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Roger Heppleston

The atmosphere of hope

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Tim Flannery, the chief commissioner on the Australian Climate Change Commission, has just written a book misleadingly called The Atmosphere Of Hope.

Despite its title, it offers a bleak view of future life on this planet. I quote from his Guardian article: Seaweed, coffee and cement could save the planet (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/20/climate-crisis-future-brighter-tim-flannery):

Enough atmospheric greenhouse gas now exists to push global average temperatures to 1.5C (2.7F) above the preindustrial average, even if all emissions stopped today. At 1.5C of warming, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will be dead, many coastal areas will be covered by the rising sea, and the impacts on extreme weather will go from serious to devastating.

He goes on to say that whatever is agreed in the forthcoming climate change conference in Paris, it is all but impossible for humanity to avoid breaching the 2 oC barrier, which is the level which threatens ‘global civilisation’. His hope seems to be limited to keeping the rise in global temperatures to 3 oC by 2100.

His optimism is based on developing natural carbon capture technologies in the period after 2050. He mentions seaweed cultivation and using coffee grounds or cement to absorb CO2 amongst many other technologies. None of the technologies has yet proven  practical.

Scientists have done all they can to warn us of the effects of climate change. Tim Flannery is muddying the picture by using the word hope in this context. The technologies to avoid climate change are practical but expensive and often have environmental downsides. Hard choices have to be made which will affect living standards. People have to be enthused to act in an ecological way that may be against their immediate interests, but, will eventually save the planet for their children. Evolutionary competition is the force that is preventing people and states from cooperating to save the planet. We need to frustrate the natural forces of evolution. The only way of halting climate change is if people in general commit to a green philosophy of life and implement it with a religious fervour.

Integrated schooling

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On Thursday 5th November the Guardian published a story about integrated schooling in Oldham, where there were serious race  riots in 2001 (http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/05/integrated-school-waterford-academy-oldham). Breeze Hill School (almost totally Asian) and Counthill School (dominantly white) were both closed and combined in the new Whitehead academy in 2010. Integration was handled with caution. Care was taken to account for community sensibilities and  the full start was delayed  until 2012.

The results of this real-time social experiment have been monitored by Miles Hewstone, Professor of Social Psychology at Oxford. It is widely accepted that it is very easy to generate social antagonism between 2 groups which have a separate identity. In Oldham residential, school and religious separation between white British and Asian groups was some of the most extreme in England. But would integrating schooling help?

Miles Hewstone has a theory that positive contact will improve respect and cooperation between  groups. The results after 3 years are modest. It has not been helped by the fact the school itself has to cope with severely disadvantaged children and has routinely failed Ofsted inspections.  The two ethnic groups still socialise in separate spheres. However, measures of inter-community trust have improved and there have been no instances of racial violence between the pupils. Hewstone believes there has been a permanent boost to tolerance and understanding between the two groups.

In July, the prime minister made a speech on extremism that ended with a call for action to tackle ethnic segregation: “It cannot be right … that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths.” He mentioned two cities where segregation was particularly marked. The first was Bradford, the second was Oldham. Cameron was careful not to lay the blame on any one community. Housing was an issue, he said, as was education.

This from a government that has sponsored the development of faith based schools. It is clear that religion is a major issue in creating a divided society and by supporting faith based schools the government is fuelling community antagonism based on religion and culture.  If Hewstone is right positive efforts have to be made to integrate communities, not divide them. We need only look at Northern Ireland to see the damage that can be done by continuing to educate communities in separate religious establishments.

Re-wilding

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I listened to George Monbiot promoting his new book Feral which advocates the re-wilding of Britain. It was an inspiring talk for all those interested in promoting nature in all its diversity.

Monbiot explained that , far from being a natural environment, Britain’s National  Parks and most of the countryside are  controlled to be largely treeless  with very little biodiversity. This is achieved by sheep and deer grazing supported by the EU’s Common Agricultural policy. According to Monbiot, sheep rearing is not economic without the EU grant to keep land available for agricultural use. Much of the land is not owned by farmers but rich investors.

Left to its own devices the land would revert to woodland as in pre-Neolithic times. There would be a rich variety of plant and animal life, which would be further enhanced by the reintroduction of some predators like the lynx and the wolverine. Targeted re-wilding in British National Parks and wildlife conservation areas would provide some redress for the deforestation occurring in the rest of the world and save a little more of nature’s natural wonder for our children.

Assisted Dying

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Religious leaders gained a rare victory this week in the House of Commons; they managed to persuade MPs to reject Rob Marris’ private members bill about assisted dying. This would have allowed people with six months to live to take a lethal medication. A similar measure passed in the Lords last year before running out of Parliamentary time.

The religious leaders were clever they didn’t base their arguments on the ‘so called’ sanctity of human life. Nor did they make the mistake of trying to impose religious beliefs on the non-religious majority. The crucial argument appears to be the supposed vulnerability of ill patients  being pressured into committing suicide by relatives who don’t have their interests at heart.

The BHA has issued a splendid document showing the misinformation propagated by religious groups at the time of the Lords bill http://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/BHA-Report-In-Bad-Faith.pdf. In this they state:

‘Being elderly does not make you stupid, automatically vulnerable, or unable to speak for yourself. It is           patronising to assume that elderly people will easily be persuaded to die. Such attitudes expressed by religious groups demonstrate a   profound lack of respect for elderly people.’

We surely have the right to determine our own fate. MPs are still relatively young and do not know the fear of the process of physical deterioration of both mind and  body leading to death.  Feelings of pity and protection to the elderly have been misapplied. We all die but we all want to die with dignity.

Human Evolution

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Why has human evolution been so different to other mammal species?  Have you ever asked yourselves this question?

In the old days the answer was obvious. We all knew, because the Bible told us, that man was created by God to rule over the animal kingdom: ‘to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth’. However, since Darwin and the discovery of DNA we now know differently; we are just another species formed by evolution.

But how did we come to be so successful so quickly in geological time?

We’ve only been around: 0 .004% of the time since the Earth was formed 0,.02% of the time since the first multi-cellular bodies and 1% of the time since the first apes. And yet we now dominate the planet so much that we have changed its very nature. We live in a new geological era the Anthropecene.

People think that evolution is only to do with physical development caused by genetic mutation over time. However, the development of behaviour is just as important.  Insect behaviours are instinctive, solely determined by their genes. But for larger animals, behaviours can also be passed on by imitation. These concern how and where they gather food  and how they interact with each other.  Think of the hunting behaviours of lions or monkeys grooming each other.

The word meme was invented by Richard Dawkins to describe the ideas that animals are able to transmit between themselves in order to imitate behaviour. Through the miracle of evolution it is possible for one animal to reproduce the same behaviour as another animal. These instructions in their brains are memes.  Memes behave just like genes in evolution: they can reproduce; they mutate over time to produce different behaviours; and  they confer an evolutionary advantage.

The reason humans are so successful is that they are able transmit these memes in ways not available to other animals. Sometime during the 200,000 years of man’s existence, humans developed the ability to speak. This transformed the ability to pass on memes. New ideas, skills and behaviours were transmitted between hunter gatherers. Homo sapiens became the first species to populate all five continents because of the flexible way he was able to adapt to the environment. Later humans learnt to write, educate and eventually transmit information at incredible speeds and volumes all round the world. Human evolution, memetic evolution, is still accelerating. We are rapidly changing the face of the planet and testing the limits of the Earth’s resources.

 

Is humanism a philosophy of life?

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Humanism is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a ‘rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters’. This falls short of being a philosophy of life. The denial of supernatural forces does not provide a positive statement of what humanists stand for.

The British Humanist Association goes further by defining two ‘wants’

  • A world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations.
  • To help non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity

 

A philosophy of life is a view of the nature and purpose of life and the way it should be lived. Defining a vision of an ideal world goes someway to defining how life should be lived but does not constitute a purpose for existence.

 

I believe it is time for humanists to make a much more positive statement about why we are here. The theory of evolution has been in existence for a century and a half. It is over fifty years since DNA was discovered, surely we can acknowledge that the human purpose in life is to pass on our genes to future generations. If we allow global warming to happen this objective will be compromised. We need to preserve the Earth’s ecology for future generations.

Humanism is just a system of rational thought denying the existence of God. If it is to be more effective is has to have a more positive agenda. Eco-humanity provides one such approach; it is a full philosophy of life whose purpose is saving the planet for our children.

 

Refugees

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The problem of desperate refugees from wars, brutal regimes and failing states is one of the most intractable problems facing governments of rich nations. Europe has seen a regular stream of people fleeing Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other states which are failing to provide a secure livelihood to their citizens.

Humanitarian instincts drive us to help people in need and distress. This is reinforced by the UN declaration of rights for refugees ‘everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’.

Moderate levels of immigration are usually good for the economy of a country. Immigrants are by and large hard-working and eager for self-improvement. However there is a problem if the volumes become too large. Rich countries have become successful due to their memes; they have successfully developed a secular capitalist political culture which allows their population to maintain a lifestyle unimaginable in past times.  Refugees bring with them the political cultures of failed countries. If these cultures are allowed to develop in ghettos, this can threaten the fabric of a rich society.

There is also an issue with population levels. There so many humans on the planet that they are threatening its future. Population growth rates in rich countries have been slowing down.  On the other hand population growth rates in Africa have been exploding. The UN forecasts the population of Africa will grow from 1 billion to 4 billion this century. Population levels in the troubled Islamic countries in the Middle East are also set to increase substantially.  The problem of immigration can only increase further in decades to come as more governments of poor nations fail to meet the expectations of their citizens. Western nations will try to maintain fortress Europe but this will lead to increasing violence against desperate people.

We can only address the issue by uniting to address the root causes. We have to reach out and help countries in difficulty and show them the path to self-improvement. This is not just due the way a country is governed, it also means addressing the underlying conventions of a failed society. We need to unite behind and spread a new philosophy of life that can save the planet for mankind.

 

The IBHA approves Memes, Societies and Human Evolution

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The International Big History Association(IBHA) has just approved Memes, Societies and Human Evolution to be added to their extensive bibliography of the history of the universe.

Conventional history   begins with the invention of writing, and is limited to past events relating directly to humans. Big History tries to put the human story in the context of the history of the universe itself. It covers the formation of the universe, stars, and galaxies, and includes the beginning of life as well as the period of several hundred thousand years when humans were hunter-gatherers.

The study of Big History arose from a desire to give a holistic view of the development of life on Earth.  It examines long time frames involving numerous disciplines from science and the humanities, looking for common themes across multiple time scales in history.

Memes, Societies and Human Evolution develops the human part of the story from the great apes to the modern day, explaining how memes have made the evolution of Homo sapiens so different from that of other animals.

Failures in society

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There are three apparently intractable problems facing Western nations: the nihilistic violence of ISIS, the problem of immigration from disadvantaged countries and the attraction of young Western Muslims to fight for a religious cause. They should not be a surprise; they are the inevitable result of failures in society.  For evolution to function there have to be failures as well as successes.  Secular capitalist countries have achieved a level of wealth and health never seen before in human history. However, most of the world’s population live outside these successful countries.  They are fully aware of the difference of their own lifestyle to that of the west through the ease of international communication.  Most countries have failed to achieve the benefits of capitalism because of corruption, religious bigotary, or the brutal behaviour of the ruler and his elites. In the first half of the second millennium AD Islamic states were world leaders.  However they failed to keep up with the developments in the West, stagnated, lost power and eventually collapsed. New secular states in the Middle East: Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq, created post the Second World War in a partial implementation of western ideas of governance, also failed to deliver prosperity.  Most African states have struggled from their inception.

When people despair of their own governments it is no wonder they seek a better life elsewhere. This competitive instinct for self-improvement is totally understandable. The desperate desire of migrants to cross from Africa and the Middle East into Europe is a symptom of failure of their own native societies.

For those left behind the collapse of central state power is very dangerous.  Envy and hate of the disadvantaged against their former masters can lead to revolution and terror. It happened in France in the eighteenth century, in Russia in the twentieth, in Iran in the 1970’s and now with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

What is more difficult to understand is the reverse flow, young people leaving the West to join ISIS. The banner of resurrecting Islam appears to be only part of the story. In his article in the Guardian of 25th July ,Humiliated rage and furtive envy, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/24/how-to-think-about-islamic-state,Pankaj Mishra said  that ‘both phenomenon are failures of a globalised western model [of society] that promises freedom and prosperity to all but fails to deliver’.  Those who find it difficult to succeed become disaffected with Western Society. Identifying with a religious cause allows them fulfilment in a way not available to them at home.  Feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy can be overcome by active participation in a popular movement.  The aggressive violence of ISIS is not an issue. Violent behaviour, when it is justified through religion or feelings of kinship, has been a constant throughout human history.

The implementation of global capitalism has spread health and wealth throughout the world. Most people live longer, have more possessions and live more fulfilling lives than they did a century ago. But economic competition always has winners and losers.  In the past popular religion provided comfort and support  for the disadvantaged, offering them some hope for the future. However the old religious canons are now discredited in the West and active participation is dying out. In this modern materialistic world there appears to be little more purpose in life than the acquisition of wealth and the raising of children.  For those that fail, there is no solace. We need a new philosophy of life to replace the old religions; one that supports all in society. Eco-humanity is one such approach. It should provide a new purpose in life, both to support all of mankind and save the planet for our children.

 

Climate change is a moral issue

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Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an adviser on climate change to the German government and Pope Francis, spoke at a recent scientific conference in Paris about climate change. Here are three quotes on what he said:

“In the end it is a moral decision. Do you want to be part of the generation that screwed up the planet for the next 1,000 years? I don’t think we should make that decision.”

“We need a global social movement …”

“ the best analogy for the transition from dirty to clean energy was the abolition of slavery, which was fundamentally driven by ethical concerns. ”

Professor Schellnhuber realises that to change public attitudes to climate change requires more than stating the scientific arguments. It requires the promotion of a new ethical imperative. Lots of scientists have reached the same conclusion, but no one says how it can be achieved. The abolition of slavery was driven by moral concerns of largely Christian nations. These days most people in Europe are non-religious and materialistic in their outlook. There is nothing in our evolutionary make up that impels us to be concerned about actions that create problems decades in advance. Behaviour for the good of all is contrary to our natural instincts. Altruistic behaviour only occurs within communities that share feelings of kinship. In transnational communities this can only be achieved by those sharing a common religion or a philosophy of life. This is why promoting a new eco-friendly philosophy of life such as Eco-humanity is necessary to save the planet for our children.