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Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his two-volume life’s work, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Seventy-four years later, speaking at the Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 41st US President George HW Bush, a decent man, declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.” This pre-emptive declaration by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation essentially castrated the noble intentions of the summit, to limit humankind’s exploitation of the earth’s resources to sustainable levels. The result of the Rio summit was Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan for the 21st century. This was the paltry outcome of a nine-day meeting representing 172 countries attended by 116 heads of state, 2400 NGOs and 17,000 other representatives of indigenous peoples and ordinary ‘you and me’ types.
Twenty-one years after the US President’s declaration in Rio, the WWF designated the 20th of August 2013 as “Earth Overshoot Day;” the day that humanity has used as much renewable natural resources as the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day is estimated to have fallen on August 8th, after which date we’re drawing down the planet’s renewable resources for the rest of the year. Pity the poor planet! The American way of life is still not up for negotiation, and the rest of the world is rushing to catch up. If ever populous countries like China and India get there, the planet will be sucked dry and we’ll all have to follow Elon Musk to Mars! So are we condemned to a two-track planet where some countries (or some sections of society within countries) corner material resources and the rest go a-begging? This is the scenario being projected by right wing demagogues worldwide and this is the reason for their recent successes at the ballot box.
Economists and philosophers have tried to redefine human well-being to reflect planetary limits, most notably in recent years by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, which acknowledges that the current definition of economic success is fundamentally flawed. Prosperous societies today increasingly recognize that increased material wealth does not increase well-being. However, most people the world over, regardless of their economic condition, still aspire to some version of the American way of life. This aspiration is reflected in the respect automatically accorded to wealthy people in the world today. A look at the Who’s Who of practically any country includes the names of its wealthiest citizens, together with lists of eminent physicians, lawyers, sportspeople and so on.
Gandhi pithily articulated this state of affairs decades ago when he said: The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. For each according to her needs would be the ideal but, as always, messy reality intervenes. One man’s need is another man’s greed. So it is that millions of well-meaning, virtuous, affluent people the world over would never dream of giving up hard-won creature comforts for the sake of other planetary denizens who are less well off. The spiral of technology has historically been to continuously improve human life, and to continuously create problems at the same time. These problems in turn needed infusions of new technology to solve its problems. So right now, the choices seem to be to outer-planetary colonization, or to invest in defences (gated communities, wealthy enclaves, security guards, border walls) to hold on to material gains. Technology offers a third alternative. The idea of a sharing economy has recently gained a lot of traction. Who needs ownership when mobility and services are seamlessly available? Indeed, ownership becomes a bit of a burden in comparison to the convenience of superb services available on demand with little or no delay.
Even if all this is achieved, humankind’s basic inner restlessness will ensure that we keep wanting more and better, with one eye on the people next door. Global contentment is a moving target. Enter mystic and philosopher Sadhguru and his lectures on inner engineering. His most memorable anecdote in the video (begins at minute 16) is a reminder that all is not lost in the midst of this doom and gloom if we can take the time to laugh at ourselves and the posturings that have brought us to this point.
“We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. [. . .] None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.” Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, 1986.
Truth is a shape-shifting commodity and there are multiple truths about everything, depending on one’s point of view. As the old saying goes, where you stand on an issue usually depends on where you sit. That’s one reason why democracy’s so dangerous. People who sit still in one space usually see only a single truth regardless of the facts that are thrown at them.
In 1967 a high school history class in California started an experiment to study the rise of Nazism. The teacher, Ron Jones, organized the experiment because his students could not conceive how intelligent, well-educated people in Germany could have blindly followed a demagogue like Hitler. The process was simple. The teacher imposed minor authoritarian controls that were agreed upon with the students. Sitting postures were regulated and drills regularly carried out where they would have to be sitting correctly within five seconds. The rules were progressively tightened. The teacher had to be formally addressed as Mr. Jones every time they spoke to him. On the second day, more formalities were introduced, and a motto had to be repeatedly chanted by pairs of students. On the third day a salute was developed. It involved bringing the right hand to cup the right shoulder. Students were ordered to use this salute with one another whenever they met, even outside class. Outsiders were no longer allowed to enter the classroom, unless they were introduced by a member and agreed to salute with the “wave” salute. By the fourth day, bullying began. The symptoms became so worrying that Jones decided to break it off on the fifth day, Friday. By this time, the students had become so self-identified with the masquerade that they were emotionally devastated when Ron Jones made the announcement to end the experiment. See the link here for a description of the experiment in Ron Jones’ own words, written in 1972.
Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment was followed by the week-long Standford Prison Experiment in 1971. The results of this experiment were, if anything, even more horrendous and you can read a Wikipedia description here. As in the school experiment, with very few exceptions, all students complied to create coercive prison conditions with increasing enthusiasm. Their ingrained sense of ethics seemed to decrease in inverse proportion to their enthusiasm, i.e. the more enthusiastic they became about the experiment, the less they seemed to care about the ethicality of their actions. They quickly lost their moral compass.
Reading news reports about Donald Trump’s increasingly outrageous statements and the support that he still seems to have among the electorate, it seems to this observer that the US has embarked on a dangerous trajectory that eerily resembles the shenanigans of the Third Wave. The original Third Wave experiment ended in the classroom. This one could end with a man with no moral compass in command of the world’s largest military. This has repercussions far beyond the US electorate.
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If one reads the newspapers in Europe these days, it’s easy to imagine a world going unbalanced. Political chaos in Britain; the shock of Trump’s rise to political prominence in the US; the continued slaughter in Syria; the failed coup in Turkey; honor killings of women in the Middle East and South Asia; young girls kidnapped in the hundreds by a sinister cultish organization in Nigeria with hate and abhorrence of non-religious learning as its primary motivation; China flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea…the list goes on. The underlying cause of each of these symptoms is one and the same, the quest for economic power. In itself harmless, economic power, the accumulation of wealth, is such a basic human instinct that it was unquestioned long before Adam Smith came along to make it intellectually respectable.
What we should question, however, is the tendency of modern societies to equate development with wealth, and economic poverty with under-development. There will be conflict in the world as long as wealth accumulation is equated with development. No one wants to be under-developed, so development currently means increased exploitation of the world’s resources. Ultimately, it is the scramble for the world’s resources that fuels all the conflicts and emigrations we observe today. Interestingly, many of those people, mostly politically right-wing, who rage against immigrants these days invoke a past society free of injustice and racially pure. They forget, or are unaware that, for a species that genetically differs from a chimpanzee by only 1.3% of its genes, talk of racial purity is an absurd notion, absurd to the point of imbecility.
The politics of inclusion that most people yearn for, but don’t know how to create, actually begins with us. The process of inclusion begins with us, one person at a time. Perhaps that is why the process is so daunting, since we have to change ourselves first, before we begin to find the politics of inclusion that the majority of the world seems to be longing for. Check out this link to hear what geneticist David Suzuki has to say about modern economic thought.
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“In the beginning was the word,” the book of St. John begins, in the King James version. “And the word was with God and the word was God.”
In the Katha Upanishad (approximately 5th century BCE), OM is related to the first primeval sound and the creation of the Universe, in an eerie echo of modern physics and the sounds that presumably accompanied the Big Bang. However, this analogy cannot be drawn too far, since the word OM has multiple meanings and interpretations in the Upanishads and in Buddhist belief. The Huffington Post says “Om is also considered the mother of the bija, or “seed” mantras — short, potent sounds that correlate to each chakra and fuel longer chants (like, say, Om Namah Shivaya). Depending on who you talk to, it relates to either the third eye or the crown chakra, connecting us to the Divine. No wonder it is core to some Buddhist systems and other Indian religions. Some say it’s even among the sounds recorded in deep space — on NASA’s website, Earth itself sounds a bit om-y.”
Coming to the present day, which is our primary concern here, Lucia Graves writes in the Guardian (July 13th, 2016) “It used to be that you had to read between the lines to determine that Donald Trump was stoking racial resentments. And it used to be that the subjects of his racial animus were mostly immigrants. But now, increasingly, he’s casting a wider net and amping up his rhetoric.” Also in the Guardian of the same date, another headline says, “Labour’s Luciana Burger receives death threats telling her to ‘watch her back.'” Because she’s Jewish. Chilling news, seven decades after the horrors of the Shoah!
In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the language of intolerance has grown more strident in recent years, often drowning the voice of reason. The Islam of the Sufis seems to be disappearing from public discourse, and the all-embracing tolerance of Hinduism seems to be hardening at its edges. In the Middle East, the intolerant rhetoric of various groups has led to spectacular and bloody breakdown of civil society in the region.
The world as we know it began with words. Even so, the unraveling of our world and civilization as we know it, also begins with words. It begins with the language of the bigot, the language of the nationalist, the language of the religious fanatic speaking on behalf of God (presumption or megalomania?), the language of the intolerant, the language of politicians looking to increase their grip on power. In politics today, the language of intolerance seems to be gaining ground, becoming socially acceptable. Socially acceptable? That means us. That we accept it. Unless we emphatically refute it at every encounter. By casting votes, by speaking up, by voting with our feet. The last case scenario is, sadly, what prompts the widespread immigration we see today.
I see this older man on every visit to the local supermarket. He notices me, because Vari and I are among the few people who park our bikes at the small stand and carry home all our shopping in bicycle saddle bags. He sells a newspaper, called the Augustin. The Augustin is an inclusive newspaper run by volunteers who have formed an association, a ‘verein’ that promotes tolerance and provides opportunity for marginalised members of society to earn a little money with dignity, selling issues of the paper on the streets. Not many people buy them.
My Augustin man is always well groomed, clean shaven and decently dressed. He stands by the bank of shopping trolleys outside the supermarket. Sometimes, when he sees an elderly lady fumbling with change to release a shopping trolley from the stand, he steps forward with a metal gadget from his pocket the size of a beer opener that releases a trolley. Some people take the trolley from him with a sideways glance or nod of acknowledgement. Sometimes not even that. A few people stop to talk to him. I bought an Augustin from him one day, as a gesture of support.
Last week he used his gadget with a flourish when I was entering the supermarket and presented me with a trolley. I stood and spoke with him for some time. He’s from Georgia, he said, and 62 years old, a professor of philology. He’s waiting for his papers to be processed. I’m not sure how much I can ask about why he’s here. He’s so dignified and reserved. Does he have family? Did he lose his job? Is he a political refugee? He’s not allowed to work, he said, and lives with the support of Caritas while waiting for his papers. Caritas is the catholic relief agency that does a lot of good work among refugees in Austria and elsewhere.
When I come home, I check the definition of philology in Wikipedia. Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history and linguistics, it says. I read a beautiful poem by John Milton when I was a child. Seeing the unemployed philologist reminded me of it. It’s called, When I Consider How my Light is Spent.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
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The following text is copied from the blog of economist Larry Willmore, and I think it merits re-posting because of widespread reports in the media in Europe about Turkey’s non-cooperative stance about taking back refugees who have made the hazardous crossing to Europe. Really? Read on below…
We are bombarded daily with news of problems with the massive influx of Syrian refugees in Europe, Jordan and Lebanon but seldom hear about the much larger number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The reason there is so little reporting from Turkey is that Syrian refugees there encounter little hostility. Moreover, significant numbers are able to work informally, often in businesses run by Syrians. The Turkish government recently began to issue a restricted number of work permits to refugees. Refugee employment would no doubt increase, along with wages and working conditions, if the tight restrictions were relaxed.
[T]he 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey have encountered less hostility than in Jordan and Lebanon—not surprising given Turkey’s population of 77 million …. Jordan and Lebanon face a significantly higher burden with over one million Syrian refugees in each country, representing an influx equal to, respectively, 20 and 25 percent of the native population.
It may also be that Turkey’s more open business environment has played a role in lowering tensions. ….
Over the last four years, about 4,000 formal tax-paying firms—employing thousands of workers, mostly Turkish—have emerged. And informal enterprises may multiply this number. …. [M]any of these [refugee] workers make less than minimum wage and have no social benefits. But in January 2016 Turkey’s official gazette announced the granting of work permits to refugees, though employment is capped at 10 percent of a firm’s workforce.
Omer M. Karasapan, “The impact of Syrian businesses in Turkey“, Future Development blog, Brookings, 16 March 2016.
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The city of Vienna has been governed by the Social Democrats, either alone or in coalition with other parties, since 1945. That’s an unbroken stretch of 70 years! Not bad for a governing party, considering that Vienna is a well-run city and has consistently ranked among the top 3 cities of the world for quality of life for the past decade or two. Among the reasons for the city’s success is the large number of initiatives by private citizens concerned about social justice in the age of globalisation.
One of these initiatives is by a non-profit organisation called Purple Sheep with the avowed objective of keeping an eye on the government to ensure that the city obeys its own laws concerning the welfare of refugees. In brief, PS’s objective (stated in the photo below) is to keep track of, publicise, and protect refugees from excessive official zeal in upholding the law.
Every so often, registered refugees fall through cracks in the legal framework, are declared inelegible for asylum, and have to leave the country although they might have lived in Austria for years while waiting, and have become well integrated. Appeals are possible, but people live in a kind of limbo while waiting for a decision on an appeal, and they are not allowed to work during this period. So in early 2014, Purple Sheep decided to set up Purple Eat; a place where refugees waiting for a decision on their case for asylum (currently 15 families) can provide a service while conforming to the law.
Housed in a distinctive purple container-like building among the other market stalls on the Rosaliagasse 5 in Vienna’s 12th district, Purple Eat serves a choice of 2 menus, 5 days a week, Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 11 am to 11 pm, prepared by the refugees themselves. What is on offer on a particular day depends on the nationality of the persons responsible for the meal. I visited the place on Thursday evening this week and found a choice of 2 main courses. A Haitian beef goulash, or a Georgian-style mushroom goulash, both menus accompanied by a standard soup, salad and a dessert (no choice here) for 7 Euros. I decided on the Georgian mushroom, and a glass of white wine.
The soup arrived quickly, a delicious cream of tomato. It was followed by a salad. The lettuce was absolutely crisp and fresh. The dressing was obviously ready-made, out of a packet, but at 7 Euros for a 3-course meal, there are no complaints from this quarter. The Georgian mushroom goulash came next, served in typical Georgian style, topped with a dollop of cream and a sprinkling of walnut. Delicious. And for dessert, a small piece of freshly made cottage cheese pastry (topfen strudel). The menu price of 7 Euros is a recommendation. Customers are encouraged to pay more if they like, since all the money goes directly to the refugee families. Purple Sheep is apparently staffed entirely by volunteers (who don’t get paid, natch), so all the proceeds of go directly to the families who are cooking on that day. Expect a variety of menus, depending on the families who serve their traditional cuisine on different days. I encourage you to go there and be surprised.
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