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?