Monday, 30 July 2007

it's worse!

Luke Skywalker: "It could be worse." (*Pause*) Han Solo: "It's worse!"

The film Wilberforce has just been released in Australia, so now's a good time to talk about slavery. And the bad news is: "It's worse" - worse than I thought that is.

Consider these facts about the slave trade and trafficking in human beings, from the Stop the Traffik website:

  • Trafficking is the fastest growing means by which people are caught in the trap of slavery.
  • At least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide, 2.4 million as a result of human trafficking. More than three quarters are female and half are children.
  • The majority of victims are the poorest people in the poorest countries.
  • Human trafficking is the third largest source of income for organised crime, behind armaments and drugs trafficking. It is the fastest growing form of international crime, generating 7 billion dollars per year in criminal proceeds.
  • People are trafficked into prostitution, begging, forced labour, military service, domestic service, forced illegal adoption, forced marriage etc.

Doubtless, like me, you are disgusted that 200 years after Wilberforce stopped slave trading into Great Britain, and 150 years after the US Civil War was fought to bring an end to slavery into the USA, all this is still happening.

Fortunately a coalition of social justice groups, clubs, schools, faith groups, businesses and charities in 40 countries is now fighting this problem. And we can all support them:

  • Go to the Stop the Traffik website and sign the declaration.
  • Buy Fair Trade and Traffik Free chocolate (12,000 children have been trafficked into cocoa farms in Cote d'Ivoire, which supplies half the world's chocolate).
  • Write to a politician.
  • Donate to one of the member organisations - e.g. Amnesty International, World Vision, Tearfund, etc.
  • Tell other people about the problem, and the Stop the Traffik campaign.

I've removed the video that used to be here, but you can still watch it if you want to here.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

family-unfriendly politics?

Australia has three levels of government:

  • The Australian Government deals with national issues such as taxation, trade and defence.
  • The 8 state and territory governments are generally responsible for (among other things) transport, health, education and policing.
  • About 700 local government councils are responsible for local services such as roads, urban planning, garbage and stormwater, etc.

This weekend, the Victorian state Premier (more or less equivalent to a state governor in the US), Steve Bracks, announced his surprise resignation from the position, only 8 months after being re-elected for another term. He cited family reasons for this step, and commentators noted a recent serious drink-driving offence by one of his children. Some hinted at other problems in his family.

Bracks seemed to be an efficient and honest politician, the kind we certainly cannot afford to lose. He reportedly worked 90 hours a week in this position. Recently NSW Premier Morris Iemma was criticised for taking two weeks holiday from his position to spend time with his young family.

I can't help feeling we are moving in the wrong direction on this one. Australia has the "Westminster" system of government, in which the parliament (all elected members) makes decisions, but more and more it seems to be the majority party, the Cabinet (the senior members of the majority party who are responsible for directing the public service departments) and, increasingly, the leader, who make the decisions. Our Prime Minister and Premiers, supposedly leaders among equals, are becoming more like presidents. This focuses the power and responsibility too much, and places too much pressure on those individuals. I don't believe we want our political leaders to sacrifice that much. I can't help feeling some of the best people will not be prepared to make the sacrifice, and we'll all suffer.

Read more about the Bracks resignation.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

does there have to be a reason for everything?

When I was a boy with a deep interest in astronomy, there were three alternative scientific theories to explain the origin of the universe and why it is expanding. Two of them (Steady State and Pulsating universe) were based on the idea that the universe has always existed, and one of them that it began a definite time ago.

In the years since then, the latter theory, the Big Bang, has become almost universally accepted by scientists, who believe the evidence indicates that the universe, matter, energy, 3-dimensional space and time all began around 15 billion years ago.

This conclusion is based on the fact that the universe is expanding, with the more distant galaxies moving faster, so we can extrapolate backwards to the time when it existed as a single point, or singularity. The big bang also explains a number of other cosmological discoveries, regarding temperature and background radiation, for example.

The big bang was not an explosion in empty space. Rather, the big bang created space - at the moment of the big bang, 3-dimensional space and the entire universe were infinitesimally small, but began to expand rapidly. And we don't know if there was anything before the big bang, because time was also created at the big bang.

Artist's impression of the very early universe (NASA).

If the universe has always existed (as was once believed), we wouldn't need to ponder the cause, because if it didn't have a start, it presumably didn't have a cause. But the big bang almost demands an explanation. Most scientists consider it unlikely that we can ever discover scientifically what caused the big bang, but of course philosophers, theologians, scientists (and nearly everyone else) still wonder.

Did something cause the big bang, and if so, what was it?

There are only a few options ......

  1. There was no cause.
  2. There was a "natural" cause.
  3. There was a non-natural ("supernatural") cause.

The arguments (summarised) go something like this ....

  1. The idea there was no cause, or that the universe caused itself, goes against everything we know about things - everything in the universe has a cause outside itself. But we don't have much experience of big bangs (this is the only one we know about) so perhaps it is different to everything else we know and doesn't need a cause.
  2. A natural cause is something measurable by science. But if the universe had a natural cause (say another universe that caused our universe to form), we have just pushed the question back another stage, as we then ask what caused that universe or cause. Philosophers and scientists are quite sure that an infinite series of causes cannot occur and doesn't make sense, so this explanation must at some stage end up in either option 1 or option 3.
  3. A supernatural cause, such as a god, does not suffer from this difficulty if one believes that god has always existed - like a universe that has always existed, a god that has always existed does not require a cause. Of course if one accepts this explanation, it does not demonstrate which particular god might have created the universe, although many of the gods believed by people would not be capable of such a thing. (For example, the gods of Norse mythology were part of the universe, not creators of it.)

So it it appears to come back to two options - either the universe did not have a cause, it just happened, or it had an eternal, supernatural cause, which might be defined as "god".

Even with all the understanding of modern cosmology, it seems we still come back to the same age-old questions and answers.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

how do you face the end of the world we know?

It's become a truism that the world is more complex than it used to be and things are changing faster than ever before. To some it seems that the world cannot continue as it is, and many people are finding it harder to cope. How do we respond to this?

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, social researcher Richard Eckersley suggests there are three common responses:

  1. Nihilism - Some people have abandoned any belief in a social or moral order, and believe that in such a chaotic world, "nothing much matters any more". Some see violence as a "purifying attempt to intervene against the nothingness" - whether the violence is real (suicide or random killing) or imaginary (violent movies). Others respond with determined efforts to be "a winner at all costs" or to "lose themselves in the quest for pleasure and excitement", or to simply "focus on home and hearth".
  2. Fundamentalism - Another response is to hold ever more tightly to some simple, and simplifying, beliefs. The certainties of religious faith (whether Christian or Islam, or some other) are seen to fit in here (in the extreme form, some fundamentalists may be happy to bring on apocalypse and the end of the world now, as a prelude to God's new order). However secular fundamentalism is also common, in the form of embracing political or economic certainties.
  3. Activism - A third response is to challenge the status quo, attempt to create new values that "will make a sustainable future possible", and hope this will change the world, or at least the individual's world. This may mean taking up a cause such as global poverty or environmental sustainability, but for others, it may simply mean "down-shifting" - putting less emphasis on earning a high income, and more emphasis on family and friends, spirituality, lifestyle and self-fulfilment.

Eckersley sees hope in the latter response. He says social research suggests that the numbers of people responding with positive activism is increasing, and is becoming an unstructured movement, made up of people in social justice. indigenous rights and environmental groups, citizen and community networks, faith-based groups and other institutions.

Fellow researcher Hugh Mackay has written: "the gap between 'what I believe in' and 'how I live' is uncomfortably wide for many of us, and we are looking for ways to narrow it".

I wonder what your response is? (Will you tell us?)

As a follower of the way of Jesus, I believe there is hope, and strangely, I think it lies in a combination of all three responses.

  1. I think we need to go part way with the nihilists, and understand that the material world of reductionist science (where only the material and the demonstrable exists) is indeed not worth living for.
  2. Jesus was opposed to religious fundamentalism (which he saw expressed in the restrictive rules of the religious authorities of his day), but he nevertheless offered some ennobling certainties which we should embrace.
  3. But I agree with Eckersley that we need a creative and active response to the world and the injustices in it. I see some signs of this in new forms of christianity, and in those of the younger generations who refuse to embrace the selfish certainties of the rat race.

I don't have a web reference for Eckersley's essay, but this review of his book covers similar territory.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

another t-shirt of our times

Monday, 16 July 2007

maybe, just maybe, we're starting to get this right

The climate change argument has been going on for a while, but, perhaps mostly due to Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", there now seems to be a groundswell of opinion that we do indeed face some challenging issues. Let's look briefly at the evidence.

is our climate really changing dangerously?

Large and small temperature changes have occurred throughout human history, and before. But the temperature rises in the last century are way greater than anything before, as these graphs show.

Global temperature for last 1000 years (graph by Australian Greenhouse Office).

Temperature & Carbon Dioxide in Antarctic ice for last 400,000 years
(graph by Australian Greenhouse Office). Current levels (at right of graph)
are higher than anything ever experienced in that period.

These temperature rises have been caused by increases in greenhouse gases, as shown below (don't worry if the fine print is illegible, the timescale is 1000 years and the graphs speak for themselves).

Global increases in 3 greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Australian Greenhouse Office)

are people really to blame?

The respected Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has modelled the changes in temperature, and demonstrated that, while there may be some natural causes, human causes predominate. This conclusion is as safe as scientific modelling, which we depend on in so many ways, can be. The major greenhouse gas polluters are USA 23.5%, China 14.6%, EU 11.6%, Russia 6.2% and Japan 5%.

will it make a difference to the world?

For many people, it will, unfortunately.

  • Impacts are variable, but the trend will be towards more extreme weather events.
  • Some lower-lying areas close to the sea (e.g. parts of Bangladesh) will experience increased and sometimes disastrous, flooding, and some inhabited islands (e.g. Maldives, Tuvalu) will disappear. In many countries, coastal communities will experience more severe storm damage.
  • In some locations (e.g. Canada, Russia, northern Europe), increased rain and warmer temperatures could lead to increased harvests.
  • However in many other areas (e.g. Africa, Australia, western USA), lower rainfall could lead to prolonged droughts and, in some places, possibly even famine.
  • Environmental consequences will be severe, from shrinking glaciers to loss of habitat due to drought.

are we doing enough to turn things around?

It is clear that globally, we are not yet doing enough, as many governments fear making changes that will make them unpopular with voters. But things are beginning to change.

  • Many European countries are moving towards realistic targets.
  • Some businesses are thinking much further ahead than governments, and are planning their own responses.
  • Public opinion in the US and Australia has begun to turn.

There is still a long way to go, as we all get used to living a little more austerely and responsibly, but maybe, just maybe, we're starting to get this right.

further reading:

Background information from the Australian Greenhouse Office.
CSIRO publications, including this report.
Information on Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth.
The winners and losers of climate change, by Alister Doyle (ABC radio).

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

do we REALLY know how to be happy?

Photo from Webshots.

Just about everyone wants to be happy. Just enter "happiness" or "how to be happy" into Google and see how many people are writing about it. But I'm not sure how many people are taking notice. And there are so many ideas out there, and some people selling them, that it is hard to know who to trust.

I have researched scores of sources, and I'm not selling anything, so maybe you'd be interested in this quick summary.

what is happiness?

Pleasure is not the same as happiness, and seeking pleasure will not always make you happy. Pleasure is a sensation that is generally short-lived. It is part of happiness, but happiness also includes the longer term states of contentment and wellbeing.

self esteem and motivation

Many people suggest the path to happiness involves self examination, positive thinking, self fulfilment and improving self esteem. Examples include Michael Anthony, eHow, Depression-helper and wikiHow. This approach can help people and can improve self esteem and achievement of goals. One of the better examples suggests the following 4 core components of happiness:

  • knowing your purpose and place;
  • good health via diet and exercise;
  • managing your life and emotions to keep balance;
  • spiritual fulfilment.

However expert psychologists say that looking inside oneself and building self esteem are not the ways to achieve long term happiness. It may be significant that many people giving this advice are not academically qualified to give it.

what makes people happy?

We can be more confident of the answers when they are based on research by qualified experts, and the results of this research indicate that if there is a single key to being happy, it is to look outside yourself. Here are some of the summaries I have found:

Economist Ross Gittins summarises the best expert advice

  • concentrate on the human, not the material,
  • make others happy rather than indulge yourself,
  • look for the intrinsic benefits in activities more than the financial ones,
  • balance work, family, pleasure, etc,
  • be optimistic and content with what you have - count your blessings,
  • get back to natural things.

An ABC Science show, quoted experts on the importance of spirituality and meditation, and quality relationships.

A Harvard University study of happiness that lasts into old age suggested the following were important

  • health (exercise, not smoking, sensible alcohol use & right weight);
  • education (more important than wealth and prestige);
  • happy marriage;
  • ingenuity and coping mechanisms;
  • altruism.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says you only find happiness by seeking something else, namely the virtuous life.

Positive psychology, as presented by Dr Martin Seligman, emphasises:

  • The Pleasant Life, with pleasure and positive emotion.
  • The Engaged Life, absorbed in work, love, friendship & leisure.
  • The Meaningful Life. Going beyond our own pleasures and using our strengths and virtues in the service of something we believe is more important than we are.

a summary

Summarising all this, research indicates that there are 5 keys to a happy life:

  • Don’t be fooled by advertising or envy into thinking that wealth, health or popularity will bring lasting happiness. Their impact is likely to be small and fleeting. Take opportunities to improve your standard of living if you have real needs, but it is important to learn to be happy with what you have.
  • Develop good relationships with a circle of friends. Join a group where you can share your interests, and your life. Maintain a loving marriage if you can.
  • Get involved in interesting and challenging activities that enrich your life. Enjoy your paid work, and do some voluntary work.
  • Don't focus on yourself. Go easy on others - forgive, offer support, show gratitude.
  • Think about what you believe. Spiritual and ethical beliefs, hope and purpose, are very important for well-being. Investing your life in a cause greater than yourself is one of the keys to satisfaction in life.

For more detail on these summary points, see what makes people happy?, and a list of 25 supporting references based on research and expert conclusions.

The amazing thing is, the truth about happiness is quite clear, yet so many times we swallow the lie of advertising, and keep on looking to pleasure and possessions to give what is actually beyond them.

Disclaimer: These comments relate to people who don't have a medical condition that affects their mood. Those who need medical treatment should seek it.

Monday, 9 July 2007

western culture summed up in one sentence


A current T-shirt in the shops in Australia. Says it all.

(This is a mock-up of the real thing, until I can get the real thing on here.
Original photo from Webshots, modified by Unkle E.)