All posts by Graham Peebles

Give Children the Vote, Strengthen Democracy

In December 2018 David Runciman, Head of Politics at Cambridge University, made the radical proposal that children as young as six should be allowed to vote in elections to deal with the age bias in contemporary democracies. Allowing children to vote he said, would give a ‘jolt of energy’ to democracy. While the thought of six year olds voting sounds extreme and will no doubt be broadly dismissed, there is a strong democratic argument for lowering the eligible age from 18, which is the standard voting age in most countries, and allowing children to vote.

In response to Professor Runciman’s suggestion The Guardian newspaper asked a group of children “aged 6-12 what [political] policies would get their vote.” Their intelligent, straightforward answers are inspiring and in accord with the views of many of us. Freed from ideology and party politics these children see the issues clearly and speak in an unencumbered way, direct from the heart.

Thomas Atkinson is 10 and lives in Belfast. “The other day I saw someone sitting on the pavement. He looked about 20. Why is that happening? He needs a job and a home – and there are so many jobs that need doing. Like, for example, the environmental problems. There is plastic on the beaches all around Bangor. We need people to clear that.”

Petra Pekarik is 11 and lives in London. She is a Hungarian citizen – “it doesn’t make sense to me that Britain is putting up barriers. I feel the opposite should be happening, and we should be taking barriers away.” She says that in school they talk a lot about fairness, but in society “there are some people who are so special, and other people who don’t even have a home. Sometimes I see people living on the street and I think, why are they there? It’s important because we are all the same: these people aren’t different, they’re people. We are all people.”

And Tom Ashworth, who is 9 and lives in Ambleside: “Climate change is the big issue politicians need to work on…. We can’t just let this happen and do nothing – it’s got to be stopped. We have to stop doing the things that cause climate change. It’s really important right now…. We need to stop wasting food and everything else we’re wasting.”

The only six-year-old spoken to, Wilfie Tudor-Wills from London, said that, “there should be more houses in London. There are a lot of people in this city and they need places to live…. there should be less pollution, because it’s bad for your lungs.” And, given the chance to speak to the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, he would “tell her to get more people to have electric cars because they’re better for the world. And also I’d like there to be more parks.”

The other children who were questioned gave answers that are just as insightful, but the views of these children, like all children their age go largely unheard. Children under 18 are commonly, and as these children’s comments demonstrate, mistakenly, thought to lack the understanding to participate in current affairs and as a result are denied the most basic democratic right, that of voting in an election; be it local or national. But at 18, everything changes; it is apparently the age when adulthood begins and with it full citizenship. Previously it was 21.

The arguments for excluding children from voting echo those trotted out in the past to ban other groups – women and people of color e.g. They are usually based on the idea that children are intellectually incapable of understanding the issues, are politically apathetic, and that, lacking a mind of their own, they will simply vote for the same candidate/party as their parents. This facile point was used to justify denying women the vote, only in that particular statement of prejudice, it was husbands not parents who it was said would determine the woman’s choice, because, like children, women cannot, or could not, think for themselves! Even if a child does vote in the same way as their parents, as indeed many over 18s do, it does not invalidate the ‘one person one vote’ system and is not a reason to deny him or her the opportunity to participate.

In countries or cities where 16 year-olds have been allowed to vote these justifications of exclusion have proven to be hollow.. Multiple studies show the younger first-time voters are, the greater their participation: The Washington Post related the example of Takoma Park, the first city in America to lower the voting age to 16 (in 2013), where “16 – 17 year olds voted at twice the rate of the voting population.” In the 2016 Scottish Independence referendum 16 year olds were given the vote; they were actively involved in debates and 75% of those eligible to vote actually did so, 20% higher than 18 – 24 year olds. Support for early enfranchisement among the population at large also increased after the referendum – from around a third to 60%. The voting age in Scotland has since been lowered to 16 for all elections.

Whether 16 year olds, or anyone else for that matter, who are given the right to vote actually do so or not, however, should not be regarded as a reason to grant or withhold that right. In most general elections in the UK for example, an average of only 65% of those on the electoral register actually vote, and this is broadly the case in other western democracies.

Young people overwhelmingly support progressive liberal parties; they reject nationalism, embrace people from other countries and are often in the forefront of the environmental movement and calls for social justice. I suggest it is this knowledge that motivates conservative leaning groups of all kinds to resist lowering the voting age.

If representative democracy is to become truly reflective the maximum level of participation by the largest number and broadest range of people needs to be facilitated and encouraged, and this not just in the political sphere, but in all areas of contemporary life. In countries where the voting age has been kept at 18, a huge percentage of the population has no voice of their own; in Britain, which has an ageing population, that’s approximately 17 million young people. This is wholly un-democratic and needs to change.

The concerns and views of young people must be heard, acknowledged and acted upon and they should be granted that most rudimentary of democratic rights – the right to vote. The discussion should be focused on what level to lower the voting age to, not whether it should be reduced. The suggestion by Prof David Runciman that children as young as six should be allowed to vote does indeed seem extreme, particularly in a single step, the age most widely proposed is 16; a process of incremental changes, which can be reviewed, may be most fruitful and children themselves should be engaged in the debate.

Democracy is participation: not only should children be allowed to vote in elections of all kinds, they should have an active role in the management of schools and colleges and the composition of the educational curriculum. Facilitating such participation would not only encourage broader social responsibility amongst young people, it would enrich and strengthen democracy itself.

Tribal Nationalism vs Global Unity

Change, discontent and uncertainty are some of the most prominent characteristics of the times. These interconnected terms are routinely used to describe global affairs and are key factors animating the global protest movement as well as the growing tide of nationalism. Both movements arise from the same seed, one is progressive and in harmony with the new, the other is of the past and seeks to obstruct and divide.

These are transitional times, as humanity moves out of one civilization imbued with certain ideals, values and beliefs to a new way of living based on altogether different principles; times of unease and insecurity certainly, but also times of great hope and opportunity.

If humanity is to progress and the natural environment is to survive, fundamental change in the way life is lived is essential; systemic change as well as an accelerated shift in attitudes and values. Many people throughout the world recognize this and are advocating such a shift; those in power – political and corporate – reject such demands and do all they can to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the existing unjust systems. Despite this entrenched resistance, the new cannot be held at bay for much longer: change is coming, the question is when, how and with what impact it will occur, not if.

Widespread uncertainty is in part the result of this sustained intransigence, coupled with the instability within the socio-economic systems, which are in a state of terminal decay; fueled by the past, they are carcasses – forms without life. The pervading uncertainty is being exploited by the reactionary forces of the world; powerful forces using fear to manipulate people and drum-up what we might call tribal nationalism, as opposed to civic nationalism, in order to assert themselves, and in many countries they appear to be in the ascendency.

The current explosion of tribal nationalism or right-wing populism is a crude response to worries about immigration and national identity, coupled with genuine social injustices including economic hardship and unemployment. Throughout the world right-wing groups with protectionist economic policies and anti-immigration views continue to gain support and in some cases win power. The loudest sign of this regressive trend was the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. His nationalistic, ‘America First’ message fuels intolerance and division and encourages national or self- interest. It casts a shadow of suspicion over foreigners, particularly those that think, live and pray differently, and it is by nature inward looking and brittle.

Strengthened by Trump’s election, far right and ultra conservative politicians in other countries have flourished. Throughout Europe right-wing and far right parties have been empowered: Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary (who has repeatedly called for an end to ‘liberal democracies’ in Europe); President Recep Erdoğan in Turkey who has attacked the media, centralized power and is pursuing a form of Islamic nationalism; the Law and Justice government in Poland; Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister; The Freedom Party in Austria; Jair Bolsonaro the newly elected President of Brazil and Prime-Minister Narendra Modi of India. And in Russia, according to a series of studies conducted by the Research Council of Norway, “nationalism has been growing since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990-1991), along with attempts by the regime to commandeer it.

These political parties, and others, have adopted what The Economist states is “a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world.” The Brexit vote (52% voted leave, 48% remain in the 2016 referendum) in the UK was another example of how right-wing politicians manipulated a disgruntled populous by inflaming nationalistic sentiment and intolerance. The vote to leave was in many ways a protest vote – a negative vote – largely against freedom of movement of people from Europe; i.e., against immigration. Duplicitous advocates of leaving the European Union, mainly from the Conservative and UKIP parties, used slogans like ‘taking back control’ and taking ‘our country back’ to win support for their campaign. Consistent with the response in other countries many who were won over by the nationalists’ agenda and voted to leave were over 60 years of age; young people (those under 30) who will feel the impact of leaving most, commonly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ and overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU.

Civic nationalism

Tribal nationalism plays on notions of identity, encouraging allegiance to a national and in some cases racial ideal; national bonds of belonging and personal identity rooted in the nation state are fostered, and in a world in which many people, particularly older individuals, experience a fragmented sense of self and a national feeling of loss, such ideals appear comforting, offering a sense of belonging. But far from creating security this type of  nationalism (like all forms of conditioned constructs) isolates and excludes, strengthening false notions of superiority and inferiority, creating an atmosphere of distrust, and establishing a climate in which fear can flourish.

Images of self which are rooted in any form of ideology (religious, political, racial, etc.), imprison and divide, feeding intolerance and division, all of which is in opposition to the movement and tone of the time, which is towards greater levels of cooperation, tolerance and understanding of others. Within the paradigm of Tribal Nationalism ‘the other’, other nations as well as people from other nations, are seen as a threat, as rivals, and are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When outsiders are described in inflammatory terms, such as ‘murderers’, ‘rapists’ and people who ‘infest’ the pristine nation, fear and anger is facilitated, violence legitimised and a process of dehumanisation of ‘the other’ set in motion. And, as history shows, when this takes place unbridled atrocities are perpetuated.

Civic nationalism on the other hand brings the people of a particular nation together around common values to work for the good of the community. It encourages cooperation, tolerance and sharing and can serve as a stepping stone to global responsibility; collective action in which the skills, gifts and abilities of the individual nations of the world are used for the benefit and enrichment of all, and not just for the nation state. Conversely, tribal nationalism is tied to the old ways of competition and suspicion, it is a dangerous ideology which is being cynically employed by right-wing politicians, who see widespread public discontent as an opportunity to manipulate the argument and gain power. It is of the past, is detrimental to human development and has no place in our world.

As any child will tell you, beyond national constructs, beyond racial and tribal identities, humanity is one, diverse but part of a single unity. We are moving into a time when this essential fact will be the guiding principle of human affairs.

Britain’s Homeless Crisis

Under the suffocating shadow of economic austerity, homelessness in Britain is increasing, poverty and inequality deepening. Since the Conservative party came to power via a coalition government in 2010, then as a minority government in 2015, homelessness has risen exponentially.

Whilst it is impossible to collect precise statistics on homelessness, these widely available figures, which exclude the ‘hidden homeless’, paint a stark picture of the growing crisis: In 2010 1,768 people were recorded as sleeping rough, whilst 48,000 households were living in temporary accommodation. By December 2017, according to A Public Accounts Committee report, there were almost 9,000 rough sleepers, and, The Guardian states, “nearly 76,000 households were living in emergency temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfasts, of which 60,000 were families with children or pregnant mothers” –  an increase of 58% on the 2010 figures.

Whilst someone rough sleeping in a doorway is a loud and painful declaration of homelessness, a person is also regarded as homeless if they are staying with family or friends or ‘sofa surfing’ (the ‘hidden homeless’), as well those living in temporary accommodation provided by a local authority. Councils have a legal duty to house certain people – such as pregnant women, parents with dependent children and people considered vulnerable (single people rarely qualify). If, after investigating a case, the council concludes they do not have a legal duty to provide housing, nothing permanent is offered and the temporary accommodation is withdrawn. The only option then is to find somewhere in the private sector, which is becoming increasingly difficult in many parts of the country, including rural towns as well as London and other major cities. Rents (and deposits) are high and landlords are more and more demanding, refusing to rent to people on state benefits, often asking for a guarantor and only offering Assured Shorthold Tenancies (AST).

The Thatcher government introduced AST’s as part of the Housing Act of 1988, prior to which fair rents (as opposed to market rents) and protected tenancies existed, providing a high level of security of tenure. The Thatcher legislation changed all that; AST’s (usually six months) provide virtually no security to the tenant and, in line with the maxim of the market, set no limit on the level of the rent. Consequentially most landlords charge as much as they can get, many do not properly maintain the property, and are within their rights to raise rents and take possession of the property whenever they feel like it. The ending of an AST is now one of the most common causes of homelessness.

Austerity and Homelessness

Those in receipt of state benefits or on a low income can claim housing benefit (HB), which is paid by local authorities to help with rent payments. In 2010, shocked by the national HB bill, the coalition government initiated reforms to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) for tenants in ‘the deregulated private rented sector’ – the key word here is deregulated. Within broader public spending cuts the policy changes set a cap on the level of housing benefit that can be paid. LHA levels are fixed well below market rents, which results in shortfalls in rent payments leading to arrears, subsequent evictions and homelessness; according to the homeless charity Crisis, “all available evidence points to Local Housing Allowance reforms as a major driver of [the] association between loss of private tenancies and homelessness”

Instead of taking measures to regulate the private housing market and deal with the extortionate rents charged by greedy landlords, the policy penalized the tenant and set in motion a system which, coupled with benefit freezes and the dire lack of social housing, has caused homelessness to grow at an alarming rate; Another example of government incompetence or social hardship by design? If the HB freeze remains in place until 2020 as planned by the government, the charity, Shelter says that “more than a million households, including 375,000 with at least one person in work, could be forced out of their homes.”

The cap on HB is one aspect of the government’s austere economic programme. Through the implementation of economic austerity the Conservative government is waging a violent assault on the poorest members of British society and ripping the heart out of the community. The justification for such brutality is the need to ‘balance the books’; however, the national debt is greater now than it was in 2010. The Office for National Statistics states that “UK government gross debt as of December 2017 was £1.7 trillion – equivalent to 87.7% of gross domestic product (GDP),” – compared to 60% of GDP in 2010. Austerity is an ideological choice not an economic necessity. Financial cuts have been applied in the most severe manner; budgets to local authorities, schools, the NHS (National Health Service), the Police and to the benefit system, among other areas. The consequences are homelessness and widespread economic hardship.

Nationwide food-banks run by the Trussell Trust provided 1.3 million food parcels last year, up 13% on 2016 – before the financial crash in 2008/9 the concept of “food banks” was virtually unknown in Britain. Shelter estimates that more than 130,000 homeless children will be living in temporary accommodation over Christmas, almost 10,000 of who will be in hostels or hotels “where in many cases their family will have been put up in a single room, sharing bathrooms and kitchens with other residents. Overall, 50,000 more children in England, Wales and Scotland are homeless compared with five years ago, a rise of 59%.” The government is doing nothing to alleviate the homeless crisis, on the contrary their policies are fuelling it; Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, says the government’s approach to tackling the problem of homelessness has been an “abject failure”.

The right to a home

Homelessness is one of the most destabilizing and painful experiences anyone can go through. It fuels psychological and physiological insecurity, places a person in situations of physical danger, erodes any positive sense of self and causes physical and mental health illness; Crisis records that 46% of homeless people suffer from a mental health illness compared to 25% of the general public. However, while this figure is itself extremely high, when asked, a staggering 86% of people who are homeless report suffering from one or other mental health illness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows “that as a person’s housing becomes more stable the rate of serious mental illness decreases.”

Rough sleepers and people begging for money are routinely ignored and treated with disdain, police are instructed to move beggars on and so erase images of social hardship from the gentrified streets – it’s bad for the cities image – and hostile architecture makes even rough sleeping difficult. Shelter relates that the three main reasons for becoming homeless are: “parents, friends or relatives unwilling or unable to continue to accommodate them; relationship breakdown, including domestic violence and loss of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy.” These are causes that anyone could be the victim of.  They should not result in homelessness; indeed within a healthy, compassionately organized socio-economic order, homelessness would not exist at all.

Housing, like education and health care, should be safeguarded from the Madness of the Market; limits should be placed on the rents that private landlords can charge, and a nationwide building program of social housing initiated under the stewardship of local councils, not housing associations. At the same time tenancies need to be lengthened, tenants’ rights strengthened, and fair rents re-introduced.

A house or flat is a home, and a home is a basic human right – enshrined as such within that triumph of humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: it is not and should not be regarded as a financial investment. At the root of the ‘housing crisis’ in Britain and elsewhere is the poison of commodification; whether it be a house or a forest, a school playground, library building or a public park, all are regarded in monetary terms, how much is it ‘worth’ – meaning how much is anyone willing to pay for it. The result is the commercialization of all areas of life including housing, and the promotion of an ugly way of life rooted in material greed and financial profit, no matter the impact on people or the natural environment.

This ideologically rooted approach to life is at the heart of many if not all of our problems, including the most pressing issue of the time, the environmental catastrophe. Government policies consistently add fuel to the fires, politicians lack vision and imagination, but it is the socio-economic ideology that underlies and fashions policy that is the problem; the system and the values it promotes need to be fundamentally changed, and a new order introduced that cultivates social justice, cooperation and tolerance.

Creative Education and the Flowering of Goodness

Education is potentially the most powerful means of bringing about a major shift in consciousness, within the individual and by extension society; a movement away from narrow ideas of self that feed selfishness, division and material greed, to an inclusive view of life rooted in the recognition that humanity is one. We are forever brothers and sisters of one humanity, and from the realization of this essential fact flows all that is good: sharing, social justice, collective responsibility, freedom and peace. These are transitional times and the early signs of such a transformation can be seen animating many people around the world, particularly the young, who are commonly in the vanguard of change.

Such a shift is essential if the various interconnected crises facing humanity are to be overcome and a true sense of self is to be established. A sense of being that is not limited or defined by the constraints of psychological-sociological conditioning in its various forms. Dismantling such conditioning and creating space in which an unmediated relationship, or atonement with one’s self can take place should sit at the heart of all areas of education.

It is from this unconditioned center of being that the blueprints of the age will be unearthed; ideas that are crucial in designing and building structures and institutions rooted in social justice and unity.

Education and conformity

Society, whether large or small, is not an abstraction: it is a collective reflection of the consciousness of the individuals living within it. For there to be fundamental social change, we, individually, must become consciously aware of the way our lives are habitually lived; choice-less awareness of one’s psychological, emotional and physiological patterns, awareness of how we think, speak and act, what our motives are, whether we are honest and sincere, or manipulative and hypocritical.

Education, particularly creative education, has a fundamental role to play in cultivating environments in which such awareness can naturally take place. In fact, this should be a central aim of all educational work: it could be said that true education is the understanding of oneself, the discovery of who and what we are and the creative expression of That.

The greatest single obstacle to the establishment of an undistorted relationship with oneself is fear. It is a debilitating poison that sits at the core of a plethora of inhibiting, suffocating conditions. Hard to unearth, entwined with desire and attachment, fear is inevitable where comparison, collective discontent and perpetual longing is agitated. The pervasive socio-economic system is dependent for its survival upon all of these, and encourages behavior consistent with its requirements.

Within education systems rooted in the Mechanics of the Market conformity and competition are widespread, creative self-expression becomes very difficult, individuality is curtailed and the pressure to ‘achieve’ is immense. Such an approach does not liberate intelligence and encourage creative living; on the contrary, it inhibits and frustrates a person, as J. Krishnamurti described in Education and the Significance of Life, “instead of awakening the integrated intelligence of the individual, education is encouraging him to conform to a pattern and so is hindering his comprehension of himself as a total process.” This methodology of competition and conformity is frustrating teachers, sucking creativity out of school and university, and fuelling increasing levels of mental illness amongst young people, leading in some cases to self-harm and suicide.

There are wonderful teachers working in schools and colleges throughout the world who reject this reductive approach, but all too often they are handicapped by ill-thought out education policies designed by politicians who are more concerned with training compliant workers than educating young people to be free. As the then UK Secretary of State for Education, Nick Gibb, put it in 2015, education is “about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career.” Such ideologically driven politicians view schools and colleges as little more than feeding grounds for employment and camps of social conditioning; the world is regarded as a battleground in which nations and regions are in perpetual economic competition with one another; men and  women are cast as combatants battling to succeed in a global market place. The result of this crude approach to education is the creation of what Krishnamurti described as “a type of human being whose chief interest is to find security, to become somebody important, or to have a good time with as little thought as possible.”

It is an outdated, ideologically driven view of education that is failing young people and needs to be consigned to the past. Education policy should be taken out of the hands of politicians; they do not understand education and repeatedly fail to listen to those who do; i.e., teachers, head teachers and the students themselves.

The clutter in the garden

The fundamental purpose of education is a great deal more significant and subtle than the aims championed by politicians; it underlies all other goals, is concerned with being rather than becoming something, and might be described as facilitating the understanding of oneself and the fulfillment of innate potential, or as Krishnamurti put it, the “flowering of goodness”. He maintained that the purpose of education “is not to produce mere scholars, technicians and job hunters, but integrated men and women who are free of fear; for only between such human beings can there be enduring peace.”

In order to achieve these aims the factors that trigger psychological fear need to be identified and removed: competition, reward and punishment, conformity and all forms of social/psychological conditioning are the principle impediments. These constitute what we might call ‘the clutter in the garden’; they feed fear, deny or distort relationship with oneself, hinder creativity and stunt intelligence. Clear the garden and that which is ever present will naturally radiate, impress, and express, itself. In this regard education is in effect a work of negation; the seed of intelligence and creativity already exists, when the obstacles are removed and an environment of enquiry and trust is created a spontaneous flowering can take place. Herein lies the source also of true individuality and hope.

Non-judgmental spaces are essential to such a movement; an educational atmosphere that is free from the pressure to achieve in any way or conform to any specific image; a neutral environment that encourages individuality and promotes creative independent thinking. This requires the inculcation of creativity in all areas of learning; the arts – visual and performing – are crucial in this work.

Whilst teachers and parents are often well aware of the intrinsic value of arts education in its various forms, it is commonly undervalued by governments, and when financial cuts are made the arts are habitually the first to be targeted. This is a mistake: far from being regarded as a luxury item, an add-on, art education should be seen as the inspiring thread that runs through a student’s schooling/college life; it is, or ought to be, an area in which young people are allowed to express themselves freely without constraint, are encouraged to collaborate with others, to work on group projects and collective creative enterprises.

Arts education has a range of positive impacts; it can stimulate creative thinking, reveal and undo conditioning, build self-belief/confidence, and illuminate the ways of the self. Creativity is not limited to the arts, of course, but the arts have a crucial role to play in stimulating creative thinking, which can then be applied to all areas of education, and indeed life in the broadest sense. The creative process is a liberating journey, revealing and breaking down barriers; it frees the mind allowing intelligence to function – a free mind, we could say, is a mind that is not constrained by any particular ideology or desire for reward of any kind. Such a mind is needed if we are to meet the intense challenges of the time, for, as professor emeritus Sir Ken Robinson states, “the challenges we currently face are without precedent…and we’re going to need every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems.”

The cause of many of our problems, and the interconnected obstacles to change are systematic and ideological; many people around the world recognise this and are demanding a different approach. Resistance to change is great, but life moves ever towards harmony and the divisive status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely, it must give way to the new; to new ideals rooted in perennial principles of goodness leading to the creation of structures and institutions that will facilitate the creation of a just and peaceful world. From the font of creativity that sits within the heart of each and every one of us the ideas of the time will reveal themselves and the answers to the myriad issues facing humanity will emerge.

Fracking Filthy Fuel

Burning fossil fuels is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), and, greenhouse gas emissions (water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O)) are the principle cause of man-made climate change. Given this fact, governments throughout the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and investing in, and designing policies that encourage development of, renewable sources of energy. But the British Conservative government, despite public opinion to the contrary, has all but banned the construction of onshore wind turbines and is encouraging fracking in England. The Tories are the only UK political party to offer support for this regressive form of energy production, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens having all promised fracking bans should they gain political office at the next general election.

Hydraulic fracking is the process of releasing gas and oil from shale rock: huge quantities of water, proppant (usually sand) and chemicals are injected at high-pressure into hydrocarbon-bearing rocks, rocks that can be up to a mile down and were once thought to be impermeable. This process of fracturing (or cracking) forces the rocks to crack open, and gas held inside is released and allowed to flow to the surface.

Shale gas is a fossil fuel, and when combusted produces GGE, albeit at around 50% less than coal or oil, but GGE nevertheless. The leading fracking company in Britain is the energy firm Cuadrilla. An organization that according to its website, aims “to be a model company for exploring and developing shale gas in the UK,” they state that they are “acutely aware of the responsibilities this brings, particularly with regard to safety, environmental protection and working with local communities.” Really?

After protests by the local community and various court cases (Lancashire County Council had refused drilling rights, but the Secretary of State ignored community voices and approved the company’s request on appeal), Cuadrilla recently commenced fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire. However, as in 2011 when the company was forced to abandon drilling, work was suspended for two days out of four because of earthquakes. Tremors measured 0.5 on the Richter scale, which breached the seismic threshold established following the 2011 earth tremors. Instead of abandoning the project as the local community and environmental groups are demanding, the firm’s chief executive, Francis Egan, wants the Government to raise the threshold.

Another Regressive Step

America is home to hydraulic fracturing, where it’s been taking place for decades. Greenpeace states that as of 2012 the “fracking industry [in USA] has drilled around 1.2 million wells and is slated to add at least 35,000 new wells every year.” Fracking has led to US oil production increasing faster than anytime in its history, resulting in lower domestic gas prices. The US Energy Information Administration record that around two thirds of gas is now produced by fracking and almost half the countries crude oil.

Shale gas is spoken of as a positive alternative to coal, but it’s just another filthy fossil fuel that is adding to GGE, which in turn are driving climate change. Fracking has a substantive impact on the natural environment and the health of those living within the surrounding area. Earthquakes, air pollution, soil pollution, carcinogenic chemical leakage and contaminated groundwater are the primary risks.

An enormous amount of water, which needs to be transported to the site incurring significant environmental costs, is required in the fracking process. The amount of water used varies per well: between 1.5 and 10 million gallons is required every time a well is fractured. Greenpeace relates that, “in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water were used to fracture just 35,000 wells in the United States.” The water is mixed with various chemicals to make fracking fluid, a toxic cocktail that can be further contaminated by “heavy metals and radioactive elements that exist naturally in the shale.” A significant portion of the frack fluid returns to the surface “where it can spill or be dumped into rivers and streams…fracking fluids and waste have made their way into our drinking water and aquifers. Groundwater can be contaminated through fracking fluid and methane leakage and the energy companies have “no idea what to do with the massive amount of contaminated water it’s creating,”

In addition to water and soil pollution, fracking adds to existing levels of air pollution as methane gas is released into the atmosphere through leaks and venting. A study conducted by Cornell University found that “over a well’s lifetime, 3.6 to 7.9 percent of methane gas escapes” in this way. Unlike CO2, which sits in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia, methane only lasts for decades, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that it warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2 before then degrading to become CO2.

Many countries recognize the retrogressive nature of fracking and have passed legislative bans or moratoriums; England is the only country within the UK where it is currently allowed. More than 100 fracking licenses have been awarded by the government, but in order to start fracking they need permission from the local council. Fracking is universally unpopular amongst the communities where sites are located or proposed; on 13th October the Gasdown-Frackdown action saw thousands of people from six continents take to the streets demanding an end to fracking and calling for long-term investment in renewable sources of energy. Fracking is not an environmentally sane way to meet the energy needs of a country. It is part of the problem not the solution and it should be rejected totally. What is required is a global energy strategy rooted in environmental sustainability. As Friends of the Earth rightly say, “a 21st Century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change.”

Public Spaces Private Control

Some time ago I found myself in Paddington Central, a development of office and residential buildings near Paddington train station in London. I’d accidentally walked into the glass and metal concave and what appeared to be a public space, albeit one surrounded by the usual corporate outlets; green grass, a sort of amphitheater, people sitting around eating and drinking and a busker packing up. It appeared pleasant, but there was something artificial and menacing here. Upon investigation I discovered that it was not really a public space at all, but a privately owned square subject to undisclosed laws and regulations laid down by the corporation that owns it.

The commercialization of public spaces in British cities and elsewhere in the industrialized world is going on apace. It is a key element in the movement to lay claim to our cities and neighborhoods, and whilst the curse of gentrification is hard to miss, privatization of public spaces goes largely unnoticed by a weary populous beaten down by the relentless pressures of modern living, unaware of the devious ways of big business and the corporate state that supports it.

Peaceful Protest Denied

Unsurprisingly, the privatization of public spaces (POPS) in Britain began during the Thatcher years (1980’s), and, over the past few decades, The Guardian reports, “almost every major redevelopment in London has resulted in the privatization of public space, including areas around the Olympic Stadium, King’s Cross and Nine Elms.” One of the most notable areas of privately owned public space in the capital is ‘More London’ on the South Bank of the River Thames where City Hall sits surrounded by what looks like open public space. The 13-acre site is, in fact, owned by St. Martins, a Kuwait property company, who bought it in 2013 for £1.7bn. As described by the More London agent, the “development is a modern 13-acre business destination, situated on the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Designed by Foster and Partners, the development comprises City Hall, a diverse mix of grade A office space, shops, restaurants, bars, a Hilton hotel, a theatre, a unique open-air music and entertainment amphitheater.” Further down their repugnant sales speak they make clear that the public space and what takes place there is, in fact, under corporate control, stating that, “the local community, up and coming arts organizations and charities are encouraged to use the space for free.”

Within these suffocating corporate spaces behavior and access is controlled and landowners are empowered to deny the public the right to peacefully protest. This was evidenced in 2011 when the Occupy Movement set up camp in Paternoster Square (renamed Tahrir Square by protestors) outside the London Stock Exchange, only to be forcibly moved on by police who secured a high court injunction against public access. To the shock and confusion of many of us, it transpired that the Mitsubishi Estate Company, a massive Japanese property developer actually owned the ‘public’ square.

The sterile environment of POPS promotes a false image of contemporary living that marginalizes the disadvantaged and ignores the reality of poverty and social injustice, while being a fundamental part of a system that perpetuates both. In such sanitized spaces certain ‘types’ of people, buskers, skateboarders, cyclists – the undesirable – are unwelcome; homeless people are shunned, their existence denied, and ‘hostile architecture’ – benches with arms making lying down impossible, studded doorways, sloped window sills and anti-homeless spikes – aggressively reinforce the message of exclusion.

POPS is part of a major change in the nature of our cities as governments justify the sale of public land and buildings as economic prudence, and industrial sites are developed and converted into residential properties or refashioned as commercial units, studio spaces, ‘Class A’ offices, etc. This disturbing undemocratic “wave of urban change is characterized by certain key trends,” says Anna Minton, author of The Privatisation of Public Space’, “relating this time to the private ownership and management of the public realm.” Minton cites an enormous regeneration scheme in Liverpool allowing Grosvenor Estates (headed by the Duke of Westminster, estimated to be worth around £9 billion) to “redevelop 35 streets in the heart of the city, replacing traditional rights of way with ‘public realm arrangements’, policed by US-style ‘quartermasters’ or ‘Sheriffs’.” Begging, skateboarding and rollerblading will be banned and “any form of demonstration will require police permission.” Systems of control more akin to fascism than democracy, but then corporate institutions are not at all interested in democratic principles, they are totalitarian institutions that have been granted extraordinary powers by indolent governments.

Landowners are free to draft the regulations for these pseudo public spaces, which are not subject to local authority bylaws. Like shopping centers and gated communities POPS are policed by unaccountable private security firms, the relevant rules do not have to be publicly posted and can be used indiscriminately to deny public access; free speech is certainly not part of the corporate model of public ownership, which suits the government very well.

In keeping with the homogenized high streets up and down the country all POPS look and feel alike, creating a disturbing sense of uniformity. Streets and squares without character, all color and diversity eradicated, ‘corporatized’; individuality crushed, social conformity demanded. Captured under the umbrella of consumerism people are reduced to mere customers, divided into bands of affluence or need, towns, cities and countries spoken of as market places, the world seen as one giant shopping center in which the values of the market – greed and exploitation, division and selfishness – are promoted in day and night.

The creation of quasi-public spaces, and the selling off of previously authentic public spaces, is one more insidious step in the commercialization of all aspects of contemporary life, and the erosion of democracy; democracy that is already completely inadequate. The massive sale of common space that is taking place in British cities has, the Guardian states, “been strategically engineered to seem necessary, benign and even inconsequential.” It is happening within the broader construct of urban re-generation schemes, which take place without any democratic participation; land is sold off in secret, and the voices of local residents, small businesses, social and cultural centers go unheard.

Public spaces serve a range of purposes. They provide a platform for free assembly and collective action and, within cities, where most people live, they are an ever-precious resource. The world of Neoliberalism attempts to reduce everything to a commodity, but public spaces are not simply a financial asset to be sold off to the highest bidder: like libraries, playing fields and community centers they are an essential social democratic resource that must be fiercely defended and re-claimed as ours.

Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order

In order to meet the colossal challenges of the time, fundamental change to the socio-economic order is needed. The environmental catastrophe is the major issue, together with armed conflict, potentially nuclear. Both threaten the survival of humanity and the planet, and both are widely ignored by the men and women of power, whose short-term approach, obsession with ‘the economy’, and a nationalistic introspective view of the world is leading us to the precipice of disaster.

If humanity is to survive these interconnected crises and overcome other crucial challenges, including poverty, social injustice and the displacement of people, a totally new vision of the way society functions is required. At the root of much, if not all, of the chaos is the socio-economic model combined with inadequate, artificial forms of democratic governance. State and private institutions are interdependent monopolies of power that require radical democratization; deep-rooted systemic deficiencies must be addressed and altogether different values to those that are currently encouraged, inculcated.

Totalitarian Structures

Neo-Liberalism has infiltrated all areas of society and permeated life in virtually every corner of the world; it is a dysfunctional system that instead of serving human need is designed to provide wealth ‘beyond the dreams of Avarice for a privileged few,’ as Noam Chomsky puts it. Its very existence denies the manifestation of real democracy.

Flowing from this paradigm of injustice is extreme inequality leading to a wide range of social ills, high levels of unemployment – particularly among the young in many parts of the world – low investment in public services and, as the political/economic scientist C. J. Polychroniou, says, “rapidly declining standards of living, dangerously high levels of both public and corporate debt, a financial system that remains out of whack, and ecological collapse.” It is a decrepit global system propped up by the guardians of the status-quo, who are intellectually bankrupt, have no answers to the issues of the day but, desperate to cling on to power, use all their tools of control to resist change.

Within the existing forms political influence is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of people and institutions — they run the corporate organizations and stock the governing executive, these are the wealthy and powerful — the ruling elite; corporations and their masters dominate this entitled ensemble; huge tyrannical institutions, unaccountable bodies with enormous power. As Noam Chomsky states, corporations are “one of the most tyrannical systems human beings have ever devised”. Control is concentrated at the top from where policy is made and orders are issued, managers pass on instructions and workers are expected to obey, conform, and be thankful to the beneficent company for buying their labor, albeit for a pittance compared to the pay checks of the boardroom. This is little more than wage slavery.

The raison d’être of the corporate world is to maximize market share and generate profits, irrespective of the impact on people or the environment. To do this they need the population to behave in ways consistent with their ideological approach to life, namely consumerism. Their persuasive message of pleasure and competition is spread to a weary populous via the communications industry, which they happen to own: the media, entertainment sector and advertising companies. These bodies color the social atmosphere, are responsible for setting the public agenda, facilitating collective discussion, and, together with education and (organized) religion are the principle outlets for mass conditioning, or what Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion (published 1922) called the ‘manufacture of consent’.

Corporate institutions actively work to curtail democracy and deny the establishment of a just economic system; they have tremendous influence over government policy and consistently obstruct environmental legislation. They operate in secret, have been granted extraordinary rights and access, and, as Chomsky says, have “complicated strategic alliances among alleged competitors” forming what some economists have called “Alliance capitalism big networks of tyrannical institutions basically running the world,” institutions which “have no right to exist any more than any other tyrannical systems,” and should be dismantled.

Over the last 30 years or so a worldwide protest movement has developed, huge numbers of people have united demanding socio-economic and democratic change, to be listened to by remote arrogant politicians and for a meaningful global response to the environmental crisis. In scale and scope the movement is unprecedented. People of all ages have come together expressing collective frustrations, demanding a new approach to living. The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement were prominent expressions of the same underlying current for change, and, it could be argued, so were Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, albeit in a distorted, reactionary form.

Despite setbacks, an irresistible current of change is sweeping the world that will not be extinguished. The old forms must give way to the emerging ways of the time, the economic, political, social and in due time, religious forms that have crystallized and are incapable of responding to the needs of the many.

The 2008 financial crisis revealed some of the inherent flaws in the economic model, since when politics has become more polarized and reactionary, wages have been frozen, austerity has been enforced, punishing the poorest in society, and the financial system has been allowed to continue much the same. The lack of genuine change means that a second crash is a real possibility, indeed perhaps that’s what it will take to bring about the lasting systemic change that so many yearn for. As stated in the introductory literature for New Thinking for the British Economy, “the evident failings of our present economic system, and the growing political mobilization for change, suggest that we may be on the cusp of another major shift in economic thinking and policy.” A shift away from oligarchic systems of governance, and an unjust, unsustainable, environmentally abusive economic model, to a sustainable, participatory and just way of living.

The Age of Sharing

The same essential element in harmonious living and justice is absent from both the economic world and the political sphere: the principle of sharing. Placing sharing at the heart of a new economic paradigm would do more than any other single factor to bring about real change. It would completely alter the collective social atmosphere and allow for a range of other positive democratic ideals, such as social justice, tolerance and compassion, to manifest. Sharing of resources (including food, water and land), wealth/income, knowledge, skills, ideas, etc., sharing in the management of the institutions (state and private) that dominate society, and the bodies that one happens to work in or study at, and crucially sharing in the decisions and ideas that shape our lives; i.e., real participation.

In corporate democracies the right to vote and run civil society may exist, there may even be an independent judiciary, the observation of human rights (more or less) and unfettered (albeit monitored) access to information, but without social justice and meaningful participation it is not really democracy. It is an inadequate ideological construct, the nature and structure of which is set by those sitting within gilded offices of power, who limit its scope and control its expression; it is democracy owned by the corporate world entwined with the methodology of the market. As such its exponents are complicit in perpetuating injustice, maintaining concentrations of power, facilitating division and encouraging wage slavery. Participation is at best limited, competition, greed and personal gain over collective well-being are promoted and lived. Material success is held up as the aim of life, selfish tendencies are encouraged, feeding intolerance and division – all of which work to deny true democracy and stifle the good in humanity.

Real Democracy is meaningful participation in all socio-political/economic and business institutions. When this takes place positive aspects of human nature will begin to flourish and the structures that perpetuate the existing injustices will crumble under the weight of the good. Group participation, social responsibility and unity are essential elements in bringing about such a change and are key principles of the time, at the heart of which, and from which all else flows must be sharing, and for a range of reasons: sharing breaks down divisions and engenders trust, kindness grows and humanities inherent goodness can flower. Sharing is an expression and acknowledgement of our common humanity, cooperation takes place when we share, and as people cooperate they build relationships, form groups, exchange ideas.

Without sharing the corrosive patterns of the present will continue, as Chomsky puts it, “if we were to move towards [real] democracy we would say that there should be no maldistribution of power in determining what’s produced what’s distributed what’s invested and so on, rather that’s a problem for the entire community. In fact my own personal view is unless we move in that direction human society probably isn’t going to survive.”

This is a view shared by many; however, if one looks beyond the ugly theatrics of nationalism and fear an alternative vision of the future can be seen. A coalition of change is forming throughout the world and a shift in consciousness in underway. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is young people who are leading the way, they are less conditioned by the old order, have a powerful sense of social justice and freedom and care deeply about the natural environment.

We are at the beginning of the Age of Sharing, but it will not be gifted to us. Like movements of change throughout history it will be brought about by consistent coordinated action, by demanding change, by recognizing that we are all responsible for this world, and if we want a new and just society we have to build it.

Priorities of the Time: Peace

For as long as anyone can remember violence and conflict have been part of daily life: humanity appears incapable of living peacefully together. There are the brutal cries of war, the vile acts of terror, homicides, rapes and assaults of all kinds. People everywhere long for an end to such conflicts, and are crying out for peace and understanding, to live in a just world free from fear.

Creating a world at peace not only demands putting an end to all forms of armed brutality, it also entails building peace within communities, in the workplace, educational institutions and the home, in the natural environment and, most importantly, it requires the inculcation of harmony within all of us. Each of these areas of living are interconnected, the prevailing condition in each affecting the stability and atmosphere of the other.

The task before us is to identify and change the prevailing divisive modes of living for inclusive ways that facilitate peace and cultivate tolerance. Peace itself is part of our essential nature: when the conditions of conflict are removed, peace between groups and within individuals arises naturally.

We are Society

Society is not an abstraction; it is a reflection of the consciousness of the individuals that make up any given community. As such, the responsibility for the nature of a town, city, school, office, country, region, etc., rests largely with those who live within its boundaries. I say “largely” because the corporate and state bodies that fashion the structures and promote the ideals of the day bear a large part of the responsibility. Specific values and conclusions are daily poured into the minds of everyone, virtually from birth, conditioning the consciousness and behavior of people around the world; the media (including the internet), institutionalized education and organized religion being the main outlets for such propaganda.

Variations on the nature of such conditioning are determined by circumstances of birth and background: the religious, political, socio-economic belief systems, the values of the family, the region and/or the country. All ism’s are inhibiting and divisive, and as the Dalai Lama says in A Human Approach to World Peace, when they are adopted people lose “sight of the basic humanity that binds us all together as a single human family.” Freedom of thought and independent creative thinking is denied, conformity expected. And can there be peace when the mind is imprisoned within the confines of a doctrine, no matter how lofty?

Whilst it is true that a symbiotic relationship exists between society and the individual, fundamentally the external world in which we live is a reflection of the internal life of humanity. Violent, disharmonious societies are the external manifestation of the inner turmoil, discontent and fear that many people feel.

The business of War

The loudest, ugliest form of violence is war, the machinery of which is a huge global industry greatly valued by the corporate state. It is a business ostensibly like any other, the difference being its products are intended to kill people and destroy everything in their path.

Like all businesses, weapons manufacturers operate to generate profits: wars are big business for arms companies, and therefore highly profitable, desirable even. International arms sales (dominated by America, with 34% of the total) according to the BBC “is now worth about $100bn.” By contrast, to end world hunger, which currently crushes the lives of around a billion people globally, would cost a mere $30 billion per year. And we wonder why there is no peace – how can there be peace when such gross injustice and inhumanity persist?

Profit, whether financial remuneration, status or power, is the principle motivating force within the working methodology of the global economic system. It is an unjust model that promotes a range of divisive, therefore violent values, including selfishness, competition and ambition. It thrives on and continually engenders dissatisfaction, and can there be peace when there is discontent?

Enormous wealth and power for a handful of men flow from the Ideology of Consumerism, leading to unprecedented levels of inequality in income/wealth, influence, education, health care, employment opportunities, access to culture and freedom to travel. Inequality is a fundamental form of social injustice: peace will never be realized where social injustice exists. Nor can peace be known when hunger, poverty, and exploitation, flowing from (financial) vulnerability, stalk the land destroying the lives of millions throughout the world.

Removing the obstacles to peace

Extreme inequality is a vile stain on our common humanity; inequality between the hideously wealthy, who have everything but want more, and the desperately poor, who have nothing, can barely feed themselves and live lives stunted by suffering; inequality between the economically secure and habitually complacent, and those who work until they drop yet can barely pay the rent. The hierarchy of injustice is crude at the extremes, variable in the middle and toxic throughout. It feeds anger and resentment and crushes peace.

Together with a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality, global inequality fuels insecurity and fear, both psychological and physical, leading to tension, anxiety and depression. It fosters bitterness, crushes hope and strengthens false notions of superiority and inferiority. This in turn reinforces the prevailing fear and a strengthening spiral of suspicion, intolerance and unease is set in motion, thereby denying the quiet manifestation of peace.

The realization of peace is inextricably related to the introduction of a new socio-economic order based on values altogether different from the existing model. A socially just system that reduces inequality, encourages cooperation instead of competition, and facilitates equal access to well designed accommodation, good quality health care and stimulating education. Where social justice exists trust develops, relationships evolve, peace comes into being.

At the heart of any alternative system should be the inculcation of the Principle of Sharing; sharing not only of the food, water, land and other natural resources, but of knowledge, skills and opportunities. Sharing encourages cooperation between people from different backgrounds, allowing understanding and tolerance to grow. Tolerance of those who look different, pray and think differently, and understanding that humanity is one, that the human condition is universal no matter one’s circumstances or worldview. That we share one home, which we are all responsible for, and that in every corner of the world men, women and children want the same things: to live in peace free from fear, to build a decent life for themselves and their families and to be happy.

When we share, we acknowledge our common need, our shared humanity and our universal rights. Through sharing, a more equitable world can evolve; sharing, together with cooperation, tolerance and understanding are key elements of the time, and when expressed individually and collectivelyallow for peace to naturally come into being. Complementary to such Principles of Goodness, forgiveness and the absence of retaliation or retribution are essential in establishing peace. As is well documented, punishment without rehabilitation and compassion is a recipe for despondency, more violence and further acts of crime. Such actions have dogged humanity since records began, as has war, and while there have been tremendous advances in technology, medicine and science, the consciousness of humanity seems to have changed very little, we remain violent, selfish and fearful. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “there is no doubt about the increase in our material progress and technology, but somehow this is not sufficient as we have not yet succeeded in bringing about peace and happiness or in overcoming suffering…the basic human problems remain.”

The overcoming of these ‘basic problems’ and the realization of peace both flow from the same root: the recognition of mankind’s essential unity, and the cultivation of a sense of “universal responsibility”. Fragmentation and dishonesty of mind must be resolved, fear and desire understood. The current modes of living inflame these negative tendencies and make what already appears difficult, even more so. Discontent and desire are constantly agitated, social and national divisions inflamed, and an atmosphere of insecurity created. At the same time a reductive image of happiness and security is portrayed through mainstream films, TV and other media outlets. It is a hollow construct based on pleasure, the fulfillment of emotionally rooted desires and material satisfactions, none of which will ever create lasting happiness or inner peace. Peace does not lie inside walls of division, whether formed of concrete or constructed out of some ideological doctrine, but, like lasting happiness, reveals itself when there is total freedom from desire.

Alcohol: Why do we drink?

I had known John for 40 years on and off; just over a year ago he died. He was 62 and homeless, an alcoholic who over the course of four years or so had drunk himself to death. He died alone in a tiny basement room of a dreary hostel in London, where the local authority had placed him. A cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants took him through the gates of death. It was a tragic, ugly end to a life that had once held such promise.

Along with millions of others around the world, John drank to escape the pain of his life; the emotional agony of living was unbearable and, desperate for relief, he turned to alcohol. Habit quickly became addiction, and addicts, as those who have known one will testify, are desperately difficult to help. Behavior changes, moral boundaries dissolve, self-respect and honesty are eroded, relationships destroyed.

Startling statistics

Like recreational drugs, alcohol fuels a range of social ills, including crime, depression, anxiety and suicide. It can cause long-term health conditions, many of which are fatal, and in 2016 (latest figures) “led to 2·8 million deaths and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability among people aged 15–49 years,” according to a new report published in the Lancet magazine. This is consistent with figures collated by the World Health Organization (WHO), which show that in 2012 alcohol was responsible “for 5.9% [around 3 million] of all deaths and 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury.” This is far more than the percentage of deaths from HIV/Aids (2.8%), tuberculosis (1.7%) or violence (0.9%).

In addition to the individual drinker, alcohol consumption leads to a range of harmful consequences for “the drinker’s immediate environment and society as a whole.” The drinker’s family, partner or friends are often the first to be affected. Relationships sometimes break down, and abuse, leading in some cases to domestic violence, which is often inflicted by an alcoholic partner, can erupt.

Violent crimes of all kinds are closely linked to alcohol consumption. In America half of all homicides and 40% of all other violent crimes (including rape, assault, child and spousal abuse), are committed when the offender, victim, or both have been drinking. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency reports that, “according to the Department of Justice, 37% of almost 2 million convicted offenders currently in jail, state that they were drinking at the time of their arrest.”

These are startling statistics, and are more or less representative of levels of alcohol-related crime throughout industrialized countries. In Britain, where overall consumption has fallen by around 18% in the last 14 years, the Office of National Statistics relates that in 2013/14 “70% of violent incidents which took place in a public space were alcohol-related” and that, “70% of violent incidents occurring at the weekend, and 70% of violent incidents occurring in the evening or night, were alcohol-related.” A 2012 government paper stated that, “alcohol is one of the three biggest lifestyle risk factors for disease and death in the United Kingdom after smoking and obesity. It has become acceptable to use alcohol for stress relief, putting many people at real risk of chronic diseases. Society is paying the costs – alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society £21 billion annually.”

The richer a society is the more people drink, the greater the quantity consumed and the smaller the “number of abstainers.” And whilst, as the UK shows, there are exceptions, the worldwide tendency is towards increased levels of consumption, with China and India, where the economy has been growing in recent years, energetically joining the party. A trend that WHO believes to be “linked to active marketing by the alcohol industry and increased income in these countries.”

Why drink?

 There are, of course, varying levels of alcohol consumption and many types of drinker, but why do people drink at all and why do governments allow alcohol to be commercially sold and energetically promoted?

Like many problems of contemporary life the reasons are complex, interconnected and woven into the worldwide mode of living, the values it promotes and the conditioned social behavior produced. Individual success, competition and conformity to a certain lifestyle are some of the prominent ideological characteristics of the time; all are divisive in varying degrees and contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety. Like John, large numbers of people cannot cope with the stress and drink to escape, they find life overwhelming, and suffocating under the weight of expectation and self-doubt, loneliness and despair, use alcohol to soften the agony. Widely available and inexpensive, it offers immediate relief, but whilst a drink or two may initially quieten the nervous system the effects soon wear off, appetite grows, dependency develops, and, alcohol being both addictive and a depressant, adds to the suffering and quickly becomes part of the problem.

Young people (under 25), who in many parts of the developed world drink less than their predecessors, may drink out of curiosity, because it’s available and (in supermarkets) comparatively cheap, and to belong to the group, to conform to the image of what it means to be a strong young man, or an open, exciting woman. A few drinks may loosen inhibitions, facilitating a fun night out. In some countries, France Italy, Spain; e.g., alcohol is part of the culture, usually taken with food; in others, like India, it is a new phenomenon, and, consistent with a range of unhealthy western imports, is regarded as an unwelcome development by many Indians. With national economic growth (such as has occurred in India) as well as personal success, typically come increased levels of alcohol consumption as well as other types of indulgence.

Happiness, not Pleasure

Like all types of consumerism, at the heart of alcohol use sits desire, the desire to escape unhappiness and to be happy, and the desire for comfort, for freedom from distress. This desire is promoted by a distorted understanding of life that identifies the self with the body and the constructs of thought, and proclaims the principle purpose of life to be maximizing pleasure and avoiding (psychological) pain. This notion is rooted in a materialistic approach to life that focuses on the form, the body, instead of investigating into the nature of one’s being. Within such a reductive paradigm, happiness has been replaced by pleasure, love exchanged for desire, and freedom for choice. The result is fragmentation and conflict, individually and collectively.

The emphasis on pleasure maintains the desire for stimulation and consumption of all kinds. Pleasurable experiences flowing through the senses may well provide distraction and a momentary sense of happiness, or fleeting relief from unhappiness; however, far from filling the inner void, it reinforces it, leaving the person wanting more. Pleasure is external, hollow and transient; what we might call ‘true’ happiness is permanent, it is part of who and what we are. As the great Indian sage Raman Maharshi said, “Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.”

The pattern of desire, indulgence and discontent, followed by desire and further indulgence is perpetuated by the apparatus of the Neo-liberal economic system, which is dependent on such habitually destructive behavior. And, because Corporate State Governments are so heavily focused on the economy and the requirements of business, government policy is designed in line with the demands of the market, and not the needs of the people. Responsible governments would reject the poisonous values of the Neo-liberal project, and work ceaselessly to inculcate values of goodness thereby changing the atmosphere in which people live. Sadly the world is saddled with inadequate politicians without vision, who, far from facilitating the badly needed changes, consistently add to the chaos.

Alcohol consumption is one damaging effect among many that flow from this dominant socio-economic system. Consistent with other polluting patterns of behaviour, it will continue until a kinder, more just paradigm is inculcated, values change and a shift in attitudes takes place. To some degree this reorientation is underway, people everywhere recognize the destructive nature of the current order and long for a different, simpler way of living. When the constant movement outward into the sensory world begins to be arrested and the mind is allowed to be quiet, desire for external stimulation and the focus on pleasure will begin to fall away, allowing happiness to naturally and spontaneously flower.

Climate Change, Extreme Weather, Destructive Lifestyles

Throughout the world heat waves, flooding and uncontrollable wildfires have caused widespread havoc, lives have been lost, homes destroyed, livelihoods ruined.

Unprecedented levels of heat have been recorded in North America, Europe and Asia, as well as the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. According to The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) record cold May temperatures were registered in “northeastern Canada and the northern Atlantic Ocean, off the southern coast of Greenland.” Global temperatures for the first five months of the year were the highest on record for a La Niña year; higher temperatures, “lead to more frequent and long-lasting heat waves causing adverse environmental impacts.”

These extreme weather patterns are the ferocious signs and sights of climate change in 2018, and, because so little is being done to tackle the causes, year on year they become more and more intense. Planet Earth is becoming a world in which the extreme becomes the expected, the disastrous the everyday.

How bad must it get?

The year began with the coldest first week of January on record for numerous cities in eastern America; freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall swept across Europe in March as the “Beast From the East” hit. Britain was severely affected, with up to three feet of snow in some areas and temperatures down to minus 10ºC.

Floods have affected East Africa killing dozens of people, tropical cyclones hit Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen and Oman, dust storms killed hundreds in India, and Pakistan had an intense heat wave with temperatures exceeding 40ºC. Heavy rains and 70 mph winds in Bangladesh caused landslides, deaths and injuries. California had the largest wild fires ever recorded, and down under, Australia is becoming the ‘Land of Drought’ according to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

A heat wave of unprecedented temperatures scorched Europe and Japan, where 40ºC (104ºF) temperatures were recorded, 30 people died and thousands needed medical treatment for heat related conditions. A month earlier Japan had some of the worst floods in its history, more than 200 people lost their lives and almost 2 million people were evacuated; the Caribbean is bracing itself for this year’s hurricane season, while “still recovering from last year’s devastation,” which, the UNFCC say, was “the costliest on record”.

The list of extreme weather events across the word is endless; extremes that are increasingly normal as the impact of man-made climate change become more and more apparent, and yet little is being done to address the primary causes. How bad does it have to become before substantive action is taken to reverse the terrible damage we are doing to the natural world?

The mechanics of climate change

Climate change is being triggered by global warming; Global warming, described by NASA as “the unusually rapid increase in Earth’s average surface temperature…primarily due to the greenhouse gases released as people burn fossil fuels” occurs, “when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.” This happens when so-called greenhouse gases (Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (N2O), being the three main culprits) clog the lower levels of Earth’s atmosphere. This leads to a range of effects: The planet overall becomes warmer (average ground temperature rises), causing “extreme weather events and other severe natural and societal impacts” to become more frequent; glaciers in the Arctic region melt sending huge quantities of water into the ocean, which raises the sea level, oceans are made warmer and expand, further contributing to rising levels. As the sea level rises land is flooded, cities, towns and villages are threatened, lives lost, homes destroyed, communities ripped apart, people displaced.

Man-made greenhouse gases (GGE) are produced by a range of sectors and activities: Animal agriculture produces the largest amount (18% of the total according to the UN, other sources put the figure much higher), followed by electricity and heat production, transportation and industry – all through burning fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas. GGEs have been increasing since the industrial revolution, leading to a rise in global ground temperatures, which to date has reached about 1ºC above pre-industrial levels. Temperatures continue to increase at around 0.17ºC per decade.

One degree doesn’t sound like much but, as the extreme weather events show, the effect of this modest rise on the climate is huge, the consequences far reaching, potentially catastrophic.

In 2015 the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was reached and signed by every country in the world; under President Trump America has since pulled out. Hailed as historic, its central aim is to keep global rises in temperature “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Even if these rather optimistic targets are met, a recent study by an international team of scientists writing in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests, “there is a risk of Earth entering what the scientists call “Hothouse Earth” conditions.” The BBC report that the group believe 2ºC of warming “could turn some of the Earth’s natural forces [forests, oceans and land] – that currently protect us – into our enemies…As the world experiences warming, these carbon sinks could become sources of carbon and make the problems of climate change significantly worse.”

If this occurs they forecast the climate stabilizing at “a global average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60 m higher than today.” This would mean that some parts of the Earth would become uninhabitable. In order to avoid this nightmare scenario the authors make clear that “a total re-orientation of human values, equity, behavior and technologies is required. We must all become stewards of the Earth.” This requires a major shift in human attitudes.

Unhealthy destructive lifestyle

Climate Change and the environmental disaster in its various colors is the result of human activity and complacency; we have poisoned the oceans, rivers and streams, cleared 85% of the world’s tropical rainforests, mainly for livestock, and are turning healthy land into desert; we are filling the air we breathe with toxins, creating dead zones in the oceans and causing the eradication of species at an unprecedented rate. Collectively we seem to have no respect or love for the natural environment and whilst some people are acting responsibly, the majority fails to see the connection between lifestyle and disaster and appear content to treat the planet like a giant rubbish tip.

The natural order has been thrown into disarray by the widespread adoption of a selfish, destructive way of life: A particular lifestyle, or collection of related ‘lifestyle choices’, are responsible for the production of man-made greenhouse gases that are triggering the extreme weather patterns we are seeing all around the world.

Hedonism and consumerism sit at the heart of the unhealthy mode of living that is driving the catastrophe and making us ill; mankind’s relentless consumption of stuff, the vast majority of which is not needed, combined with an animal-based diet (common to 97% of the global population), has created a cocktail of chaos within the natural world, bringing about the greatest crisis in the history of mankind. It is a materialistic lifestyle that the global economy, and by extension the corporate state depends on and ceaselessly promotes. This is why, despite the intense urgency of the environmental issue, we hear little on mainstream media and virtually nothing from governments, who are more concerned with economic growth and petty domestic politics than the stability and health of the planet.

The harmony of the natural world has been thrown into chaos by the same approach to life that has separated us one from another, and fuelled internal conflict resulting in a global mental health epidemic. In all areas, where there should be unity and right relationship we see enmity, discord and disease. Restoring the planet to health and creating a world in which human beings can live healthy peaceful lives are inextricably linked. Both require a fundamental change in values, a shift away from divisive modes of living built on competition and greed to inclusive ways in which social/environmental responsibility is cultivated and embraced.

Such ideas are not new and are frequently championed, but the prevailing socio-economic ideology actively works to suppress such principles, and powerfully promotes values of division and selfishness. Despite this widespread conditioning, an unstoppable current of change can be seen sweeping the world; social responsibility is growing apace, and perennial values of goodness – cooperation, tolerance and sharing – are increasingly influencing the minds of men and women everywhere.

To galvanize this global movement a major public education program should be undertaken by governments and schools to increase awareness of climate change and lifestyle and create a sense of urgency and engagement. Change can be slow, but these are extraordinary times, and there is a growing recognition that if we unite all things are possible. If not, if we continue in the selfish, greedy, divisive ways of the past, the weather patterns will become more extreme and unpredictable, the air and waterways will become more toxic, loss of life will increase and the associated environmental ills will deepen. The choice is ours.