? Questions can be raised and addressed, and students better equipped to deal with an error they have explored and resolved in their own minds. Instead we find the inherent insecurities of both extremes, fearful that their particular world-view and value system might have chinks in its armour exposed by engagement with difference. When a child comes home from school and reports beliefs and truths which run counter to those of the parents, there are two responses: to sit and dialogue with the child to assist growth in understanding of difference and to firm the reasons behind the familial belief, or to rail at the school for allowing one’s child to be exposed to ‘alien’ ideas. The latter attitude is not uncommon to parents within faith communities and to those who express no faith.

Religious endeavour, at its core, is a response to the numinous: a recognition that there is still more to life than we have learned or experienced. While prone to magical thinking, the religious quest at its best seeks to address deeper questions of meaning and purpose, and inspire a sense of awe and wonder that flows from the unique life that we experience in this small corner of a vast universe. It is humbling to know that even if we were to draw on the entire fountain of human knowledge, we will still encounter mystery and unknown: huge gaps in our understanding remain, even while we are eating into those gaps. And we know that many mysteries will endure and multiply.

I recall a discussion with a geneticist not long after the completion of the human genome project and its accompanying observation that over 80% of our DNA was “junk.” I queried this classification, suggesting that perhaps it serves a purpose which was yet to be discovered. My concerns were largely dismissed at the time. I was therefore interested to read recently of a geneticist who has made it his work to undo the notion of “junk DNA” arguing that it is only “junk” because we have yet to identify the purpose it serves. All fields of human endeavour are prone to over-extend their knowledge and the certainty with which it can be held. Many truths held dear today were once thought to be impossible. And there will be scientific and other certainties we hold today which we will need to discard in the future. No one seriously suggests that we dismiss the scientific endeavour for this learning curve.

Arguments that religious instruction should be excluded on the basis of freedom of choice are also misguided. We do not offer freedom of choice by taking away the very materials upon which such choice rests. Instead we provide a safe space for exploration and discovery, guided by those who have taken the learning journey already, and who are trained and equipped to aid others in beginning that journey. That there are those who have breached guidelines for teaching is important to address, but immaterial in this discussion. A teacher who has allegedly punished his grade one and two students with physical violence does not bring cries for the removal of these grades from our schools. Rather we seek to ensure that proper standards of behaviour are enforced for all staff.

Those who suggest that religion is based on myths and fallacies deny the basic tenets of epistemology which underpin every knowledge system. The recognition of the use and abuse of power in history of religion does not validate the same use and abuse of power against religion. It is ultimately ill-befitting the secular state which values open dialogue and discovery.

And an argument for a secular education cannot be sustained on the notion of a value-free education. Such a beast does not exist. Every epistemology and world-view, including atheism and agnosticism, promulgates implicit and explicit values. Indeed, every field of human knowledge prioritises certain information and processes above others, and therefore creates its own value system. The purpose of education in such an environment should not only include the desire to equip children in the three Rs, but to teach them to evaluate and discern truth amongst competing and sometimes complementary world-views. With access to the Internet only expected to increase as they grow, the ability to discern and sift and evaluate are important skills to learn across a range of human endeavours.

Should education provide only a narrow focus on selected beliefs, how are we to prepare students to live in a world where the place of religious organisations and institutions in both society and its economy is significant: contributing the bulk of volunteers, underpinning a significant percentage of the helping professions, let alone institutions for aid, development, and social and community service. The commitment of religion to global justice itself is significant enough to warrant engagement by students with it alongside other educational and motivational paradigms.

And then we need to remind ourselves that our children will grow up as natives of the global village, where governments and societies around the world find their basis in religious beliefs and practices. To enter dialogue from a place of ignorance, or to champion change without respecting the traditions out of which such societies and cultures have emerged is to guarantee failure and risk escalating violence and conflict.

The notion of a secular state is not one where religion has no part, but a society in which no particular religion or belief – sacred or secular – is imposed upon its citizens by the government. The provision of religious education in schools – regardless of the faith taught – does not breach that notion. Well done, it can serve to strengthen its fabric. But we do need to acknowledge there are clear problems in the system which require further thought and response.

The zeal with which opponents of religious education in schools have pursued their case has a distinct flavour to it. In most cases its basic premise is self-defeating because it implies a claim to complete knowledge which is so despised in the religion they depict. An implicit claim to total knowledge which denies any truth in all religions is arrogant and unbecoming. (We would do well to remember – on both sides of this debate – that the push for a universal education has its grounds in religious movements which refused to let class and breeding be the determinant of opportunity.)

Would it not be better to explore how best to introduce such learning to students and establish the frameworks for best practice? We are all beneficiaries if we are able to respectfully dialogue about our differences from a position of understanding rather than of ignorance, or of bad experience.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Public Space and the Libyan Stalemate

In January this year Tunisia’s authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country with an iron hand for 23 years was ousted in what is now known as the Jasmine revolution. Inspired by the transformation in their regional neighbours, Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo against the rule of Hosni Mubarak, an equally dictatorial regime which exercised authority over an apparently compliant people. In just 18 days, the 30-year rule of Mubarak was at an end, and a new era dawning in Egypt. Inspired by the events of its neighbouring countries, Libyan rebels were emboldened in their desire to oust another dictatorial leader in Muammar Gaddhafi. With a reign exceeding 40 years, there was a belief that the time had come for change. Anti-government rebels launched their offensive in Benghazi, it spread to the capital Tripoli and other cities with some rapidity, feeding the belief that change was imminent. But Gaddhafi did not lie down, launching a vigorous counter-attack. When it appeared that the rebels were about to be over-run, the United Nations stepped in, authorising the imposition of a no-fly zone, which has been enforced by action which appears to exceed that mandate. At best a stale-mate has been reached, and we must ask why it is that such dramatic change in its eastern and western neighbours has failed to be replicated in Libya. What is it that has clogged the pathway to change in Libya which has seemed a highway in Tunisia, Egypt, and this week in Cote d’Ivoire?

One critical difference is the use of public space. In Tunisia and Egypt, the protests brought increasing number of citizens out into the public squares in support of change. Sometimes the consequences were nothing short of brutal and shocking – such as the self-immolation protest in Tunisia. There were at times brutal exchanges in those places, but above all there was a growing unanimity and support amongst the gathered masses that they would accept no other outcome. The use of social media has been highlighted, but its strength was demonstrated only as people were prepared to leave their private spaces and risk themselves in public. It appears that such support has been missing in Libya. There is no doubt that Gaddhafi raised the stakes significantly – clearly demonstrating his intransigence and a preparedness to exact a high toll upon his people, but he appeared to have raised the stakes to a point where many Libyans were not prepared to pay the price of change. The call upon the international community – an entirely understandable request met with a response which was founded on compassion and protection for the vulnerable – only confirmed that those who had started this movement had not counted the cost and foreseen all the possibilities. It no longer became a call for change from within. It was no longer democracy at work so much as the war machine – the power of fear and destruction – which was being employed against Gaddhafi.

And thus we have a stalemate. The moral call for change in Libya emerging from the vox populi has been replaced by the might-is-right voice. The argument cannot be advanced without significant damage to the very people whom the interventionists profess to be fighting for. Whatever the outcome, democracy will not be the winner.

The public space has proven to be the most significant space of all in regime changes around the world in recent decades. No-one can forget the collapse of the Berlin wall, the encounter in Tiananmen Square, the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Each of these events transpired because the people took their stance in the public space and found themselves accompanied by a growing number of their compatriots. Without violence and bloodshed, significant change emerged. We have seen similar impacts in our own nation, looking back to the Moratorium marches against the Vietnam war, the streets clogged with trams, the marches for reconciliation, and the GetUp events against Workchoices. The extent of their impact varies, but each has made their collective mark upon the public psyche, each has brought about a change in the public realm.

In this increasingly privatised age, we are wont to forget the power of the public space. It is more than getting a face in the media, it is an indication of the preparedness of the people to get out of their comfortable spaces and claim the public space again – a space that is too readily left in the hands of celebrities, politicians, and media personnel to take the lead. When large numbers of people take to the streets, we see the true democratic voice being exercised, even more so than at the ballot box come election time.

Of course we would be foolish to believe that every venture into the public space brings about the change we desire. Gaddhafi has demonstrated that there are those who will fight back, sometimes with alarming and disproportionate force. People are killed in such circumstances, but that does not mean the end of their cause. This past week we have commemorated the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Who can forget his “I have a dream” speech, its echo reverberating through time, its passion still stirring today? King – and many who joined him in the public space calling for change – paid the highest price for their efforts. But their call for change lived beyond their deaths, and continues to bring new life and new hope to today’s generation.

The fear is that the Libyan stalemate will be prolonged, with escalating costs in terms of human life and human well-being in Libya, and significant funds being diverted into continuing military efforts. It is a quagmire Libya – and the world – can ill-afford. But it should serve as a reminder that privatised solutions are not always the most effective or efficient, even when the alternative cost seems potentially high.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Is this a case of "None so blind..."?

"We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence and resolve differences through dialogue..."
These words were uttered by U.S. President Obama after retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan in response to a reckless act of provocation to Muslims. One might ask what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq if it has rejected violence as a solution?!
See the full story here.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Religious Education in Schools

The question of religious education in schools is undoubtedly an emotive issue. Revelations that religious education is apparently not the optional curriculum component in Victorian schools that had been widely assumed has sparked levels of concern ranging from moderate to outrageous. The notion that Victoria’s status as a secular state automatically precludes religious education, however, is both ill-conceived and wrong-headed. There are many valid reasons to include religious education as an essential component of a good education.

Politics around the world is influenced by and the product of different faith traditions. While we in Australia imagine clear lines of definition between politics and religion, this distinction is at best illusory, and in many parts of the world non-existent. If we are to truly educate our children to understand difference and engage in the global village, some understanding of religions and their belief systems is important. One third of the world professes Christian faith in some form, and a significant percentage of those who do not identify have been impacted by Christians belief systems and values. Understanding the source of many of these beliefs may help future generations deal with their excesses and address them from a common source.

A further 22% of the world professes Muslim faith, and many of the world’s leading and emerging nations are founded on Islamic belief systems. With increased international migration, many Australian residents and citizens now base their lives on Islamic teachings. Burgeoning international trade has also brought us into closer and more regular engagement with our Islamic neighbours. Bringing down a hijab on understanding by banning religious education can only serve to heighten ignorance and further misunderstanding. It has also been highlighted in our media that many terrorist organisations claim Islamic tenets for their actions and positions. Out of ignorance we are then doomed to assuming they represent the faith accurately.

Christianity and Islam represent the belief systems of over half of the world’s population. Dare we claim to educate our children well by excluding study of these faiths from our education system? The notion of a secular education and a secular society was to create an environment where freedom of religion could abound – as distinct from freedom from religion. The claim to offer an education which does not include religion is not the same as a value-free education, nor one which does not promulgate a particular belief system. All systems prioritise values, and create structures of meaning. Better to allow our students the tools to deconstruct and analyse for themselves rather than make decisions based on ignorance and prejudice.

And without moving outside of the education system itself, we should recognise that a great deal of literature and history studied by students is better understood and engaged when the socio-religious influences are acknowledge and explored. Better understanding of much of the employed imagery and metaphor emerges when its foundations in religious imagery is acknowledged. We might also ask how one can study the Second World War without some understanding of the Jewish and Christian belief systems and how they impacted Germany? What about the influence of religion upon US politics? Shakespeare is replete with biblical imagery, along with the works of many great writers. Do we forget the religious influence upon art and architecture? Upon science? Upon adventurers and other “heroes” of history? We diminish both our children and their education if we isolate religion from their educational experience.

I find myself somewhat bemused by the protectionist approach suggested by some. Education today focuses on developing skills of critical thinking and analysis, particularly in an age where all sorts of ideas and thinking is readily accessible via the internet. Is it suggested that in religious education classes students suspend these skills, and are unable to bring what is taught there to others for information and analysis? Does the authority of a religious education teacher usurp that of a parent? I struggle to believe that one R.E. teacher in one hour a week can undo the learning and skills of the rest of the school system, let alone familial and societal values reinforced in so many different ways. My experience as a teacher tells me that students have a capacity to question and challenge what they perceive to be questionable.

There are valid questions of competency which need to be clarified. Religious Education Teachers should be subject to validation and scrutiny as befits their place in the education system. But where do we draw the line? Schools regularly invite community representatives in to inform students about their work, with either an implicit or explicit expression of the values which underpin their approach, for which we require no formal accreditation or skill set. I have sat through some such presentations where it was obvious that the speaker could not communicate effectively with the students, and others where the values expressed drew some expressions of concern from staff and students alike. Clearly more effective scrutiny of religious education teachers is required than situations such as this demand. Whether the accreditation of a non-profit organisation such as ACCESS ministries is sufficient, or the establishment of a government agency to accredit across faith lines is needed ought to be a matter of public discussion and community consensus. Two issues are important: the skills and competencies of the volunteer teachers, and the protection of children from would-be predators. Systems already exist to address the latter, and I am not suggesting that this is presently inefficient. The community needs to be comfortable with the standards of teaching across all aspects of education, including religious education, and arguably greater transparency would help.

Perhaps the real issue is not that we have religious education in schools, but that it is left to volunteers and their organisations to ensure that the education of our children is well-rounded; one where all the social, epistemological, value, and educational perspectives are considered in an environment where safe critique can be undertaken with respect. Leaders who emerge from our education system without a healthy understanding of religious perspectives and a respect for those who hold them might find themselves walking unwittingly into territory which is unknown to them, but well-charted.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Of Broken Promises

Politicians break promises. Not much news there. We’ve had the ‘L-A-W’ tax cuts. We’ve learned the difference between core and non-core promises. We’ve enjoyed a ‘never-ever’ GST for ten years now. There have been workplace laws arise unannounced from the mist. And we know that “No child will ever have to live in poverty again.” Both sides of politics have a long history of doing other than they promised during an election campaign. And there are times when there is good reason to do so. Circumstances, understandings and beliefs do change. So why is there such angst about the present PM’s direction on carbon pollution? Her position – both at the election and at the present moment – have never been entirely unequivocal. At the election she promised no carbon tax, but expressed a commitment to a price on carbon. Now we have movement towards a price on carbon, and there is legitimate debate about whether the approach is a tax or a precursor to an ETS. There is genuine reason to believe that the anger about broken promises is confected. How else do we explain the lack of outrage which followed broken promises in this same area after the 2007 election – when both parties went to the election promising a price on carbon, only to walk away afterwards? Where the hue and cry about political integrity then? Both the present leaders were complicit – even openly supportive – in those promises.

Broken promises are primarily about trust. Each promise that is not kept erodes at the base of the relationship we share. It is a challenge faced regularly by parents in the negotiating space which young children bring to the family environment. As a parent, I was always careful in answering children’s questions not to breach that trust. This can be quite tricky at times. “Is there a Santa?” is but one of those questions which places the parent in a difficult position. I preferred to be honest with my children. “Of course there’s a Santa!” I would reply, “…I’m Santa!” Delivered with the appropriate sense of irony and robustness, the children would laugh and decry my claim. When the truth dawned on them and the challenge of integrity was raised, I was able to remind them of my honesty. At other times it was better to reflect back the question with another, or offer an explanation of an apparent injustice, seeking to help the child grow in understanding and maturity. To admit that I blew it, and explain why I haven’t delivered on a promise might not make all things right, but often serves to strengthen the relationship.

However, keeping promises isn’t always easy, or even possible. There are times when circumstances have intervened to stymie the keeping of a promise to a family member. And then there were some promises which should never have been made – those blanket, romantic assertions which are beyond the capability of anyone to deliver. “I’ll never let anything happen to you…” “I’ll always be here to protect you…” It is part of the growth of parents and children that the discovery of human limitations reveals the fallacy on which such promises are made. As idealistic as it might be to believe that all promises must be kept, we recognise that there are times when promises need to be broken, and even that there are times when promises are made in order to be broken. While we might readily debate the ethical principles at work, we all operate at some level or another in complicity with such an understanding.

In any case, it would deeply disturb me if we simply elected leaders to be automatons who simply and only implemented the promises they made during an election campaign. We elect our leaders on the strength of their promises and for their ability to lead. These two often exist in creative tension. Ought we have expected the Rudd government to maintain budget surpluses when the Global Financial Crisis hit? To do so would have been an abrogation of leadership, sacrificing responsible leadership on the altar of purity, and we all would have been losers. And how would we have expected leaders to respond in the wake of September 11, given that no promise had been made at the previous election about such an event. We simply cannot afford to restrict leaders to do that and only that which they had promised at the last election. Our representatives owe us their judgment, and we ought to not only expect it of them, but demand it. An opportunity to deliver our assessment will follow at the next election. Arguably the electorate did so in 2010, turning on a government lead by a person who declared climate change to be “the greatest moral challenge of our time,” and then backing away from acting. But the electorate at the time did not embrace the alternate position either.

I can appreciate those who protest the government’s commitment to a price of carbon when they argue the merits of the approach, but not on the basis of some confabulated sense of broken promises. The question at hand is not whether the promise delivered at the time of the election was broken – a debate which could last for years without resolution or agreement – but whether the approach adopted towards the delivery of an ETS is both needed and appropriate. The former response is at best unproductive and at worst potentially divisive. The latter allows all to air their perspective and concern and allow the community to reach some form of agreement or acceptance about the way forward. Banners of the ilk represented at yesterday’s Canberra gathering are neither witty nor constructive, serving only to demean the spirit and integrity of their protest rather than to further debate or understanding, and are ill-befitting those who seek to claim the high moral ground.

Friday, March 25, 2011

'Unproductive burdens' still have a right to live

Here's a perspective on euthanasia that deserves to be circulated as widely as possible. It appears in today's edition of The Australian, and is written by David van Gend

THERE was a moment during the last national debate on euthanasia that deserves to be revisited by a new generation of legislators, a moment that crystallised fears that the so-called right to die would come to be felt by the frailest among us more as a "duty to die".

It was 1995 and our then governor-general, Bill Hayden, was addressing the College of Physicians during debate on the Northern Territory's euthanasia laws. The scene was significant, since the dual concern with euthanasia is the corruption of the relationship between the state and its most vulnerable citizens, and between doctors and their most vulnerable patients.

Our head of state urged doctors to support euthanasia not only as a right, but also as a positive duty towards society. He reflected on past cultures where the elderly would take their lives when their usefulness had passed, and declared of our own culture: "There is a point when the succeeding generations deserve to be disencumbered of some unproductive burdens."

The next day a retired state governor, Mark Oliphant, publicly supported Hayden's astonishing message to "unproductive burdens" that they should do the right thing by society. This is the callousing of social attitudes, the insidious pressure on the frail and demoralised, that we could expect within a culture of mercy-killing.

A year earlier in Britain, a House of Lords select committee on medical ethics completed the most thorough enquiry into euthanasia ever undertaken, and concluded in stark contrast to Hayden: "The message which society sends to vulnerable and disadvantaged people should not, however obliquely, encourage them to seek death, but should assure them of our care and support in life."

This committee began with a majority in favour of euthanasia, but ended by rejecting it as unsafe and corrupting public policy:

"It would be next to impossible to ensure that every act of euthanasia was truly voluntary. We are concerned that vulnerable people - the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed - would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to seek early death."

Doctors have no illusions about the pressures that can be felt by vulnerable people.

One patient of mine, a woman with disabilities and minimal self-confidence, received a cruel letter from a close relative effectively telling her she should be dead, and demanding certain arrangements in her will. She then developed cancer.

Consider such family dynamics in a setting of legalised euthanasia, and ask what the "right to die" would mean to a cancer patient so isolated and intimidated.

And the public should have no illusions about the corruptibility of doctors if they are given authority to take life.

According to the Dutch government's own data, doctors in The Netherlands put to death several hundred patients a year without any explicit request, even where the patient is competent to give or withhold consent.

The Dutch officially legalised voluntary euthanasia in 2002 and some claimed that bringing euthanasia "out into the open" in this way would reduce such abuses. Not at all. The Netherlands' 2007 report on euthanasia states that the rate of patients killed "without explicit request" since legalisation in 2002 is "not significantly different from those in previous years".

And why would we expect a reduction?

Doctors who treated the law with contempt when euthanasia was illegal would be even more comfortable and relaxed about abusing the practice once it was socially approved.

Professors of psychiatry in Brisbane, Frank Varghese and Brian Kelly, warned of the impossibility of protecting patients from "the doctor's unconscious and indeed sometimes conscious wishes for the patient to die" once doctors run the state machinery of mercy-killing.

Even the assertion by euthanasia advocates that psychiatric assessment will protect patients by detecting any depression that might be marring the patient's judgment is shown to be a sham, on the available evidence from the US State of Oregon and the Northern Territory.

In Oregon, for instance, of the 49 patients who died by physician-assisted suicide in 2007 not a single patient was referred for psychiatric assessment prior to taking their lethal drug. In the NT during the period of legal euthanasia (July 1996 to March 1997) there were four deaths, all presided over by euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke.

Psychiatrist and palliative care specialist David Kissane reviewed Nitschke's cases and made this assessment of the so-called "safeguard" of compulsory psychiatric assessment:

"Nitschke reported that all patients saw this step as a hurdle to be overcome. Alarmingly, these patients went untreated by a system preoccupied with meeting the requirements of the act's schedules rather than delivering competent medical care to depressed patients."

More than once I have urged Nitschke to study palliative medicine, to broaden his awareness of what can be done for people with advanced disease. When we look after such patients well, thoughts of euthanasia often fade. Then, in the words of one hospice patient who had asked me for euthanasia only the day before, but was now pain-free, "It's a different world, doc."

However, I would not use the argument against euthanasia that "palliative care can ease all suffering". We cannot ease all suffering in dying any more than we can ease all suffering in childbirth, even though we have made enormous progress.

Rejection of euthanasia is not dependent on perfecting palliative care for all patients.

Its rejection is on the grounds of injustice to the weak, as Kevin Andrews made clear on presenting his Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, which overturned the NT's legislation: "The people who are most at risk are the most vulnerable, and a law which fails to protect vulnerable people will always be a bad law."

We must reject euthanasia both as a corruption of the doctor-patient relationship and as an insidious oppression of society's "unproductive burdens".

And parliament must reject the Greens' trivialisation of such a momentous issue, their proposal that five politicians on Norfolk Island or nine in the ACT assembly should have authority to transform national culture on a matter of life and death.

David van Gend is a Toowoomba GP and a senior lecturer in palliative medicine at the University of Queensland. (This article does not purport to represent the view, if any, of the university.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Melbourne Environment Warning!

Unconstrained Energy Leak Engulfing City

While residents on the north coast of Japan watch and wait as the environmental impacts of the damage to its Fukushima nuclear power generators in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and communities along the Gulf of Mexico continue their cleaning efforts after the sustained release of oil energy from the disabled drilling platform, Melburnians today are being warned of a major energy disaster engulfing the city. Energy many times the capacity of either the reactors in Japan or the oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico is being released across the city in an unrestrained way, impacting the lives of every resident of and visitor to the city. Daily reports of this leak fill our news media, with papers regularly reporting the times in which its release begins and ends, often indicating when the peak impact will occur during the day. Radio programs punctuate the hour with updates, often reinforced across the hour. Yet in their typically laconic Aussie style, Melbourne’s residents seem to take it in their stride.

Far from being concerned about this release of energy into the atmosphere, Melbourne’s citizens seem to revel in it. Though extreme circumstances can cause severe damage to the skin, and often lead to a significant reduction in productivity, marked by a surge in residents leaving the city and heading to the shores, shedding work responsibilities and, incredibly, soaking up its rays, for the most part the atmospheric presence of this unrestrained energy source is taken for granted, with little pressure being exerted upon governments and industry to take action to curb this waste.

A variety of symptoms of exposure have been reported, including in its mild forms, increased consumption of liquids, and the shedding of external clothing by humans, and at extreme levels increased risk of skin cancers. But its release can also lift sombre moods, stimulate the playful twitter of bird life, and the encourage the blossoming of flowers and flourishing of gardens. Oddly enough, a common response when this energy release is at its peak is for Melburnians to increase demand for and consumption of coal and gas-fired energy sources which have even more adverse effects on the atmosphere and the broader environment, intensifying its impact in the atmosphere. Some of Melbourne’s citizens have consequently been pressing for investment in the nuclear generation technology which has Japanese residents presently in a heightened state of alert. In spite of the abundance of this energy source, few Melburnians seem concerned enough to harness and utilise solar resources in the overall generation of power through its infrastructure. This terrible and unconstrained wastage passes daily with little concern by the average citizen, save to occasionally retreat when at its most intense or, paradoxically, also when it is at its least intensity. In stark contrast to the citizens of Japan and the Gulf Coast, Melburnians seems strangely relaxed about this unconstrained release into the environment and the accompanying wasted opportunity, yet at the same time apparently concerned that we move to harness and deploythe very sources of energy which have paralyses these other places for extended periods.

Interestingly, were such unconstrained release of energy of the kind we see each day be of any other form of energy being consumed around the world, the death toll would be enormous and the environment damaged to the extent that it would be uninhabitable. Conversely, harnessing this power source for our daily conduct of life will do nothing to diminish the enjoyment of it in other ways by others, and may even provide benefits in other ways to our communal well-being, without the risks which most alternatives bring. It almost beggars belief.

So every time you hear a weather report today and revel in the sun’s rays, take a moment to remember and perhaps pray for our sisters and brothers in Japan, and contemplate the waste we tolerate every day.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Game-Change in Libya?

The intervention of the United Nations into the Libyan struggle, while welcome at one level, and a game-changer at another, will also change the nature of any victory which ensues. The struggle for change in Libya commenced as an internal struggle, not unlike others seen in recent weeks in the Middle East, most recently Egypt, where the victory was won by non-violent revolution within the powers of the people. True democratic reform has taken place because it was the voice – and actions – of the people which prevailed. Libyan citizens, encouraged by what they had seen in the neighbouring country, took up the struggle for change. The time seemed right to bring the long rule of Colonel Gaddafi to an end. However, Gaddafi not only resisted the voices, he responded with force against his people, and the people were threatened.

At one level the response of the United Nations to sanction military intervention by other nations is understandable. Gaddafi was not going to go quietly, if at all, and the cost in terms of lives was set to escalate. Having stood by and watched such brutality in other countries unfold without intervention, and with an escalating and tragic cost in lives – both in terms of number of deaths and in the number of refugees created, the argument for intervention was made, and accepted. But in so doing, the nature of the struggle has changed.

The use of such a powerful force against the Gaddafi regime, nominally in enforcement of a “no-fly zone” changed the game significantly. No longer is this simply a battle for political transformation rooted in the power of the Libyan people, it has become a battle of forces far greater. Any victory is no longer an ideological victory based in arguments for a freer and fairer Libyan society, it has been shifted into a battle based on who can unleash the greatest force for the longest time. Paradoxically, an act taken to empower the Libyan people may well undermine the very case they are trying to make – that true political power is rooted in the voice of the people, not in the tyrannical exercise of force.

If Gaddafi manages to survive this assault, his position will be strengthened, and an argument can be made that the coalition has effectively undermined the moral authority of the arguments made by the Libyan people in their rebellion. If the UN coalition succeeds in removing Gaddafi from power, there consequently exists a moral claim upon whoever assumes power in his stead, one which has laid a foundation of power which still rests upon violence. The game will have been won, but a far different game than envisaged at the outset. It is no longer only the struggle of the Libyan people, it is now a battle between Gaddafi and the world. Any victory will thus create a power vacuum, echoing problems we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. And with the additional factor in the equation – Libya’s oil reserves – at the heart of Western interests, a new power struggle emerges in the wake of any regime collapse.

We may well ask about the alternatives. Should we have let this struggle play itself out as an internal struggle, just as the world allowed to happen in Cairo? Do we not believe in the power of the people’s voice – democracy – enough to let this struggle continue? Is the presence of oil the real catalyst for action, or a genuine and altruistic commitment to protect the Libyan people who began this uprising and were struggling to see it through? These are complex questions. But it is of concern that we turn so readily to the use of force to solve such problems… if such actions really do solve them at all. Is the ultimate answer to all tyrants only that we have the bigger weapons? What happens if they manage to gain this upper hand?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Living in Community

While reading Parker Palmer's "The Company of Strangers" I came across this provocative quote:
"Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives!"
Palmer adds a corollary:
"And when that person moves away, someone else arises to take his or her place!"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The State of the Planet

The first part of 2011 has been remarkable for the number of catastrophic events which have been on our screens and in our newspapers. Floods, cyclones, bushfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis have appeared almost in sequence within this region of the world, prompting many to pause and ask “what is going on?” The ever-present and continuous news presentations providing blanket coverage of these events has, to some extent, heightened awareness and – possibly – the sense of trauma being felt within the community. The distance from our lounge-room chairs to the flood-devastated residents of Brisbane and North Queensland, to the bushfire threatened residents of Perth, to the shaken and shattered residents of Christchurch or to the inundated residents of Japan has been greatly reduced by the wonders of telecommunication technology and the conspicuous presence of 24-hour news coverage. It is hard to avoid being drawn into these dramatic events. It is equally difficult to escape their presence. The trauma being experienced by the residents is encroaching upon our daily lives.

At one level, the sense of disaster we feel is heightened by our proximity to the events, both in vision and experience. Who can but help to be shaken by the images of waves destroying everything in their path which have saturated our screens in recent nights? How can we not be shaken to the core as we witness first-hand the distress of residents standing outside collapsed buildings wondering whether friends and loved ones are trapped inside? We experience these things in their raw state, entering ever more deeply into the experience of the residents. Not for us any longer the capacity to wait for news to reach us, often processed with the benefit of passing time. It is raw. It is filled with anguish. And the very screen which brings us into this drama also cuts us off from resources to help us process it. Aid and support workers are on the ground helping residents deal with their shock and grief, but not in our lounge rooms. We find ourselves either immersed in the trauma, or conceptually reducing it to a form of entertainment. (Remember the reminders during the events of September 11? Newscasters had to remind audiences that this was real. Note that we no longer find the need to do so.)

At another level, we seem to have been hit by an uninterrupted sequence of catastrophic events of an extreme nature. This sequence also gives rise to the question – is there something unusual about this sequence? Have we tripped off events by human action? While I resonate with Boris Johnson’s decrying of those who search for simplistic answers to this situation, I hesitate to rule out the need to ask ourselves whether our actions have somehow disturbed the delicate balance in creation to a point where the frequency of events has been accelerated and their ferocity intensified. Is it realistic to assume that we can extract billions of litres of crude oil from below the earth’s crust and replace it with seawater without upsetting the balance? Is it na├»ve to believe that setting off nuclear explosions beneath the earth’s surface has no impact on the stability of the tectonic plates? We are already pondering the impact of our carbon emissions on the planet… ought we not extend our considerations to other aspects below the surface? Of course the earth is not a person who “exacts revenge.” It is, however, a system in balance – an ever-shifting balance with tremendous capacity to adapt to changes – but one which does have limits to its flexibility. We can no longer presume on human capacity to treat creation as its plaything without some consideration of the potential consequences. Whilst I would agree that it is only human stupidity which seeks to ascribe simple or singular causes to such events, I would also suggest that it is only human arrogance that can allow us to continue as though these things were entirely matters of chance.

Yet when we hear the question, “What is going on?” echoing through ordinary conversation, we recognise the conversation being turned towards discussion of meta-narratives – is there a bigger picture of which this is part? The search for meaning is a basic human trait – that sense of purpose in life which explains who we are and why we live in a certain way. Although some might suggest that the idea of the meta-narrative has gone the way of the dodo, its resurrection at times such as this (and not only at this time) indicates that questions of meaning are still very much alive. This is why some find it irresistible to offer simplistic explanations: “It’s the judgment of God,” or “It’s the earth fighting back.” These are as helpful as Johnson’s suggestion that “we don't have to treat this as any kind of verdict on mankind's activities,” or to borrow a phrase from another politician, “shit happens.” An inappropriate response – at either end – does not invalidate the question. There is a middle ground where some thoughtful reflection needs to be undertaken about the impact of our lifestyle on the planet while we pour our efforts and resources into aid and support for the devastated regions (and not just those in the West!)

We do need to contemplate where our lifestyle is leading us, and whether these events are indicators, or simply isolated episodes consistent with the inherent volatility of our planet. Failure to even ask the question might allow us to journey into even deeper troubles.