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For those who watched them, the Olympics were an impressive display of sporting prowess, of athleticism. There was the thrill of seeing the best in the world compete in sports where they had been preparing themselves for years, and there were many impressive performances and thrilling competitions. But it is competitive sport. Usually three people get medals, in team sports somewhat more, but there are only a limited number of winners. There were many more losers than winners.
For those for whom competing in the Olympics was enough of a feat, then getting to that stage was an achievement. For many others there was the tragedy of, and coming to terms with, failure, of years of preparation not being rewarded with success. Such are the vagaries of competitive sport. The Paralympics provides another take on this with the added dimension of athletes overcoming the obstacles of disability.
But there are other aspects of the Olympics. It is often referred to as the 'Olympic Movement'. But it is not so much a movement - beyond the enormous work done by athletes behind the scenes - and more Big Business - potentially for the host country and certainly for the corporate sponsors who generally produce a load of rubbish which they seek to touch with gold by being associated with competitive athleticism of the first order.
Furthermore, the Olympics is generally nationalism masquerading as internationalism. Yes, it is meant to be a great international spectacle but it is made up of competing nationalisms. Hands up anyone who was not, metaphorically at least, cheering on their country's sports people, even (as with Irish people) in a 'sport' like boxing which, while demanding great fitness, is mainly about hitting other people hard. So this 'international' event can actually enhance 'nationalism'. Maybe you will say this is a harmless form of nationalism, and channelled in a positive way, but there is still that element of division, of one-upmanship.
How we can foster the notion that we are citizens of the world is a difficult question to tackle. The attempt to create a 'European' (= western European) identity through the EU likewise has its plus and minus points. Europe has come a long way since the Second World War, the war in the former Yugoslavia notwithstanding, and relations between states are exponentially better than they were. The danger here is that this 'European' identity as defined by the EU will form not only a military expression but will become, in resource disputes or wars later this century, a negative and self-interested entity on the world stage, impacting for ill on poorer parts of the globe.
As it is, people in Ireland are often in thrall to the myths associated with the USA, and in this regard Ireland can be closer to Boston than Berlin. And if it is not in thrall to US myths then it can be in thrall to US military and economic power - the latter presumably being why in relation to the former the Irish government has thrown neutrality to the four winds to support US military imperialism or neo-imperialism by giving Shannon airport to the USA, no questions asked.
While it is dangerous to uncritically blame 'the media' (since this puts the blame on just the messenger), there is the fact that it generally reflects and reinforces the interests that people have ('people' in this context being a mixture of readers and owners). A hurricane hitting the Gulf coast of the USA is covered in exhaustive detail. Tropical storms which devastate, say, the Philippines leaving countless people homeless and many dead get one or two news reports in 'quality' news reporting before the story is quickly lost. Are the Filipinos not as worthy of our attention as US Americans? Apparently not.
How we foster an 'internationalist' perspective is a difficult task when what many people want is their worldview and prejudices reinforced since this makes them - us - feel comfortable and superior, even if they feel others are a 'threat'. Some politicians - and not just in the West - specialise in the politics of fear and threat as a means to try to manipulate the support of their people.
There is no short cut to helping people realise that they should consider themselves citizens of the world and human beings first of all. Humour can be part of it - as with the 'national identity' car sticker proclaiming 'Earth'. Being well informed though quality news programmes and specialist media like 'The New Internationalist' is another. While there is currently a huge ecological threat through global warming, the green movement is a very considerable force for emphasising a world identity since clearly everything is linked (though most of the rich and powerful like to pretend that things are 'business as usual' you could say it is 'business as usual with the deck chairs on the Titanic'). Our educational systems, however, need to make further strides to show children and young students that we are citizens of the world first and foremost. Building multinational platforms and alliances for trade unions and for peace and progressive movements in general is a vital aspect of combating profit-seeking multinationals and death dealers.
We all have a role to play, and our own prejudices to overcome. There is nothing wrong with local or indeed national identity and pride. These can be forces for good and progress, and defences against care-less megacultural and multinational forces which wish to treat people as solely economic and consumer entities. Local is good. But thinking globally and acting locally is part of it, tempered by 'thinking locally' where the local does not trump the global but forms a positive identity which appreciates other local identities elsewhere and the need for us all to be well grounded in so many ways.
There should be no contradiction between us thinking locally and globally at the same time, marrying what is good for our locality and community with what is good for the world. This may seem like altruism beyond belief. It is actually self interest regarding the preservation of the species - especially ecologically. The threat from global warming is to us all but primarily to those too poor to be able to adapt fast enough to cope with what may be vicious changes in food and commodity production, and in weather and sea levels. And that could mean more authoritarian government and less human rights in many parts of the world.
Thinking corporately - as most of the powers that be in business and governments seem to do - is a recipe for disaster, and we are on the threshold of just such a disaster which it will take rather more effort to avoid than is currently being expended. If the world continues in its current corporate mode, with emphasis on economic growth and damn the consequences, then there will be an ecological armageddon for many in the world. This is likely also to be a military armageddon for these same people, and possibly others, as resource disputes escalate and turn to violence and war.
Moving to a global identity is also not easy when the United Nations is so weak - we don't mean militarily, we mean in authority and resources - and national self interest continues to dictate matters. Which comes first - the chicken or UN reform or the egg of changes in perception by the people of powerful nations? If people cannot be persuaded by the need to avoid the worst excesses of global warming then there is little hope of developing a world identity, a global consciousness. But perhaps, just perhaps, through enormous effort, enough people can realise that we really are in this together even if some (generally the poor) will suffer far more than others.
Peace and ecology go hand in hand. Peace will be increasingly impossible if world temperature goes up the tubes. Building a global identity which gives its place to localism and nationalism but is considered more important than these is a key part of human development and survival. It is the only way in which humanity will emerge with self respect and any degree of positive stability and peace in the latter part of the 21st century. If we simply batten down nationalist and corporate hatches the result will be something terrible to behold.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column -
One of the most important pieces of research on climate change was published this summer by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (Best). Its key finding, accepted by many climate change sceptics, is that the disruption of weather patterns is due to human-induced warming of the planet. This means that the severe drought across most of the United States this summer, forest fires in southern Europe, floods in S.E. Asia, high levels of humidity in the Mediterranean, record-breaking amounts of rain in Ireland and Britain and the loss of 100,000 sq km of ice a day in Arctic during August is almost certainty due to climate change.
These weather scourges are the realization of the prophecy of Chief Seattle (1854) that one day 'we we will suffocate in our own waste'. The world of middle-age memory will never be again and we should mourn. We should also be displeased with ourselves as we have failed our children, future generations and all the species in the web of life. The industry and commerce of the past 250 years, and most especially the last 70 has shattered a paradigm. One of the perennial tenets of society is that our children and our children's children will have a quality of life equal to or better than we had. This will never be. We have crossed a line in history and are now living in the era of climate chaos.
Concerned citizens, environmental campaigners and politicians hope that ultimate catastrophe can be averted. Most of the formulas offered simply don't cut it. Green consumerism is an illusion; the technological re-engineering of the earth's climate, such as placing giant mirrors above the stratosphere to deflect the rays of the sun, are likely to have Frankenstein results, and more eco-efficient machines lead, paradoxically, to greater energy consumption. What is required to reduce the warming of the planet, which given the state of today's environment will only occur centuries from now, is a universal change of mindset on par with the Enlightenment.
What we learn from Irish mythology is that substantial change, the birth of a new era or consciousness only occurs on the event of death. Peter O'Connor in Beyond The Mist (2000) writes: "We know from story after story, myth after myth, that there cannot be any birth or renewal until death has occurred." (p. 8) Applying this insight to the environment means that we will not be disposed to address the issue of climate chaos, the loss of biodiversity, the collapse of the life-support systems of the planet and structural injustice until we place the idea of endless economic growth and our arrogance towards other species in a coffin and bury them in the ground.
Even as flooded rivers flow through our streets and food prices rise because of failed harvests the witch-doctors of our civilisation never cease chanting that only faith in never-ending growth will save us from economic misery and environmental woe. We refuse to allow failed ideas about the good life to die. The mass media, big business, the education system and mainstream politicians play a crucial role in defining a meaningful life in consumerist terms.
There has to be finality to the idea that meaning, purpose, sense of belonging and self-realization lie in having and our readiness to use violence to obtain and hold. When the sod is placed on the coffin of this paradigm a psychology of compassion and eco-sensitivity is likely to become the defining feature of how we live enabling us to begin the task of healing the Earth and devising institutions that ensure everyone can live a life free from deprivation.
A new paradigm won't materialise from wishful thinking. Our historic responsibility is to sow the seeds of positive change.