January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]
The killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine, and related deaths at a Jewish supermarket in Paris, were a tragedy for all concerned. No one deserves to be killed or executed for their beliefs, secular or religious. It is not surprising that there was such a wave of revulsion, and support for free speech, in France and in many other places around the world.
We say it is not surprising, and it is not, that there was such a reaction. Then we should not be surprised at the Muslim and Arab reactions to similar killings which take place, regularly, by the West, specifically by the USA and sometimes Britain, by drone strikes, and in other ways such as recent wars. We dealt with this very issue of drone strikes in an editorial in the last Nonviolent News (December) e.g. "The Obama administration, in targeting 41 men who are Islamist militants has actually killed 1,147 people in drone strikes... 76 children and 29 adults have been killed in total in targeting Ayman Zawahiri. For another man, Qari Hussain, a deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, a number of drone attacks have killed 128 people, 13 of them children, who were not the target." There are no big Western demonstrations about these deaths – though some people, doggedly, work to oppose drone strikes.
One death does not excuse another in retaliation; that is killing people to prove that killing people is wrong (as with capital punishment). The important issue is how we 'break into' cycles of violence so they do not continue. Without the reaction of the West there would be no Islamic State in Syria and Iraq today. The military response of George W Bush, Tony Blair, and more latterly Barack Obama and others has been part of what has resulted in us being where we are today. The West's responses have been an unmitigated disaster. Focusing solely on the cruelty and militant violence of Islamic State or Al Qaeda and other military jihadist bodies is pointless when it is Western policies and excesses which are an essential part of those responses.
Moving on to the question of free speech there are many different issues, some of which nonviolence has a bearing on. In nonviolence there are a range of options in terms of relating to someone in opposition to you, 'an enemy'; these range from conversion (persuading them that you are right – or even vice versa), accommodation (reaching a mutual agreement where they may not be persuaded by your arguments but decide, on balance, to reach an agreement), or coercion (where the opponent is forced to do something which they probably do not agree with but do it nevertheless because they have to, to retain power or for some other reason). Turning enemies into friends is the ideal in nonviolence, and one which many of us would emphasise, but this is not always possible. Depending on the importance of the issue, however, forcing something through can and should be an option.
But we should always aim for conversion or accommodation. Charles Boycott, the subject of the first explicit and eponymous 'boycott' in the land struggle in Ireland in the latter nineteenth century, eventually became a supporter of reform. And if we are aiming to covert, or reach an accommodation, how do we do this? While satire and ridicule have their place in social change and nonviolence, and in building up a movement, we are wise to satirise issues and actions rather than people when we can, and we are not likely to convert anyone by continuously ridiculing them personally. Satire may be necessary in terms of issues, and people's practices, but certain forms of ridicule may simply serve to make an enemy more an enemy, to make them more militant, more determined, and more convinced that they are right. It can have the result of battening down the hatches under attack, or 'proving' that someone is right if it gets that response. Many Muslims feel personally insulted in a very deep way when their Prophet is ridiculed and portrayed visually, something which is considered by most Muslims as a strong insult to their beliefs.
Charlie Hebdo has deliberately sought to insult and to ridicule Muslims and Muslim beliefs. Has this been wise or a good use of free speech? No. Did the staff of Charlie Hebdo deserve to die or be threatened as a result? No. But if working for change, we have always to be thinking – what will lead to change? What do people need to be able to change? Some individuals may reassess their positions because their beliefs are ridiculed but the bulk of people are more likely to come out with an angry reaction. The fact that we have 'a right' to do something does not make it an obligation and we are wise to choose what rights we exercise and what we do not, while being consistent and true to our own beliefs.
Then there is the question of the clash of rights, which Northern Ireland is very familiar with. Orangemen, having marched past a Catholic area in the morning considered they have the right to march the same route in reverse in the evening and, when thwarted, have had a camp there since then to protest, for nearly two years (Twaddell Avenue, north Belfast). Are they right? Many neighbouring Catholics, who experience Orange parades as being anti-Catholic, and are vehemently opposed to any such marching past, feel intimidated also by the protest, as well as the original marching. Both sides claim to be peaceful but in the nature of sectarian division in Northern Ireland, intimidation and violence are not too far away. Where does right lie? How can such a situation be moved on?
If both sides fail to understand anything about the other's point of view then compromise is difficult. The best of international human rights standards may help but, in the case of clashing rights, what can you do? Talking to try to develop understanding is one obvious answer. Putting the issue in a wider context and, as mentioned, the context of human rights, even the context of the clash of rights, is also important. Seeking alternative and positive means of expressing your views, and identity, can also be part of it. But thinking creatively, positively, and nonviolently, about how change can come about is also part of it; being locked into a lose-lose situation is in no one's interests. All of this applies not just to the issue of Orange parades in Northern Ireland but to Western-Muslim relations. Sometimes it seems like the West tries hard to live down to the image which some military jihadists have of it.
Insulting people is not the way forward. Of course disagreement could, and should, be expressed but in a way which furthers the possibility of change, the possibility of dialogue, and the possibility of understanding. Otherwise there is the danger or result of perpetuating stereotypes and leading to more violence and misery. We may not need to compromise our own beliefs, though in a process of dialogue it cannot be foretold where it may lead. However, understanding the beliefs, culture and needs of others is part of what we need in any modern society.
Homogeneity is a thing of the past, insofar as it even existed then (and societies projected as being monolithic homogeneous ones were often anything but that). Heterogeneity, whether it is expressed as being or working towards a multicultural society of not, is part and parcel or modern life and we need to adapt to that – wherever we are and whatever we are, even if there is a clear majority ethos. We need to arrive at ways of understanding and respecting each other, and agreeing or disagreeing with people's beliefs should not be a factor in building on that. Dialogue should be the aim rather than diatribes. We have a long road to travel in this regard but the idea that 'others' are the only problem, or have the only issues that need addressed, is a dangerous one.
Ignoring climate change
Few people would have been surprised by Met Eireann's report that Ireland's mean temperature in 2014 was the fourth warmest on record. The UK Met Office reports that 2014 was the warmest year in Britain since records began in 1910. As one would expect, these temperatures are not geographically unique. Ronan McGreevy informs us in The Irish Times, 6 January 2014, that "Preliminary data suggest that 2014 was the warmest year in Europe since 1500." Irene Klotz reports in the Irish Examiner, 17 January 2015, that according to two major U.S. scientific agencies 2014 was the warmest year on record. Don Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois, is quoted in The Guardian, 17 January 2015, as saying that 2014 is probably the warmest year in 5,000 years.
In spite of the contraction of the global economy over the past seven years the temperature of the Earth is on course to rise by 5° Celsius by the end of the century. (The Guardian, 17 January 2015) Climatologists must be tired telling the public, policy makers, planners, the business community and governments that the warming of the planet beyond 2° Celsius will be catastrophic for humankind and the entire bio-community.
The Irish Environmental Protection Agency tells us that the "predicted adverse impacts include:
- sea level rise
- intense storms and rainfall events
- increased likelihood and magnitude of river and coastal flooding
- water shortages in summer in the East
- adverse impacts on water quality
- changes in distribution of plant and animal species
- effects on fisheries sensitive to changes in temperature".
A rise in sea level and frequent coastal flooding will make many coastal towns and large parts of our cities uninhabitable. This will mean the loss of farms and homes, hospitals, schools and libraries, power stations, water processing plants, government offices and cemeteries. We will not only lose vital infrastructure but our cultural landscape, places in which our personal memories and collective sense of identity were formed. Although it may be difficult to imagine, the predicted rise in global temperature will likely mean that flooding will prevent people from posting a letter in the GPO in Dublin or reading a book in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
As we live in a single biosphere and are an integral part of the global economy we will have additional problems to contend with. A 5° Celsius rise in temperature will lead to mass crop failures across many regions of the world and as we import 5 billion Euros worth of food every year, including 75m Euros worth of potatoes, we will find it a challenge to feed ourselves. (Central Statistics Office, 2012) The inhospitable climate will inevitably lead to tens of millions of refugees, a sizeable number of whom will settle in Ireland testing our traditional welcome, 'céad míle fáilte', as never before. Without considerable preparations there will be a break-down of public services which will lead to a significant increase in deprivations. The number of people suffering from ill-health, including mental health will increase. Mass social unrest can be expected.
What might be the reality for many as a result of climate change is encapsulated in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road (2006) in which a father and young son struggle for survival in a grim post-apocalyptic world. The story echoes the plight of hundreds of thousands of people in the years of the Great Famine, which like climate change, was rooted in flawed economics and lack of appreciation of the interconnections which underpin the healthy functioning of the ecosystems we depend on.
What is intriguing is why, when we know from experience and our understanding of science the probable future that awaits our children, we do not take concerted action to move from a fossil fuel economy to one sustained by renewable energy? Although politicians and corporations talk about 'greening the economy' there is a startling mismatch between rhetoric and reality. This is illustrated by the case that governments around the world provide substantial financial support to the fossil fuel industry. Adam Vaughan in The Guardian, 6 January 2015, writes that:
"The UK government has provided billions of loans to fossil fuel projects around the world despite a pledge to withdraw financial support from such schemes. …
Coal mining, petrochemical complexes, and oil and gas exploration are among the industries benefitting from the loans and guarantees, which cover projects in countries including Slovakia, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany, Norway, Vietnam, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia."
George Monbiot in The Guardian, 7 January 2015, informs us that in spite of the UK Climate Change Act 2008 "which commits successive governments to minimize the UK's greenhouse gas emissions" the Infrastructure Act 2015, presently going through parliament, "will commit successive governments to maximize them". Evidence that the Irish government is not taking climate change as seriously as it should is contained in its first climate change bill published on the 19th January 2015. Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth criticizes the bill on the grounds that "it does not include a definition of low carbon, it doesn't guarantee the independence of the council, and it doesn't include the principles of climate justice". (The Irish Times, 20 January 2015) The council is composed of 11 experts, is advisory and makes recommendations to the Minister of the Environment.
Humankind has not yet come to terms with the fact that if we are to meet our very modest targets of reducing our emissions of global warming gasses we have to leave most of the known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. Damian Carrington in an article in The Guardian, 7 January 2015, based on research led by Christophe McGlade at University College London, writes that:
"trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas, including most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas and much potential shale gas, cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under 2°C safety limit agreed by the world's nations".
Addressing climate change, loss of biodiversity and other environmental problems, is an existential challenge, which given the urgency of the situation will entail a global revolution in how we value and interact with nonhuman nature. Without such a change is Saudi Arabia, with a population of 30 million, and almost wholly dependent on oil, going to leave its oil in the ground? Are the fossil fuel companies that, according to Professor Paul Ekins of UCL, spent $570bn (£443bn) in 2013 on oil and gas exploration going to walk away from their investments?
Without a radical change in how we regard our relationship with nonhuman nature are the two jurisdictions of this island going to play their part in addressing climate change, through for example investing billions in constructing a public transport system that renders the use of the private car for most journeys redundant? Current transport plans suggest otherwise. There are also no plans to ensure that every house in the country is properly insulated, or plans to increase our forest cover using the trees for fuel and construction, which according to Eco Eye, RTE, 'The Power Of Wood' would drastically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.
Yet, revolutions in thought and behaviour happen, our species thrives on them. As Cary Fowler, who helped create the world's largest seed bank says in an interview in the New Scientist, 3 January 2015: "We know the disaster is coming, it is within our capacity to avert the worst affects, if we mobilize now". We are the change and our democracy affords us the means to act.