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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 186: January 2011

It’s a vision thing
The level of optimism in Ireland, North and South, East and West, is not at a high level. Cuts and economic doldrums are biting into people’s self confidence and leading to increases in emigration for those without jobs. A change of government is about to happen in the Republic, and Assembly elections are coming up in May in Northern Ireland, but the feeling is both jurisdictions is less of confidence and more like backs to the wall.

Without going into the theological ramifications of the quote in the Hebrew bible (Christian Old Testament), in the book of Proverbs 29 v.18, about the fact that “Where there is no vision, the people perish”, it is clear that there is a lack of vision to take people forward. Old ideologies have been seen to be wanting; sectarianism in the North, developer-led capitalism in the Republic. But there was been no breakthrough in establishing alternative visions which can lead people forward. Going back to a biblical allusion, we do need some kind of collective vision, or overlapping visions, of a Promised Land to call people forward and to provide a call to people in be involved in an unselfish way in the creation of a new society.

Where there is a lack of a collective vision then ordinary people being priced out of housing without journeying for hours was of no concern to those in power. Where there is no vision then the continuation of low level and institutionalised sectarianism is accepted in the North. Where there is no vision, reducing the minimum wage is acceptable, hitting some of the poorest of the poor struggling to get by, in the Republic. Where there is no vision of a different world, and a different way of relating to that world, then giving the USA the only thing it wanted in Ireland for its nefarious wars – Shannon Airport – was entirely reasonable (keep in with the world superpower).

It is unlikely that any one vision will suffice to unite people – although overcoming sectarianism in the North, and avoiding further capitalist crises in the Republic, could be part of a fairly common collective vision. The vision can be made of up of a mixture of progressive, humanistic, green, socialist, peace and other ideologies including aspects of religion. ‘Cherishing the children of the nation equally’ is one value; this might lead to adequate support and provision for autistic children in the Republic, and a concentrated effort to overcome child poverty. ‘Building a truly sustainable economy’ would be another value, with ‘sustainable’ understood in both the sense of ‘continuing for a long time’ as well as the green sense of ‘using the minimum of resources which are also recyclable’.

The crisis in capitalism, and in particular the Irish banking debacles, has led to considerable financial retrenchment by the states North and South, with more to come. The prevailing orthodoxy is to cut budget deficits and it has to be admitted there is a big problem there. But a visionary approach would not be to say “We will cut our clothes to fit the cloth” but rather “is there more cloth available?”. In other words, what resources does society have in terms of people, money, and other assets to achieve what we want to achieve? How can society be reorganised so that we can reach some of our goals? How can we use the skills of those who are currently unemployed or underemployed, and train others in useful tasks? Increased unemployment of young people is a worrying trend; unemployment is bad enough at any time for the individuals concerned but may significantly dent people’s life chances when they are just starting their ‘working’ career, or lead them to emigrate and their skills be lost to the country.

More power to your elbow
The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, with possible ramifications elsewhere in the Arab world, are an important manifestation of mainly nonviolent people power in an area that is sometimes portrayed as being too cowed by its leaders to make a real stand for democracy and human rights. Hopefully this shows that, given the opportunity, people in these parts of the world are as enthusiastic about making a better life for themselves and their fellow citizens as anyone elsewhere – and as capable of using mass nonviolent action as anyone else. Tyranny and autocracy can work when people are cowed; when people build confidence in their power as ordinary citizens to change things then anything is possible (and that sounds like a good message for Ireland as well!).

The establishment can bite back, as has been shown by supporters of Mubarak and state employees being mobilised to attack the protesters in Cairo. Burma is an example of where popular protest has failed at a particular point in a particularly insidious situation where the army is effectively the state. But keeping their nerve, and refusing to be bought off with false promises of change – Egyptians have refused to give way until Mubarak goes – gives such protesters at least an even chance of winning through. Such moments of popular uprising come infrequently enough in any one country (but very common around the world in general); it would is a terrible blow if all the effort and risk is expended for nothing.

However autocracy has a way of reasserting itself, even in dramatically different packaging, so the price of political progress in these societies is for civil and political society to be organised enough to see that what takes the place of the ancien regime does indeed respect the will of the people and their human rights. A once-off revolution is not enough, it has to be built on in a painstaking way. We hope that the people of Tunisia and Egypt have this stamina and opportunity and meanwhile that other oppressive regimes in the Arab world also take a tumble in the same way.

- - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Our Economic Environmental Quandary

One does not need a crystal ball to foretell what the future holds for humankind, one simply needs to look at the trends. Mass starvation is one possibility resulting from a failure of cereal harvests in key producing countries and the subsequent rise in food prices beyond which the poor can afford. The essential indicators of environmental health, such as biodiversity, soil fertility and supplies of fresh water are in decline while the human population continues to grow. Demographers at the UN Population Division say it will reach 7 billion in October of this year. The environmental problem lies not with the number of humans per se but with our level of material consumption and the unfair distribution of resources. Economic hardship afflicts people in the rich high consuming countries with unemployment in the UK and Ireland expected to continue to rise.

The world is in a quandary about what to do about the global economy and the environmental crisis. The prevailing wisdom is that countries should continue to adhere to economic orthodoxy, which promotes economic growth. The purveyors of this view are convinced that the problem of how to achieve infinite consumption in a finite world can be solved through a series of technological fixes. Even if this were possible the orthodoxy offers no viable solutions as to how the massive disparity in the distribution of wealth, which is an inherent part of capitalism, can be addressed.

A section of the environmental movement known as the Dark Mountain Project is of the view that resolution of ‘the economic growth care of the environment quandary’ lies in letting the international economic infrastructure and the biosphere collapse. Paul Kingsnorth, former deputy editor of the Ecologist and one of its founding members voices the view of the movement in The Guardian, 29 April 2010. He writes: “we are not going to’ save the planet’. ... The planet is not dying, but our civilization might be, and neither green technology nor ethical shopping is going to prevent a serious crash.” The Project holds that the role of environmentalists is to prepare for the task of building a new society after the expected collapse of civilization.

This perspective has a number of fundamental flaws. Most worrying is its lack of compassion. There is the real possibility that if capitalism is allowed to self-destruct the biosphere may not be able to sustain a life most people would consider worth living. Another flaw is that if we don’t make an effort to protect ecosystems and reform our economic system the view of the Dark Mountain Project will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The philosophy behind the project is one of despondency, and as George Monbiot in the Village, December / January 2011, writes the Dark Mountain Project “conspires in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.”

Another approach to the quandary, and one which seems to be achievable, is that of the Transition Movement. It has its roots in bio-regionalism and promotes practical ways for communities to become economically self-reliant in an environmentally sustainable way. The movement recognises that the idea of perpetual growth is a myth, acknowledges that oil will no longer be a commercially viable fuel within 40 years, and that permaculture and the collective skills of local communities will enable people to live healthy, enjoyable and meaningful lives. Unlike the Dark Mountain Project the Transition Movement believes in challenging the economic orthodoxy while at the same time undertaking practical projects in the transition to a more equitable and eco-sustainable way of life. We can all be a part of the Transition Movement by doing practical things to reduce our eco-footprint such as growing a proportion of our own food, buying local produce and only using cars for long journeys. As 2011 is the UN International Year of Forests we could plant native tree saplings in our gardens.

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