Thursday, 15 October 2009

Corrupt, Corrupt From The Bottom To The Top, They tell Me It's The Law....

Once again the row over politicians expense claims has kicked off in Britain, with the Westminster Parliament still mired in sleaze and echoing to the sound of whining MPs. It seems that our elected representatives still don't get it. At all!

They have been told by an independent investigator that they should not have been able to claim unlimited amounts for items such as cleaning and gardening, and they should pay back any amount above a certain limit set retrospectively by that investigator. They have also been told to justify some of the items on their claim forms. It is likely that, in the future, the mortgages and designation of second homes will come under further scrutiny, with far larger sums due to be repaid. Furthermore, criminal investigations are under way against a number of parliamentarians.

The MPs have reacted with outrage, and some are publicly denying the right of the investigator to judge them retrospectively, as the claims fell within the rules when made. There may be some justification for that position, if there was no question over the integrity of those rules, and the MPs interpretation of them. However, that is not the case, and the simple fact is that, no matter how the rules were interpreted by the Fees Office and the MPs, the accepted business practice is that only those expenses that directly and wholly relate to the conduct of that business can be claimed. MPs have claimed for food, cleaning, gardening, home improvements etc. Only the expenses that arise directly from running their offices and from representing their constituents should ever have been legitimately claimed, no matter what the rules were. Yet, the MPs still don't see this. They think they are entitled.

In turn, the public are disgusted by the MPs, and fed up with their antics. They point out that had they behaved as the MPs have, then they would have been disciplined, or dismissed, or possibly prosecuted. They resent that MPs are still spending so much time on this, when they should be devoting themselves to improving the economy and saving their constituents jobs. They feel that MPs are setting a poor example when so many services and employees face cutbacks, and wish they would admit their faults, pay back the over-claimed money, and then get on with their jobs, until such time as they face the verdict of their electorate in the coming year.

They find it absurd that MPs have the right to decide these things for themselves, anyway. The perception is widespread, if not unanimous, that the vast majority are in Westminster to line their own pockets and further their own interests, instead of representing the people who sent them there. There is also the perception that many represent the lobbyists and vested interests over their constituents. Politicians reputation is at an all-time low!

This matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, the continued devaluation of the reputation of our political system calls into question the very legitimacy and relevance of that system. The longer that continues, the further participation rates in the electoral process will drop, and that undermines the foundations of a liberal, parliamentary democracy, leaving the door open to extremists and anti-democratic tendencies.

Secondly, the individuals concerned seem unable to discern the moral basis for rules and law-making. This calls into question their integrity, and their ability to make laws in a just, wise and impartial manner. This undermines the legitimacy of the laws passed by such a legislature. It should not have to be explained to those seeking election to high office what the moral requirements of serving the public interest, and safeguarding the public resources, are.

The recent scandal of the Attorney General's housekeeper reinforces the view that those in power have no regard for the laws they, themselves, pass, and seem not to think that they apply to them. Even when caught breaking the law, they seem to have no shame or sense of responsibility. How can they then expect that of those for whom they make those laws?

Thirdly, our political leaders, like it or not, do set an example to the rest of society. How are we to instill the correct values into the younger generation, if our leaders seem to have their eyes firmly on the main chance, and not on serving the common good? How can we hope to shame the financiers and bankers into acting lawfully and morally, if those leading the call are seen to be just as corrupt and grasping? We can not expect our politicians to be whiter than white at all times, but we should expect far higher standards than those they seem to wish to adhere to.

It is not what the rules allow, or what can be got away with, that our parliamentarians should regard as acceptable, but what is obviously right and proper. If there is any doubt, then simply don't do it! Our parliamentarians should be suitably remunerated for the job they do, which is undoubtedly stressful and demanding, if done properly and full-time. I would prefer them to be linked to a multiple of average earnings; that would motivate them to govern towards an equitable and prosperous society, instead of in favour of the corporations and rich individuals who fund their parties. They should be able to claim legitimate expenses arising from running their offices and the necessity to live in two places, but they should not profit in any way from those arrangements. Any gains should revert to the taxpayer, and not be pocketed by the MPs, and they should not be able to claim anything which is considered a normal living expense for the rest of the population. And the regulation and oversight of the whole system should be taken our of MPs hands once and for all.

As a footnote, I can't help but wonder how different our Westminster Parliament and the political system might be if run by Quakers, according to Quaker testimonies and methods. It might take a little longer to get to decisions than the current system (then again, maybe not!), and it would certainly not be perfect (we are only human), but it would have far greater integrity, and would govern with a commitment to equality, fairness, compassion and justice, which, I hope, would leave the current system far, far behind. Just a pipe dream, but, hey, no harm in dreaming.....

Johanna Sallstrom - A Modern Story.

The BBC are currently repeating the wonderful Swedish detective series "Wallander" on BBC4, and it is one of the few programmes I watch and look forward to. The series is quite unlike most other detective series in that it is relentlessly downbeat, and pervaded by a sense of melancholy and world-weariness; a feeling enhanced by the washed-out colours and the dilapidated bleakness of the locations selected. There is more than a suggestion of an inherent disgust with a society that allows the mundane cruelty, suffering and pain, and the many petty indignities which the Ystad police witness with such regularity.

One of the lead characters is the detective's daughter and fellow police officer, Linda Wallander, played by the Swedish actress, Johanna Sallstrom (pictured above). Linda is a young, fit and healthy woman, starting out on a career as a newly recruited policewoman, who has obtained rapid promotion to detective. Yet her character seems haunted by the same sadness that affects her father, the experienced and worn-down, Kurt Wallander, whose face is a mirror of the toll his job has taken. Somehow, this trait never quite rang true with me, despite her father's character. Very few women in their twenties have that quality overshadowing them, and especially not when advancing well in their chosen profession, and living a full and active life.

It is revealed later in the series, however, that Linda's mother is a psychotic alcoholic and is in a psychiatric hospital, and that Linda, herself, had tried to commit suicide when her parent's marriage fell apart. I was quite in awe of Johanna's ability to transmit this so consistently in her portrayal of Linda, whilst being a busy and dedicated police officer. A rare talent, indeed.

The mystery was solved for me recently, when I happened to read an article about Johanna Sallstrom. Johanna's was not a happy life, despite her great talent and burgeoning success. She was a teenage star of soap operas and films, winning an award for her part in Under Ytan (Beneath the Surface). Yet, she found it hard to cope with the attention this brought, and in 1997 she took a break from acting and moved to Denmark, where she worked in a cafe.

She returned to Sweden in 2000, and resumed her career. She struggled financially, landing only occasional bit parts and faced eviction from her home, even as she was pregnant with her daughter, Talulah. She divorced from her husband shortly after Talulah's birth, and later confessed she was so lonely that she welcomed the visit of a court official, assessing her eviction She invited him in for coffee, as he was the first human contact she had had in so many days. She was at the lowest possible ebb when she landed the role of Linda Wallander.

This should have been a turning point for her, and she seemed set for happiness with her young daughter and a dream role, but in December 2004 she was holidaying on a beach in Thailand when the Indian Ocean tsunami swept in, devastating the coast and, as it turned out, Johanna's life. She managed to save her own, and her daughter's, life by clinging to a tree, but saw many hundreds of people killed around her, including friends and dozens of fellow Swedes, who favoured these resorts.

Johanna seems never to have recovered from that experience, and a naturally shy and fragile person, who already struggled with the demands of her chosen profession, was haunted by what she had experienced and seen in Thailand. Much of that trauma seems etched on her face in the Wallander films. In filming some of these episodes, she must have been faced with many of her personal demons to do with death, mental illness and the tsunami. The shock and distress we see on Linda's face was probably all too real at times for Johanna.

Although intensely private, Johanna gave an interview early in 2006, in which she revealed that she had not expected to live to 30 (she was then 31), and implied suicidal thoughts in the past, but that she was looking forward to her future career, and enjoying life with her daughter. Sadly, her mental state rapidly declined after the filming of Wallander ended, and she was admitted to a psychiatric unit in Malmo.

It was some months later, on 13 February, 2007, whilst on an unsupervised visit to her flat, that Johanna took her own life by a prescription drugs overdose.

It is tragic that a young mother should have been so traumatised by her 2004 experiences, and by the demands of the public spotlight and life in general, that she should have chosen to leave her young daughter alone in that manner. It is even more sad when that woman was a beautiful, gentle and talented woman, who had so much to offer, and so much to look forward to, and who was finally achieving the career success and stability that she had struggled so hard for.

This story affected me deeply when I read it. Henning Mankell, who wrote the "Wallander" books and scripts, was so upset by her death, that he has not written another "Wallander" story since, and swears that no-one will ever replace her in any future "Wallander" books or films.

I feel a tangible connection with Johanna through my own experiences of clinical depression, my appreciation of her talent, and love of her work, and through my regard for the Skane region of Sweden where she lived. I was unaware of her death when I first saw "Wallander", and my second viewing is now highly coloured by my knowledge of it.

Like Kurt WallanderSallstrom should have felt the need to take such a step? It is clear that the tsunami paid a large part in her subsequent illness, but Johanna was already in trouble long before that.

Our obsessive individualism has robbed us of much of the support and solace we could traditionally have turned to, and even the best medical systems are not adequate to replace them. Our celebrity culture places intolerable burdens on those who seek to use their talents, but do not seek the fame and attention that that now entails. Our vicarious interest in their every word and deed seems guaranteed to drive many others down that path, as it has so many already. But, it is not just the celebrity elites that are so afflicted.

All the indications are that such mental illness is afflicting more and more of us throughout society, and across much of the world. It afflicts young and old, rich and poor. It corrodes the families, communities and organisations that should be the foundations of our lives. Is this society and culture the best we humans can devise when it drives so many of us to the brink of insanity, and all too often beyond?

Climate Change Action Synchronicity - Blog Action Day 2009

The science shows that climate change is now an undeniable reality, and the evidence indicates that the effects are already happening now, and will be far worse than many people realise, if we don't take significant action very soon. Just today we have a new report from a distinguished researcher on the Arctic sea ice depletion, which confirms that the impacts are happening faster and more extensively than anyone anticipated even a few years ago.

However, climate change is only one of several potentially disastrous crises facing humanity. We are seeing peak oil approaching rapidly, if not already with us, and the depletion of many other finite resources. This challenges our current way of life, particularly in the industrialised nations, on so many levels. We see food production, itself increasingly reliant on fossil fuels, in conflict with fuel crops. Water shortage, desertification, salination and soil erosion are already major problems for agriculture, which climate change will only exacerbate, and threaten our ability to feed the growing population. Our food production and distribution systems are grossly wasteful and inefficient, and so much other economic activity is frivolous and damaging.

Humanity, itself, is threatened by global health crises due to ever faster moving and mutating viruses, obesity, persistent chemical pollutants and the mental health problems associated with either poverty or the stress of modern urban existence. Our societies are breaking down as communities and families become ever more fractured, and inequalities and injustices proliferate. And our population continues to multiply, threatening the already depleted resources on which we rely.

The choices facing us are clear, and shocking to many, but what is significant is that many of those changes needed to tackle climate change are also those that will alleviate many of the other ills enumerated above.

We need to learn to use far less energy, and use it more wisely. So many of the power-intensive gadgets in our homes are unnecessary. Designers continue to produce new products that are ever more energy hungry, in use and production. We have the technology to build and renovate homes that need little or no external energy inputs, but little is being done to utilise it, even though this would release many from the thralldom of ever increasing fuel bills.

Food and other commodities need to be localised, wherever possible, and businesses need to find new ways of engaging with customers, and each other, to reduce the endless treadmill of sales meetings and conferences, which together contribute so much to the transport demands of our society. Not only would this reinvigorate local economies, and remove many of the absurdities of the globalised trade system, but it would allow many to achieve a more humane work-life balance and reduce the inherent stress of modern life, addressing both the mental health impacts and strengthening families and communities. Perhaps then we would feel less need for so many overseas vacations, usually by heavily-polluting plane, and perhaps, also, epidemics would spread less quickly and widely.

We need to learn to consume less, and consume more considerately. So much food is wasted by consumers, in addition to the massive waste of the industry and retail sectors, and that which is consumed is often highly energy-demanding to process, and full of chemicals, fats, sugars and salt, ingredients necessary to the processed food production. Simpler diets, with less processed food, and less meat and dairy products, would not only significantly reduce the global warming impact of out food, but would massively reduce the incidence of obesity, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Eating local and seasonal produce wouldn't just result in less waste and energy consumption, but would reduce the pressure on farmers to produce ever more from their land, which leads to destruction of the soil and pollution of the water cycle. It would mean we could ensure those farmers receive a commensurate return for their production too. It is absurd that farmers are going out of business whilst supermarkets make ever higher profits. It is ridiculous and wasteful that so much of the food we grow is used to feed animals for meat and dairy production, instead of feeding humans. It is unjust that peasant farmers are forced from their land in Africa, no longer able to feed themselves or their communities, so that western consumers can enjoy beans, sweetcorn and flowers out of season. Not only are we stealing their food, but their water and soil too.

It isn't just food that we mindlessly throw away without using either. Our western societies have adopted a disposable attitude to so much of our consumption. Products are designed to last ever shorter lives, and are made of complex materials, discouraging their reuse or recycling. Goods are designed to be unrepairable, so we have to purchase replacements, and the marketing gurus insist on ever more new "must have" gadgets and fashions, to replace their predecessors before we really need them. And many we just don't actually need at all! And all this leads to ever greater stress and angst amongst consumers! Consuming less would not only be good for the planet, but for all of us too. It would also ensure the continued availability of resources for the generations to come, and allow the more equitable distribution of those resources across the globe, and within our societies.

Consumption of less would release many of us from the long hours and stressful work we undertake to fund our bloated consumption. Buying less would also mean each of us could afford to spend a little more on what we do buy, so as to ensure it's producers were paid a living wage, and could work in safe conditions, using methods that respected the environment. We could afford goods designed to be reusable, recyclable, and with less reliance on high energy inputs and finite resources. We need to expect less and value it more.

The campaigns to grow food locally, to reduce waste, to consume less, to embrace fairtrade etc etc are helping reinvigorate our communities, and people are rediscovering the value and joy of working together, and sharing time, goods and ideas. The technologies we need to enable a sustainable future will create new jobs, replacing those in the destructive old industries, and the localisation and simplification of our economy will create more opportunities for small businesses and trades, which provide far greater employment potential than large companies.

The steps we need to take to address climate change will not only reduce future damage from that threat, but will deliver healthier, saner, more humane, more just, more equitable, and, ultimately, more sustainable and enjoyable lives for the majority of people on the planet, whilst safeguarding the ecosystems on which we rely for our very existence.

That's the message we need to deliver to our political leaders and the whole population today. Don't do it because it's worthy; do it because it will mean a better life for you and your fellow citizens, in this country and throughout the world.

To find out what other bloggers have to say today, visit

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Preserving Freedom

There has been much debate recently in the UK about whether the British National Party should be allowed to speak on national TV politics shows. Motions have been discussed within political parties and trade unions, and some have even suggested that the current ban on police officers belonging to this party should be extended to all public servants, national and local. There is talk of banning them from TV altogether, disallowing them from using any public facilities and putting other obstacles in their path.

This is a question that goes right to the heart of our definition of a free and democratic society.

The BNP are certainly a fascistic party with some pretty objectionable policies. They are, however, a legal political party, with elected local councillors and, now, two MEPs sitting in Strasbourg. They have existed as a legal entity for many years, but are enjoying renewed vigour, probably as a result of the recent immigration from the new EU accession states, and of the economic downturn. There may well be good arguments for banning such a party, and they are certainly acting illegally, under UK and EU law, in not allowing non-white people to join; they face a possible prosecution on this very issue. However, at present, they are a legal party, with legitimately elected representatives.

Can we, as a society espousing the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association, and as signatories to the Charter of Human Rights, stop people joining the legal political party of their choice, however repulsive it seems to many, or harass that party in the conduct of legitimate business? Under the rules of equal access and political bias, can our broadcasters deny them airtime or participation in political debate?

Is not the odiousness of their xenophobia and racism best exposed by publicly confronting it, holding it up to ridicule, and revealing the flawed logic and lack of intelligence behind it? Or do we fear that we are not able to do so? Do we defeat extremism by resorting to extremism, or by extolling the virtue of the opposing view and values, and by practising them? Should we not be trying to educate those communities and individuals who have chosen to support the BNP, rather than dismissing and abusing them?

If the electorate, rightly or wrongly, have chosen these people, then should they not be allowed to perform the duty of representing their electorate unimpeded? This is a representative democracy, and that means representing all, not just those we agree with. There seems a real danger of making martyrs and anti-heroes out of the BNP, if we persecute them.

Inciting violence and hatred are criminal offences in the UK, particularly against racial and religious minorities and the BNP will likely slip up at some point. As stated, already the Equality Commission are looking at prosecution over the party's rules on membership. If they break the law then action should be taken, but on the same basis as any other crime. This is the proper course to follow, in my opinion.

It seems to me that until this party are proscribed by some means, or a court case forces them out of existence, then they, and their members, have to be treated equally to other parties. That is the very essence of our freedoms, and to do otherwise undermines them. In a free democracy, we must have the right to speak as we choose, as long as we do not incite harm against others, and we must be free to join whatever parties and associations we choose, unless they are implicated in illegality. We can not pick and choose who we give rights to.

Compassion Revisited

On August 20th, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released from prison by the Scottish Government. The reaction since has been most instructive about different countries, societies and cultures. We have seen the developing debate within Scotland, the reaction within Libya, America and the wider world. We have learned much about the motivations of many involved in the background to this decision.

It was deeply unfortunate that the Libyan public chose to celebrate Megrahi's return as they did. It was foolish and insensitive in the presence of so many cameras. However, it should be remembered that their society has very different values to us, and that many of those who celebrated will have been clan members, related to his family; they would have celebrated no matter what they thought of his guilt, or otherwise. It is also reported in some independent media that the Libyan police cleared the crowd very soon after the pictures we all saw.

Furthermore, in much of the world, and amongst many in Britain, there are very real doubts about this man's guilt. Respected journalists, lawyers, politicians and commentators have all supported this view. In Libya, he is viewed as a martyr who laid down his freedom for his country. And even the respected UN observer at his trial has declared it a miscarriage of justice. There are many questions left unanswered. Why was the Syrian link so suddenly dropped? What is the nature of the undisclosed evidence? Why was the Heathrow break-in not mentioned at trial?

It is particularly strange that his co-accused was found innocent, yet Megrahi convicted. The only difference in evidence seems to be that of Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper, who completely changed his description of the alleged purchaser of the clothing wrapped around the bomb. He seems not to be a reliable witness to base an entire conviction upon. The UK Government should open an inquiry as soon as possible. They owe that to the victims families.

In Scotland, we have seen the unedifying spectacle of the opposition political parties doing their best to extract as much political capital as they can from the row. Yet their own ideas are revealed to be inept, impractical and lacking in any humanity. They reveal themselves to be opportunists with no moral base, and to be mindless pursuers of popular opinion. The gist of their concern seems to be what the rest of the world thinks of us. Yet what do we really know about the rest of the world's opinion? It seems the only opinion they are remotely interested in is that of America. What does this tell us?

For all that it actually matters, I would guess that opinion throughout most of the world is either neutral or positive. It certainly seems that in large parts of Africa and Asia the decision has been greeted positively (not least by Nelson Mandela). All the religious leaders in Scotland seem to be supportive; Catholic, various Protestant denominations, Jewish, Buddhist and Quaker. It would be likely that this is widely shared by religious groups across much of the globe. Perhaps, on balance, Scotland's standing around the world has actually gone up. I think many people would be proud to live in a country that embodied such values in it's legal system. At the end of the day though, I believe that Scotland has done the right thing, and what the world thinks should be of minor concern to us.

And what of that popular opinion here, that the politicians so assiduously chase? At first this was dominated by the negative, but, as people have had time to think for themselves, they have started to move away from the artificial outrage of the media, and polls show them moving to support for the decision. Immediately after the release, the divide was 3-1 against; the most recent poll shows that opinion is now evenly split. And even amongst those who disagree with the decision, the majority support Kenny MacAskill's right to make it, and only a small minority would support his resignation. As time progresses and the dust settles, many more may change their minds, one way or the other. Only history will decide in the end.

And what of American opinion? The reports seem devoid of any understanding of compassion, never mind compassion itself. Yet this is a self proclaimed God-fearing country. Apparently they fear God, but don't listen to the message of their supposed saviour. What do we really expect from a country that continues to support the death penalty, even for juveniles and the mentally deficient? Which regards the provision of adequate healthcare to be some form of socialism, or bankruptcy an acceptable price to pay for it? Which puts the machismo of gun ownership above the lives of so many of it's citizens?

Perhaps the most depressing and disturbing aspect of American reaction is the call, by hopefully a vocal minority, for a boycott of Scotland and the whole UK because of one decision by one minister in part of the UK. Never mind the support this country has given the US on so many occasions, despite our many misgivings about their policies. Never mind the tens of thousands of UK, and especially Scottish, troops that have served alongside the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dozens of other places over the past decades. Never mind the thousands of wounded and mutilated amongst them. Or the hundreds that gave their lives.

Twisted and cynical it certainly is, as we witness the oil companies and Westminster politicians cosying up to the Libyan Government. But that is realpolitik. Did this play a role in Kenny MacAskill's decision? Somehow I doubt it. I can't quite see the SNP doing Gordon Brown any favours, especially as his government squeezes the Holyrood budgets. Indeed, pressure from that direction would more likely have the opposite effect. I think this was a genuine decision taken on correct legal and moral grounds.

Luckily, I know, as will many, that there are many more intelligent Americans, who understand that this was Scotland's decision to make, and who may, at least, understand the values which we have espoused in so doing. They will continue to regard Scotland, and it's people, as friends and allies. There may even be some who support that decision, but it is unlikely that the media will let them have their voice.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Don't Throw Out The Baby!

A UN report today has condemned the promotion of homeopathic remedies to suffers of AIDS, malaria and TB. This is undoubtedly correct. There is no scientific evidence of the efficacy of these treatments as primary treatments for these conditions, and the claims made for homeopathy's methodology are unverified and illogical.

However, the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water, for this or other alternative therapies. Conventional medicine has achieved much and continues to offer the best hope for the sufferers of many diseases. There is evidence, however, that where conventional medicine has failed, and it does not work for everyone, then these therapies can be useful for some.

Scientists will assure us that this is purely a placebo effect. That may well be the case, but that misses the point. If people do believe in these treatments, as a last resort, than it doesn't actually matter if it is a placebo effect or not. What matters is that some of these people either recover, or have a better quality of life in their remaining time. Too often professionals lose sight of this.

There should be no false claims for the treatments, but as a secondary treatment option, then they certainly do no harm. By their own definition, and the analysis of scientists, they can not. Are they cost effective? In a community treatment setting, then they undoubtedly are. In hospital, that may be questionable. However, when all else has failed, can we deny people the possibility of a treatment that works for some, placebo or not?

Sometimes, in life, we lose sight of the ends, the goal, and concentrate solely on the means. If the means are harmless, and the ends are laudable, then why not?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Saving The Planet - A Righteous Rant!

Why is it that environmentalists (and, yes, I'm one too!) constantly exhort us to save the planet?

Let's face it, your average person doesn't really care that much about the planet. They're too busy making ends meet, holding down a job, raising their family and getting "stuff". For many in the majority world, just having enough food to eat, water to drink and a place to shelter is struggle enough. Concern for the planet is a luxury as far as many are concerned, and one that they really don't have time for. In too many parts of the world they will still be totally unaware of what we're even talking about.

Furthermore, we don't actually need to save the planet. Whatever we do, however badly we screw it all up, the planet will still be here. The planet has survived wild fluctuations of temperature. It has been bombarded by numerous comets and meteors. It will be here for billions of years after the human race has disappeared from the universe. New life will evolve to replace us, and all the other species our stupidity has destroyed, as it has so many times before.

No, folks, what we need to do is face the sad truth. We should be talking about saving people, because they're what's really important to most humans. Sure, we're taking a lot of cute, furry animals, exotic birds and beautiful plants on the slippery road to oblivion with us but, if we really want change, we have to start getting people's attention. What grabs their attention is risk to humans! When they understand their children, their homes and their wealth are in danger, their very survival at risk, maybe they will act.

The human race faces a rapid and painful reduction in it's numbers, and a huge leap backwards in technology, healthcare and civilisation in general. That's what we have to focus on, not the planet. It's selfish, it's deplorable and it's certainly not in tune with what many in the environmental movement feel themselves. But it happens to be the only way we're ever going to get people to stop trashing the life support systems that this planet provides for us.

Environmentalists can't continue trying to persuade people to make major changes to their lives just because the temperature is going to rise a few degrees, even with all that we believe that implies. We need to hit harder, because many people are actually in a mindset that a rise in temperature might actually be a good thing! Or in denial about the prospect of change at all.

Much of the coastal margin, where many of us live, and where much of our food is grown, are simply going to disappear. The crops, that we and our livestock depend on, are only productive within relatively narrow temperature bands. The water we drink will become scarcer and scarcer, as less rain falls, and the rain that does fall happens in violent storms. The deserts will advance and the glaciers retreat. The land available for food production will decrease dramatically, even as the human population continues to rise. The resources on which our economies and societies rely are being used up ever quicker, and many will run out in a pretty short space of time. Tropical diseases will spread rapidly across the globe. Wars and unrest will threaten every nation over food and water. Sounds scary? Well, so it should!

The future for our children and coming generations is exceedingly bleak, unless we all take serious action. Most of humanity loves their children, even if they are self-obsessed and selfish in almost every other way. This is the line of attack we should be taking. Don't tell them to save the planet - tell them to save the human race, tell them to save their kids.

War, famine, disease and chaos await if we don't take that action, and take it right now. But it will be our kids that really pay the price, not us, the ones who caused it, and the ones who sat back and did nothing. Things really are that bad, and don't let any snake oil selling politician or media pundit tell you otherwise.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Compassion vs Justice

I have known the town of Lockerbie for much of my life. On the 22nd December, 1988, I drove along the motorway that passes Lockerbie, returning to my parents house for Christmas. I have never known such a feeling of despair and pain as I felt passing the site of the crashed wreckage of the Pan Am airliner which plunged into the town, after the bomb exploded on board the day before.

Scotland's government is now considering the fate of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the bombing. Mr Megrahi is terminally ill with prostate cancer, and is not expected to live very much longer. As such, his lawyers have lodged an appeal for compassionate release, which the Scottish Justice Minister is currently giving due consideration.

There are considerable doubts as to whether this man actually committed this crime; many of the relatives of the British victims, and prominent Scottish politicians, harbour very real doubts about the evidence and the process, as does the UN observer at the trial. Megrahi has an appeal against both his conviction and his sentence pending, but it is doubtful that he will live long enough to see that process to it's conclusion. This is a shame, as many questions remain unanswered, and the appeal may shed light on some of these.

The reaction to this appeal for compassionate release has revealed much about the two countries primarily involved. Britain, a largely secular, even irreligious, society seems very much divided in it's opinion. It is striking that many of the victims families in the UK are quite vocal in calling for compassion for Megrahi. In America, in contrast, there seems to be almost unanimous opposition to compassion, especially amongst the victims families, and yet the US is a very much more vocally Christian country. What are we to make of this?

As a Quaker, I am committed to both the concepts of justice and compassion. Megrahi has served 8 years in a high security Scottish jail. As a percentage of his likely lifespan after his conviction that is considerable. We certainly can not regard him as a public threat, as he is practically crippled by his cancer. He wishes to spend the little time that remains to him with his family, who are presumed to be innocent of any such crime. However, it is undeniable that, assuming he is guilty, this was a particularly horrendous crime, and that justice must be served.

It is certainly a dilemma, and not one I envy Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister. He is likely to be condemned whatever he decides. Luckily for him, the decision is to be taken on purely legal grounds. Or as purely as politics allows! He does not have to balance the moral considerations in making that decision, though he will undoubtedly have moral views of his own. It is, indeed, a poisoned chalice, from which few would welcome the opportunity to drink.

If we believe in a theistic God, as many of those involved certainly do, then we must also believe that justice ultimately lies in the hands of that God, and that no matter what happens here, justice will be served in an afterlife. As a Muslim, Megrahi must surely believe the same. Christians have a duty to compassion also, and there can be no more eloquent testimony to the strength of that Christian belief than showing compassion to this man, and his family, regardless of his guilt. That is what Jesus is supposed to have asked of his followers, and hard as it is, if you are a Christian, then that is the burden which you must embrace.

William Penn, a respected historical Quaker, and founder of the state of Pennsylvania in the US, famously stated that "men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ". Jesus is reputed to have asked for forgiveness for his tormentors in one of his last living statements before death on the cross. There seems little doubt to me what his example to us would be, if faced with such a dilemma.

Those of us who do not believe in God, must ask themselves whether justice is actually served by keeping a dying and incapable man in jail. There must surely come a point when our necessary humane compassion towards a fellow human being forces us to overcome our qualms about his release and our desire for vengeance, whatever his alleged crime. That release would be a profound demonstration of the values of our society to those who question the validity of those values.

It is with a little difficulty that I conclude that as a civilised society, or as Christians, or as Quakers, or as simply humane human beings, there is no alternative than to release Megrahi, as the time is judged right, in order to give his family a short time with him before his death. Personally, I believe there are very grave question marks about the man's guilt, but that is almost an irrelevance in this situation. The issue is bigger than that. I find myself asking, how do we better counter and disarm the hate and violence of terrorism, than to demonstrate love and compassion towards it's perpetrators when called upon to do so?

It's The Little Things That Make A Difference

In an interview with NPR in the US, George Soros was asked why he had made his recent decision to donate $35 million to the state of New York, for the purpose of helping low income families with schooling costs.

Part of his motivation was to enable the release of a further $135 million in federal funding, which required the state to put up matching funds to release it. George's Foundation to Promote Open Society stepped in to give the state the money, which it could not afford.

Soros stated that "philanthropy has been badly hit by the financial crisis and so the usual donors actually are cutting back. I feel that people who can afford it should step up to the plate and actually increase their philanthropic donations."

And what actually inspired him to make this particular donation? Whilst studying at the London School of Economics, he struggled financially, and was having to work as a waiter at nights to make ends meet. When his tutor found out, concerned at the possible impact on his studies, she informed the local Quakers about his circumstances, and they sent him a cheque for £40 (not as small a sum as it sounds at that time) to enable him to continue. George Soros still remembers how touched he was by that, and that inspired his latest philanthropy.

It seems to me that there is a lesson in this for all of us. We are often discouraged from taking action to help others by the small resources we have, and the seemingly insurmountable problems that are faced. Yet a small action, such as helping a struggling student with a little money, can have a major impact on that person's life, and later affect the lives of so many others. This is a practical example of the so-called "butterfly effect", where the image is given of the beat of the butterfly's wings causing a turbulent flow that results in the start of a hurricane. Whatever we think of the analogy, it is true that seemingly small and insignificant acts can have unforeseen consequences, beyond our immediate comprehension or intention.

The cynical in this world will often tell us how misguided our good intentions are, how we are wasting our time, as the difference we as individuals can make are too insignificant. It is true that often our efforts will be doomed to fail, or will make too little difference to effect change. It is also true, however, that working together, our small efforts start to aggregate and have a better chance of success in effecting meaningful change. The one sure thing is that if we make no effort then there will certainly be very little chance of change.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Demon Drink

Scotland is famous throughout the world for many things; tartan, haggis, and bagpipes, Rabbie Burns and Sean Connery, it's landscape and it's industrial heritage and whisky. And related to this last one, it is also infamous for it's relationship with alcohol.

In a study released today, research has shown that more than 1 in 5 Scots drinks to a potentially damaging level, and nearly 1 in 25 Scots has an alcohol addiction. Scotland is not unique in having these problems (it is echoed throughout northern Europe), but it is, unfortunately, a bit of a world leader.

What is it about Scotland and northern European culture in general, which has brought this about? Several theories are popular. Perhaps it is the climate and the relatively long and dark winters? Perhaps it is related to our experience of our brand of individualistic, consumerist capitalism? Perhaps it is related to the break down of the family unit? Or the lack of a spiritual or ethical element to so many people's lives in these societies?

And it isn't just alcohol, and it isn't just Scotland. Narcotic abuse, of both legal and illegal substances, has soared across most of the industrialised societies around the world, of all cultural backgrounds; so whilst alcohol is a particular problem in northern European society, addiction is a problem through much of the world now. Why do humans feel the need to seek intoxication or oblivion on a regular basis, despite clear evidence of the health risks and the wider costs to the individual and society?

Dr Lisa Miller of Columbia University has carried out some interesting research in this field, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Dr Miller surveyed 676 15-19 year olds about their spiritual lives and their attitudes to alcohol and drugs.

She discovered that those teenagers who had an active spiritual life, arising from their own choices and motivation, were half as likely as other teenagers to have or develop addictions to drugs or alcohol, or even to try illegal drugs. However, this prophylactic effect was not in evidence where the spiritual life was imposed upon them by their parents, or another adult. The key was the freedom of choice and the personal commitment.

The lesson from this is, I think, that whatever actually causes so many in our society to seek refuge in alcohol or other drugs, we can help protect our young people by encouraging their early interest in spiritual matters. We can guide them towards the beliefs we hold or admire, but we must also respect their right to seek that meaning for themselves. It can be counter productive to seek to impose it. And I, rather quaintly I suppose, believe that our own Quakerly lives of tolerance and moderation, coupled with an impassioned ethics, can inspire them to follow our example.

This is where liberal Quakerism can be strong. We seek to nurture our young people in a loving community and to provide the ethical framework for a good and rewarding life, but also to assist them in their own search, without imposing any creed or specific belief upon them. People need to feel both loved and respected as an individual in order to thrive, and they need both freedom and support to develop into a complete and fulfilled person.

Let Us Not Create Gods

My attention was brought to a quote from the gnostic Gospel of Philip today: "This is how it is in the world - men create gods and they worship their creations"

There have been times when I have heard Friends recite words from George Fox, and it has reminded me of the way some of the more fervent television evangelists quote from the Bible. There seems to be an almost unquestioning acceptance; an assumption that the mere fact that the quote comes from that particular source makes it in some way unassailable. Surely, as Quakers, we are seekers after truth? Not blind acceptors!

Is it possible that sometimes we are guilty of making a god out of George? That we treat him as the Jesus of our Society? We do not accept the supremacy of the Bible as a fount of wisdom; we should not do so for the words of George either. Or those of any other weighty or venerable Friend. By all means we should use those words that "speak to our condition", but use them wisely and appropriately, and not as some reflex response. I strive to look behind the meaning of the words, evaluate their sentiment and then see what I can say for myself. But sometimes the words of George, or whoever, do just put it better than we can hope to.

I read another quote today, which went along the lines of "a Quaker meeting is a place you come to have your answers questioned". I like that, and I don't think I can do any better. Well, not just now, anyway!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Hey - Quaker Biting?

I was searching a Quaker website today, when I came across a Google Ad at the side of the page.

"Hey - Quaker biting? Stop biting, screaming and plucking. Quaker training and taming report"

After a wry smile at this advert, aimed at owners of Quaker parrots, appearing on a Religious Society of Friends site, it set me off on a whole different train of thought.

The early Quakers were undoubtedly people with bite. They certainly weren't tame! This, I think, was part of their attraction and explains their success in drawing a wide following so quickly, despite the persecution that followed. It was when the Society withdrew within itself, and either abandoned or masked it's radicalism, that it lost membership. Our principled stands against slavery and war, and for prison reform, are what are best known about Friends, yet few people have a clear idea what we stand for today. We, perhaps, assume that our values are obvious.

Today, Quakers continue to worry about our lack of success in attracting new members, and in retaining our young people. We do a great deal of good work in the peace, social justice, trade, human rights and environmental fields. We feel strongly about such issues, and these are the concerns of many of our fellow citizens. We should be seen as radicals, taking a lead on these issues, which would surely attract people to at least find out more about us. Yet, we are often seen as woolly, wishy-washy people lacking in passion and conviction. Why?

In today's confrontational and anti-intellectual culture, our insistence on unity through "consensual" decision making, and our embracing of diversity of belief within our own community, is too often presented as a lack of conviction, although the opposite is true. It is the strength of our convictions which allows us to function as we do. We need to find ways to change that perception and be seen as strong and principled, without compromising ourselves. Indeed, people with bite!

We need to be more vocal about the work we do and more ready to identify ourselves as Quakers when we do it. We need to be actually seen to be living our lives according to our Quaker values. We are called not just to embrace the testimonies, but to bear witness to them throughout our lives - vocally, if necessary. Speak truth to power, and speak it plainly!

I know some Quakers will be uncomfortable with that; it may be seen to be unQuakerly. Yet the alternative, it seems to me, is that we either stumble along as we are or we fade away entirely.

Will we be "biting, screaming and plucking" about injustice and inequality, seeking to build the society we believe in, or will we be "tamed and trained" and just nibbling at the edges?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Trouble With Kettles

Today, Britain's Independent Police Complaints Commission handed it's file on the death of Ian Tomlinson, who died after being struck by a police officer at the London G20 summit protests in April, to prosecutors. Mr Tomlinson's only offence was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, hence, caught in the Metropolitan Police's "kettle".

"Kettling" is a police tactic which consists of penning a crowd into a confined space, usually a square or road intersection, supposedly to prevent anticipated disorder. Once penned, the crowd are kept corralled for hours at a time, with no access to food, water or sanitation. This can take place in either rain or hot sun, and the protesters may include children and the elderly. After being held for hours, the dispirited and disgruntled protesters are then allowed to disperse, being photographed or videoed as they go.

No charges or arrests result, other than in a tiny minority of cases. The people concerned would have been treated better if they had actually been arrested, as they would then have been guaranteed rights to access food, water, sanitation and shelter. Our legal principles seem to have been turned on their heads; it is now "guilty until proved innocent". These tactics, it may be presumed, are designed to discourage legitimate protest.

What is even worse, though, is that the penned masses may include many people who, like Mr Tomlinson, have nothing whatsoever to do with the protest, and were just attempting to go about their day to day routine. The G20 "kettle" included many such people, including a consultant surgeon from a local hospital on his way to work, who was not allowed to leave, despite producing his ID and asking the police to speak to the hospital on his phone.

Many will be familiar with the internet footage of Mr Tomlinson trying to go about his lawful business, returning home from his newsagents business, and being pushed back into the "kettle" by a policeman in riot gear. The fall, or the blow to his chest, is thought to have triggered a fatal heart attack. The police undoubtedly need to take action to ensure that protests pass off peacefully, with minimal disruption to other citizens, but such action should always be the minimum necessary, and should not infringe the rights of either lawful protesters or bystanders. It is totally unacceptable when it results in the death of an innocent man.

The tactic of "kettling" is a profound overreaction and denies the basic human rights of those caught up in it. Far from ensuring public order, it causes a profound sense of injustice, and actually incites normally peaceable people to disorder. As one observer wittily put it, "the problem with kettles is they tend to boil."

Indeed, the footage of this protest actually shows police officers standing by as a pair of protesters attacked a branch of a bank, even though it could easily have been stopped by the officers present. The only individuals trying to stop the attack were some of the other protesters. So much for public order!

This episode has further undermined the declining confidence of many in our police. It is symptomatic of a malaise within parts of that service; a tendency to view the general public as the enemy - we are all potential, even probable, offenders.

There has been a steady erosion of our rights as citizens in Britain over the last few decades. Ironically, much of the worst of this has occurred under a Labour government. We are subject to ever greater surveillance, either physical or electronic (no doubt including subversive blogs!), and our freedoms of assembly, movement and expression have been whittled away. These are issues which should concern us all. The argument that "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear" is deeply flawed, not least due to the incompetent collection and handling of data by government agencies. Now even our local councils have the right to spy on us, and are doing so, often abusively.

I don't believe that we are close to living in a police state in Britain, but I do think that we have allowed our government to make significant steps in that direction. With the increased surveillance of the general public by police, other agencies and CCTV, the proliferation of databases, extended detention without charge, increasing police powers, restriction of rights to free expression and protest, restriction orders and a culture shift away from presumption of innocence and civil rights, our freedoms as citizens are restricted and threatened as in no other western society.

The argument has often been made that if Jesus of Nazereth was to appear today he would be locked up as a lunatic. In today's Britain, he would probably be put under surveillance, jailed or placed under a restriction order.

To paraphrase Pastor Niemuller "first they came for the Jews and I said nothing, because I wasn't a Jew....when they came for me, no one was left to speak for me." Quakers have had a long tradition of speaking out against oppression, and in favour of rights, wherever injustice occurs, and to whomever. Undoubtedly, many are already speaking out, but we need to do more. We need to actively make the argument for expanding and guaranteeing civil rights. If we believe in "that of God" in everyone (or however we choose to phrase it) and we believe in living our testimonies in our lives, then I think we are obliged to do so.

Losing Our Way

Currently the public water company is building a new pipeline to carry treated water from their new treatment plant to Edinburgh city, and this passes very close to the rear of my house. They have closed the road to the west, so that they may dig a trench to lay this pipe under the road. At the same time, the gas company has set up roadworks with a lengthy contraflow to the east, and the road to the north has no less than three contraflows for gas and water work.

Leaving aside the lack of respect and thought for the residents of this area, who are left marooned in the middle of this (this is British utility planning at it's best!), this has provided an interesting insight to modern behaviour, and more than a little amusement.

There are numerous large warning signs at various points along the approaches to the road closure, and it is not a major road, yet we can observe numerous cars screeching to a halt as they are faced with the barriers. So many then turn down our private road, in a vain attempt to avoid returning to the roadworks they have just sat at for an eternity, before realising that this road peters out into a number of rough farm tracks (and I do mean rough!). These are invariably the larger, shinier cars, with their onboard satellite navigation, who have blindly followed it's instructions, oblivious to the warnings they have passed.

Perhaps this is typical of our modern way of life. We hurtle along, looking only at our own planned route, never looking around at the warning signs provided. Obstacles and hazards appear in our path, when a little less speed and a little more attention would have seen us avoid them with ease. The rush towards our own questionable goals is thwarted by forgetting to observe the rest of the world as it passes us by.

So, I will continue to forget the satnav, and the routeplan, and will take the time to look around at the warning signs and the alternatives! And then trust my own judgement!

The Invasion Of The Commons

Ever since the gentry and aristocrats began the process of enclosure, the common resources of the people have been steadily whittled away. We now pay for many things which once were free, and our public spaces are being increasingly invaded by advertising. Public services are now seen as opportunities for profit, rather than the socially vital provision they were set up to deliver.

The latest manifestation of this is the arrival of giant television screens in public squares in the larger cities around Britain. Monstrously intrusive, and frighteningly energy intensive, these leviathans appeared almost overnight. They stream news clips and sports coverage as they undergo "testing", and presumably will include advertising in the future. Their actual purpose seems unclear.

These squares and plazas are valuable public spaces. Often they are oases of peace and quiet in bustling city centres, public performance areas or gathering points. Yet now, they are being invaded by corporate interests. Who gave permission for these screens? The people certainly weren't asked! Should it not be us who decides how we use these places? Or are we only important when someone is making a profit from us?

In a world seemingly saturated by advertising and information, do we really need yet another portal? Or do we need more places of tranquility to gave ourselves opportunities for rest and quiet contemplation, however fleeting? Or places to hear each others voices, rather than those of the advertisers?

Monday, 3 August 2009


The British Government has released proposals today to introduce a points system to decide who qualifies for British citizenship. Points will be awarded for civic involvement, such as joining community groups, political parties and trade unions, and for embracing British values. Points will be deducted for shunning these values, or for criminal behaviour.

Who decides which groups are worthy? Which will qualify the applicant for the most points? Whose values are those defined as British? Do the Scots, Welsh, Irish and English all have the same values? Does a working man in Manchester share the same values as a banker in London?

This idea is plainly flawed, and in some respects ridiculous. Plainly those seeking citizenship should embrace the general values of the society they seek to join, and certainly should not be opposed to them. But our society's values are so diverse and diffuse nowadays, that how can they be defined in such a manner. Who is the judge? And who the jury?

And intriguingly, how many current British citizens, British born or immigrant, would actually pass these tests?

Tolerance Needed!

The news in the last few days has seen religious violence in both Pakistan and Nigeria.

In Pakistan, six Christians were burned to death and two shot dead, as the local Muslim community attacked the Christians for a reported desecration of a copy of the Quran. The reports later turned out to be totally false. And let's not forget, this is a book translated many times over generations and so bearing only a partial resemblance to the original (and, yes, that applies to the Bible too!). It is printed like any other book and on paper like any other paper. It is a book and no more.

In Nigeria, an Islamist sect, opposed to all Western elements of education and wishing to impose Sharia law, beyond the Muslim provinces which already have it, on all of Nigeria, even where Christians form the vast majority, decided to use violent means to attempt to implement their warped idea of Islam. Hundreds died as a result. This fundamentalist intolerance of any modernity is wrong, and contrary to the enlightened early history of Islam. Islam should mean peace! Using it's name to promote violence is wrong.

Unfortunately, both examples involve Islamic violence against Christians. However, the last few decades have seen countless examples of Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims attacking those of other faiths. This should be totally unacceptable to moderate followers and preachers of each faith, and should be condemned widely. Sadly, such voices are too often muted in their response.
As such, they bear responsibility for the deaths that result.

Followers of these faiths must have the confidence in themselves and their beliefs that they can accept the right of others to criticise or disagree, without feeling the need to attack them. Is your faith going to crumble, simply because someone holds a different point of view?

All must be free to choose their faith. Or do these religions not have faith that they can hold onto their believers without the threats and intimidation?

Assisted Suicide

Two reports in the British media have brought this issue back into focus in the past week.

First, a famous British orchestra conductor went with his wife to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, where they both took their own lives. She was suffering from a terminal cancer, but what caused such controversy was that he had no such terminal condition. His sight and hearing were both failing, and the two loves of his life, his wife and his music, were being taken from him. Furthermore, he would be dependent on total strangers for his most basic needs, as he was no longer able to care for himself. He, apparently, reasoned that without her support, and without his music, he had nothing left to live for.

The second case is a long running one, and involves a woman who is slowly dying of an incurable disease. She wishes to choose her own time of death, and does not want her husband prosecuted if he helps her to end her life by taking her to Dignitas. If that possibility remains, then she feels she must end her own life earlier, whilst she is still able to travel alone. As such, she has been seeking a clarification of the law. A judge has now granted her a review of the law and a statement from the authorities, clarifying the law, is to be made shortly.

Both such cases involve the individual asserting their right to choose the manner and time of their own death, and the law's right to intervene in their attempts to die with dignity.

I share my life with two dogs, who are now ageing, and the day will quite probably come, relatively, soon to make decisions about their quality of life. If they start to suffer a degenerative disease, or they are involved in an accident causing serious injury, I will be asked by a vet whether I wish to consider putting them to sleep, rather than have them suffer. I will have to balance their quality of life against the wish to continue to have them in my life, and I will have to judge whether their suffering has become too great to justify keeping them alive. Indeed, under the laws of this country, I would be failing in my obligations if I opted to prolong their lives, should they be judged to be suffering unduly.

This contrast in the human attitude to death is striking.

In dealing with human life, the presumption seems to be to preserve life at all cost, no matter the quality of that life. Dignity and compassion do not seem to come into the equation for many of the legal and religious authorities.With animals, we show compassion and attempt to allow them dignity, rather than drag out their medicated lives in pain and confusion.

Is it to much to ask that we find some mechanism for allowing humans the same consideration we give to animals?

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Internet Friendship

The Archbishop of Westminster has condemned the role of social networking sites, claiming that they encourage the development of transient friendships. I can't help but wonder if he has ever actually viewed such a site. Certainly much of the content can be frivolous and transient, but I would challenge his assertion that this is true of the friendships connected there.

I have made few new friendships through the sites that I use, but I have been able to reconnect with so many old friends, with whom I had lost touch through career change, relocation or simple misfortune. And this seems to be common amongst those I contact through the sites. They are a valuable tool for keeping in touch with old friends and workmates, for maintaining friendships over long distances and rediscovering old friendships.

The discussion groups I participate in have opened my eyes to new perspectives, challenged my beliefs and made me contemplate so much I would not have done otherwise. Internet networking has added greatly to my life, socially and intellectually.

Young people's friendships have always been transient. Fallings-out are all too common, and the chopping and changing of school classes, not to mention the change of schools, puts paid to many a seeming lifelong friendship. And as parents move home with increasing frequency, chasing property wealth or career dreams, then this can only increase. Networking sites may actually ease this, and keep friendships going which might otherwise have faded away.

Perhaps the Archbishop needs to reconsider his pronouncement and actually try connecting himself!

$10 Trillion, And Counting!

Figures released by the International Monetary Fund show that the "credit crunch" has cost the worlds governments more than $10 trillion. Whilst much of this has been in the form of loans and guarantees, about $1.9 trillion has been actual expenditure.

Money has been found so easily to meet this, and also the cost of the ongoing wars around the world, which cost many hundreds of billions more every year. Money can also be found to fund new space exploration and any number of large sporting events.

And yet, a tiny fraction of that would eliminate third world debt and deliver clean water, adequate food and basic education and healthcare to every person on the planet. Why can this money never be found?

Climate change has the potential to not just change the planet for many centuries to come, but could even threaten the existence of the human species (and many others!). We urgently need to decarbonise our economies, and develop new less exploitative and more sustainable ways of living. Even without climate change, we are consuming the finite resources of our planet at ever accelerating rates. Why is the money not being found to tackle this?

We in the minority rich countries all have a responsibility for these failings. Are we consuming just what we need or whatever we want? When will we learn that possessions do not bring happiness, and that there is such a thing as enough? We can challenge the status quo. Stand up and make your voices heard!

Do not accept a world where people are subservient to profit, where footballers and entertainers are valued so much more than doctors, teachers and carers, and where our extravagance will be the burden for our children's children in the years to come.

Two Ways To Be Religious

Yesterday saw "Israel's worst ever hate crime". A black-clad man walked into a gay support centre in Tel Aviv and opened fire on the young men meeting there. Two people were killed and 10 others wounded.

We don't yet know the motivation of this killer, but so often such crimes are committed in the name of one religion or another, and yet most religions declare themselves to be the repositories of love on earth. Why then are so many religious people seemingly incapable of love, especially to those different to themselves? Why do they preach only parts of their creed, ignoring those they feel uncomfortable with, and so often missing the most basic points of that creed?

In stark contrast 1200 "religious" people meeting in York, England (Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends), sent a clear unambiguous message to other religious groups, governments and people throughout the world. They did this by clearly stating that they intended not just recognising gay marriage, but also would happily carry out the ceremonies in their meeting houses. They have taken a stand and thrown out a challenge. The liberal Quakers have often led on moral issues; the abolition of slavery, female equality, prison reform, environmental protection, and others have followed. Who will be the first to have the courage to follow now?