The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return

The Favourite – not mine

The Favourite continues to do well in the awards,the-favourite-poster gathering praise where it is shown, and seems likely to do well on Oscars night. It has garnered praise in most film reviews and on-line the critics are, almost to a man, bowed over by its greatness. Only PostTrak seems a little discordant, with its more cautious rating, but then this rating is given by audiences rather than critics and this may be the reason. Unfortunately, I too have to be much more reserved in my praise for the film, as overall I found it more of a miss than a hit.

I have been looking forward to this film as I have enjoyed the earlier work of the director (especially Dogtooth) and I knew that he was a capable and inventive movie maker. Indeed the visual production of the film is excellent and does warrant any awards in this area. There is clever scene composition and good use of the fisheye lens which does add to the pictorial elegance of the film. The music was effective  and used well in driving emotional tension and it to was possibly worthy of awards. The acting was fairly good and in no way let the film down but I don’t share the view that it was exceptional. It would have been difficult for the actors to shine as the characters and script were so poor. Characters were essentially caricatures and their dialogues were very poor and peppered with anachronisms. The three female leads are excellent actors but they did not display their metal in this film.

Unfortunately all of the excellent work above (the direction, the music, the settings and the actors) was then largely undone for me. This film presented a view of an important period of history as a combination period drama and ribald romp. As is almost de rigueur today, the power struggles were described as simply the outgrowth of personal and identity politics; the consequences of the machinations of the lusts of three powerful women. This might have worked if the period drama had been historically more accurate but it really omitted most that was important in this period. Preferring the scandal of a hint of homosexuality to any consideration of the true turmoil of the time.

Queen Anne’s reign was an important time. It followed the Glorious Revolution with the conflict that split Britain along religious Catholic/Protestant  lines. It was the time when England’s relations with Europe were changing , especially with the Dutch and the French. Indeed Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark in an attempt to create a Danish-English alliance to try and contain the maritime power of the Dutch.  Indeed the whole scene at home was changing with the Union of the Crowns and the creation of a single sovereign state of Great Britain; Anne was Queen of Scotland, England and Ireland at the start of her reign but by the end she was the first Queen of Great Britain and Ireland at her death. Her reign also saw the development of the two-party political system, with Whigs and Tories, in Britain. Queen Anne took an active interest, and played an active role, in politics and did receive considerable criticism as a consequence. None of this really appears in the film. The viewer could leave the cinema ignorant of all of this and with the impression that Anne was a silly, demanding lady lead by her girlfriends.

There are precious few times when women have played important and pivotal roles in British history that we know about. This era was one of them. Queen Anne, The Duchess of Marlborough and Baroness Masham were key players in defining aspects of British history. These women were significant agents in the religious and political power struggles that define much of British Society today. They did this as intelligent thinking individuals who knew the basis to these religious and political differences and clearly took principled stances in these battles. To portray them as scheming harpies belittles their success. It is reminiscent of the misogynistic criticism Queen Anne experienced during her lifetime. She was often derided as a weak woman, not of the stuff to rule and govern. It is terrible that today when, as usual, we try and rewrite history as we would have liked it to have been, rather than as it was, we end up belittling the very women who did manage to overcome the oppression of the age and take charge. This meant the film, despite it technical merits, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I was left with the feeling that I had just watched a titillating tale of sex and swearing, wrapped up in good production values to give the illusion of class and worth, which told us nothing of the individuals then, nor anything about ourselves now. This lack of content made it difficult to end the film which comes to an unsatisfactory abrupt stop with the superimposition of some inappropriate rabbits (If you see the film you will understand).2-stars-out-of-5

 

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.

Blasphemy laws; here and there.

Blasphemy laws; here and there.

The Irish public are voting in their referendum today as to whether they will jettison their ancient blasphemy law from their constitution. This is found in Article 40 which reads :-

“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

This situation did receive degree of  public attention when attempts were made to use the law  against Stephen Fry on 2017; following his making of blasphemous statement in a television interview.  His case was dropped and thrown out as have all other attempts to use the law in recent times. Indeed it is a largely recognised that this is an “obsolete law“, a view which is also held by the Irish Catholic Bishops conference who are, as a consequence, not opposing its abolition. It will be welcome to see the back of this anachronism, a relic from the days that every constitution used to include reference to God and Faith.

Blasphemy laws are simply an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. They do not protect people of any faith, they simply protect those with power. They are a sign of the wedding of state and church and a mechanism to bolster the influence of both of these institutions. They protect some from offense or distress by removing the rights of others to freedom of expression.

People with religious faith do not require blasphemy laws. It is in the nature of faith that it persists despite what others may say, it persists in the face of argument. It is this steadfastness which makes me admire so many of those people of faith, who have soldiered on against apparently insurmountable odds, because their faith directed them to do what they knew to be right. (Think of the Quakers’ opposition to wars or the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery). Indeed blasphemy laws are largely a risk to people of faith in the many cases when their faith is not shared by the current state. This is the horrific situation in which Asia Bibi finds herself in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi had been out collecting berries with neighbours and had taken a drink of water from a well. She was told by her neighbours that, as a Christian, she was unclean and should have not used their cup. An argument followed and at both parties made disparaging remarks about the others faith. Asia was charged with blasphemy and imprisoned in 2009.  She has been kept in solitary confinement and subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death.  Seven years later she is still in prison and awaiting results of appeals to the Supreme Court to have her capital punishment decision overturned.

As a consequence of this blasphemy accusation her family have gone into hiding. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who looked into her case and stated that the death sentence should be suspended was assassinated as a consequence in 2011 as was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister, a few months later as he too voiced his support for Asia against the blasphemy laws. Asia’s case has been used to whip up hatred against Christians in Pakistan and to help hard-line religious politicians in their search for support.

As we await the news from Ireland we should recall that Pakistan suggested, in 2009, to the United Nations that all its member states should adopt the very constitutional clause that Ireland is currently considering removing. We should also recall that there are still 71 countries which have blasphemy laws on their statute books. That is 71 countries which have laws which place people of minority faiths at serious danger. It is time that these laws were abandoned for the furtherance of free speech and promotion of religious tolerance.

With all this in mind it is extremely regrettable that the European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) seems to have taken a backward step.  An Austrian woman was found guilty of “disparaging Islam” and the took her case to the ECHR. They did not uphold her appeal and supported her conviction and fine saying that she made ““an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace” and that this was not covered by the right to freedom of expression. To be clear, this lady had not said anything to foment violence or hatred against Muslims which would clearly, and rightly, be an offense. She had simply been sacrilegious and blasphemous and while this may be upsetting to some should not be against the law.

Churches, states and people in power may need blasphemy laws, people of faith do not and are particularly at risk from such laws. After Ireland, 71 to go !

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Question

The Big Question

This post is an advertisement. I have found a podcast that I feel duty bound to share. Let me explain.

I suppose I should describe myself as an agnostic. I don’t mean this is a mealy-mouthed way, as if I never got around to making my mind up. I mean this as a considered decision after much research and contemplation. I find myself unable to answer some of the major philosophical and moral questions we face, and increasingly fear that the answers may, to me at least, be unanswerable.

My background and experience leaves me very divided. As a scientist and clinician, working with people with psychiatric and neurological problems, I can see the power of scientific explanations as to why people do what they do. The brain sciences do help us understand the mechanisms behind our desires and motivations. But although, as a scientist, I can use these findings to help me with questions of why and how, I fail to find them helpful with questions about what we ought to, or should, do.

I find having grown up in a Christian culture that I can comprehend and understand its moral teachings. When I want to know what we should or should not do I find calling on these principles much more valuable than looking at the scientific literature. Instinctivly I find the Christian writings on free will and responsibility much more plausible than the current utilitarian and deterministic viewpoints. Indeed I’d say I ascribe to the christian worldview but I fail in the vital question of faith.

So I fail in both camps. Millennia of thought and development by both groups leave a finely balanced argument that I can not satisfactorily resolve. Unfortunately I have found the writings and debates on these matters becoming less helpful. They are increasingly acrimonious and less concerned with finding clarity than with either preaching to the concerted or revealing the stupidity of the opposition.

I don’t find this polarised hostile battle very helpful in developing my thoughts. Mudslinging and bear baiting might be entertaining to some but I find it distasteful. I have their been pleasantly surprised to discover a series of debates which avoid this strategy.

The Big Question is a series of live debates, organized by a Christian radio station, in which eminent theists and atheists debate these issues. These are long enough to do justice to the topics and have speakers equally balanced in skills and eminence. The speakers are respectful and don’t try for cheap shots but rather try and grapple with the issues.

I have found myself better informed after these debates and think my opinions are clearer. I fear I have a long way to go before I’ll be certain, if I ever am, on these issues. I may be doomed to be a failure to both camps, but my failure might act as a signpost for others if they listen to these debates and form a better understanding than I have.