January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issue on Nonviolence News]
Peter McLachlan was a former Unionist politician who became a social and peace activist and died in 1999. He had a paradigm about the respective approaches of the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland regarding change. He saw the Catholic community in the North as setting the overarching vision first before later on filling in the details or the bricks to support this structure; the Protestant community, he said, liked to build things up slowly, brick by brick, before defining and refining what had been built.
Whether this analysis is correct, partly correct, or incorrect you can decide. However the point in mentioning this is not to get into the intricacies of Northern sectarian differences but to say that ‘a bit of both’ is needed simultaneously. Visions can fall flat on their faces if it is not clear that there are easy steps which can be taken to set off on the journey – otherwise the journey can seem too long, too great a venture. Thus moves, both in the Belfast and Dublin, to extend road provision for cyclists in the current situation of coronavirus can be an easy and cheap step which shows what is possible but also points the way forward. And without a vision people will perish in the stranglehold of apathy and conservative approaches, or feel they have to settle for piecemeal change which is inadequate to deal with urgent issues.
The dangers of Covid-19 has called on all people to practise solidarity by staying at home when possible, keeping physically aprt from others, and so on. The unselfish role of health and care services, often at considerable risk to themselves, has been inspiring. Society has also redefined who a ‘key worker’ is to include those employed in supermarkets who previously would have been invisible in regard to their contribution to society; but we need food. Many people who have been furloughed or working from home have seen what their life is like without what might have been a long commute, and they like it. They may also feel that they want to continue somewhat apart from the rat race of pressurised work. Many people have seen, for the first time, their environment without huge pollution, and again they like what they see. In the Republic, the last election was also a significant move towards ‘change’. Social change advocates have a hard job but at times their task is easier. That is one of those times.
But change is not a simple process. It is not just a matter of some people, even a government, flicking a magic wand and muttering some magic words. It requires hard work, dedication, staying power. It requires civil society to press hard and keep on pressing. It requires a clarity in the vision being pursued, and imagination in both projecting that vision and working on its practical implementation.
In the PC (Post-Coronavirus) Era, governments have been forking out more money than they previously dreamed possible or desirable in order to retain jobs and support their citizens at the worst of times. That financing will necessarily and gradually reduce and diminish. But when governments say they haven’t the money for some urgent change or development, what they are saying is that they are unwilling to make that money available; this should now be clear. There are money trees, not in a simple sense, but money can be found for most things – and where there is a will there is a way.
So what should we expect and work for? Many things across a broad range of issues which are too numerous to go in to here; we can all make our own lists. But there are some essentials. Wealth and income inequalities must be reduced, at home and throughout the world. The greening of life needs to go ahead at a very rapid pace. Allowing and supporting innovation in economics, education, the arts is a key part of moving on, partly through use of something like universal basic income. Basic income is not, per se, a panacea to cure inequality but it can help to free up society from current rigid roles of ‘work’ and ‘non-work’.
And what about nonviolence? Well some of the principles of nonviolence are key to success. The first is in how civil society organises on issues of concern, being able to maximise its potential and potential influence. Mediation as a tool in disputes has become a norm in Ireland and many oher societies over the last thirty or forty years; this shows how change can happen.
But internationally there is a strong role that a neutral Ireland can play in helping avoid the further mlitarisation of Europe (and resultant waste of money and resources apart from heightened risks of violence). Europe risks becoming simply another superpower and, in an uncertain era of global heating, it also risks becoming another bully on the world stage; we have already seen unwelcoming reactions to refugees coming from dire situations. Put money and effort into building up a strong military structure and the pressure will grow to use it – and it is unlikely that it will be used wisely in a future which may bring much more global uncertainty, rising temperatures, vast numbers of refugees, and conflicts over the availability of resources.
But the wind is in the sails of those who want social and political change as we slowly emerge, blinking, into the sunlight of a different world to that of some few months ago. That desire for change, that solidarity, is there to be tapped. Of course there will be resistance to change, that goes with the territory, but the possibilities and the openings which exist are there for the taking and building.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Right across the country, we should insist that new housebuilding schemes have room for families to have proper gardens and grow food communally; schools, too, need wild places for children to play …
Willingness to see the global picture often begins in individual backyards. Campaigns to clear the oceans of plastic start with picking up rubbish on the beach. - Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian, 9 May 2020
The spread of Covid-19 across the world in a matter of weeks caused 350, 958 confirmed deaths and 5,614,458 confirmed infections by 27 May. It brought the global economy to a near halt through curtailing the social interaction of the world’s 7.8 billion people. The evidence suggests that the worldwide government enforced health precautions are effective and if governments had being prepared and public services properly resourced fewer people would have been infected by the virus and died.
The unanswerable question, which medical experts nevertheless get asked, is how long will the pandemic last? This depends on social behaviour. Will the majority of the public continue to wash their hands on a regular basis, wear a mask when in close proximity with people outside their household, physically distance? What is almost certain is that national exchequers, even in the age of low cost loans, will not be able to finance the stay at home policy for more than a few months.
Financial limitations are only part of the equation: another is ensuring people have food to eat, which means that in spite of agricultural technologies human labour is needed to plant, harvest, process and transport food. Many farmers across Europe are worried that their crops will rot in the ground for lack of hard-working skilled pickers and packers. In mid-May Prince Charles tried to inspire the able-bodied to apply for farming jobs without delay. The economy is not only about generating tax revenue, it provides medicines, education, shoes and bicycles. Decently paid work provides the employed with a sense of meaning and enhances their physical and mental wellbeing. In the final analysis the majority of jobs, bar exceptions such as those in the military industrial complex, are socially useful.
As with the foreseen end of a war a section of the population see an opportunity for constructing a new and better way of living when the number of people dying from Covid-19 reaches acceptable limits and socializing restrictions are relaxed. The figure might be on par with the number of people killed in road collisions every year. In Northern Ireland this would be approximately 55 people, 150 in the Irish Republic and 1.25 million worldwide. At the height of the Troubles the British government thought that the acceptable number of Troubles related deaths per year was less than 400.
While some want societal change others yearn for what they had before the lockdown, inevitably these are mainly people who were happy with the status quo, who thought that on the whole life was fine. Within this group are people, politicians and corporations who delude themselves that we can live with climate breakdown, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, water pollution and gross economic inequality. Many don’t deny that we are confronted with such serious problems but hold that the environmental ones can be resolved by technological innovation and that dire poverty can be eased through employment schemes while finding consolation in the idea that poverty has always been a fact of life.
With society is in lockdown and people worried about how to pay their household bills, the safety and wellbeing of loved ones, or on keeping a small business afloat, the CEO’s are consolidating their power and grip on society with plans to ensure that in the post-Covid-19 world their power and financial returns will be beyond challenge. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, 2008, outlines in the Guardian, 19 May 2020, how the large Silicon Valley tech corporations are working with local and national governments to further immerse themselves in the very fibre of society through the provision of a range of online services including education and health. If successful the long-term societal consequences, such as the weakening of social bonds and loss of the provincial could be disastrous.
An indication that governments are committed to a business as usual post Covid-19 world is that they are bailing out airlines without receiving legally binding commitments to reduce planet warming gas emissions and to date there are no incentives to create a circular economy in which waste is another industry’s resource. In spite of Covid-19 ministries of agriculture have no plans to reform intensive farming in which billions of animals are raised in conditions that give rise to harmful viruses and the animals are fed a daily ration of antibiotics. The spraying of chemicals on fields that directly harm all forms of bio-life will continue as usual. The association Fridays for Future has asked the European Commission’s vice-president Frans Timmermans to address these issues and work towards making the Common Agricultural Policy biosphere friendly. (Fiona Harvey, Guardian, 22 May 2020)
A positive of Covid-19 that could prove to be a catalyst of fundamental change is that it has woken many to the extent to which human wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the health of the biosphere and how when a blasé attitude is taken towards this fact the cost in terms of suffering and premature deaths can be enormous.
As the CEOs and regressive politicians attempt to use Covid-19 to further entrench their power we, the ordinary folk, community and environmental groups of all kinds, should use the good that has arisen out of Covid-19, including peoples’ critical compassion, to put in place the structures of a just, ecologically sustainable world. One that ensures that people born since the dawn of this century are not the last to enjoy the best of civilization. An opportunity to do this arises when government leaders meet in September at the UN Biodiversity Summit in New York. Now is the time to petition those who will represent us at this summit to forge a better deal for flora, fauna and micro organisms which humankind depends upon and which have a right, regardless of us, to their own existence.