Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sustainability, peace and security.

The famous 1968 Earthrise image, the first picture of the whole earth seen from space, is credited by Al Gore with starting the modern environment movement. Friends of the Earth was founded in 1969; the first ‘Earth Day’ in the USA was in 1970; in 1972 the first UN summit on the environment was held in Stockholm, and the report Limits to Growth was published, arguing that there were environmental limits to the global economy . . . and so on.

In 1979, James Lovelock published Gaia: a new look at life on earth. And then in 1983, in Vancouver, the churches caught up with this new consciousness when the World Council of Churches called for a ‘conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of creation’ – known as JPIC – which became the overarching protestant ecumenical context for the pursuit of eco-justice for the following decade. It has not, like many other WCC ‘Decades’, faded from sight, and the churches continue to wrestle with its implications (as shown most recently, perhaps, in the international, interfaith conference, Many Heavens, One Earth, held at Windsor in November 2009, in the days before the Copenhagen climate summit – see the report of the event, and reflections, on this blog).

These issues - this necessary combination of peace with sustainability and justice - remain a concern.

Sunniva Taylor who is the Sustainability and Peace programme manager in Quaker Peace and Social Witness, writes:

People speak of sustaining the environment; the planet; a way of life; growth; profit; faith; a community; positions of power. When we take the desire to create peace as our starting point we can see that not all of these things can be sustained at the same time, and that ensuring the flourishing of our environment is fundamental.

Maintaining our current consumer-driven lifestyles is dependent on ensuring continued economic growth, but this is contributing to environmental and ecological crisis, fragmented communities, the unequal distribution of wealth and power, and violence. On Saturday 21st August the world as a whole went into ‘ecological debt’. This means, in effect, that from then until the end of the year we are consuming more natural resources and producing more waste than forests, fields and fisheries of the world can replace and absorb (see ‘We’ve gone into the ecological red’ by Andew Simms, in the Guardian 22 August 2010). Our reliance on fossil fuel driven industry - the global economy is 80% dependent on fossil fuels means that the world’s average temperature is warming every year, leading to sea-level rise, drought, flooding and storms. It is the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly those who rely on the land for their livelihoods, who are the first and worst affected.

Through the way we live, and the choices we make, we are all implicated, just as we are all implicated in war through the taxes we pay, however committed to peace we may be. read more . . .

In similar vein, Northern Friends Peace Board has a concern for promoting sustainable security. NFPB is an organisation of Quakers in the north of Britain set up to support "the active promotion of peace in all its height and breadth". They are beginning some work on Promoting Sustainable Security and the following is a statement of concern drafted by the project group doing this work.

Sustainable security
This area of work is based on our understanding that the world is made less secure by economic inequalities, resource depletion and competition, the threat of climate change and the unequal and unaccountable use of political power.

The work is about questioning and challenging the mind-set underpinning these problems and about promoting the longer-term resolution of insecurity and conflict.

The aims for this work are:
Within the overall task of Northern Friends Peace Board
- "to advise and encourage Friends in the North, and through them their fellow Christians and citizens generally, in the active promotion of peace in all its height and breadth "
- to promote sustainable security as a peace priority
- to collaborate and to support existing initiatives

We are in this world together but the way we are living is unsustainable; this makes the world less secure. Our consumption of consumer goods and our dependence on fossil fuels - using finite natural resources and producing ever-more waste - continue to grow. This in turn contributes to hugely destabilising climate change and to unbalanced and unfair economic relationships: where inequalities exist, conflict is inevitable. The interests of those whose power comes from the control of diminishing resources are protected by ever-more costly military and other technology as a mistaken means to building security.

Sustainable security means ensuring a secure future for all based on tackling the causes of conflict and insecurity: understanding the real threats and how they can be dealt with so there is peace and justice for everyone throughout the earth for the long term and striving for a balance with nature.

As Quakers, we have a respect for all of humanity and for other living things. The Quaker peace testimony has always been about seeking to address the causes of war as well as about how we respond to conflict without resorting to violence. Our testimonies to equality and simplicity are similarly about ensuring that all people be enabled to flourish and live.

We know that some conflict is inevitable. We know too that we can choose to develop understanding as to how we contribute to causes of conflict, and in how we respond to and deal with this. Do we accept the short-termist, market-driven approaches that drive resource misuse, inequality, instability and conflict?

It can be easy to feel despondent and fearful. But we can use these emotions in a positive way, to help motivate us in working together to develop a vision of alternative ways of being together on this planet. We depend on all life. It is vital that we recognise that all have the same rights to security and well-being, and that we change from a society driven by perceived wants and fears to one that addresses the real long-term needs of all. Our unsustainable way of living on this planet grows from a mindset; a change is needed to this mindset to underpin the many encouraging practical steps that people are already taking towards more sustainable and equitable ways of living.

We are called to ask questions to promote dialogue and action. We ask that politicians and others in positions of influence and power - including businesses and media organisations - recognise this moral imperative and work together, responding in words and in action to create sustainable security for all.

To assist with reflection on these issues, there is a set of questions for individuals or groups to consider:
- What makes us secure in this world?
- How can we move from a world driven by the struggle for power and control over the lives and resources of others to a world based on equality and respect for all life?
- How can we support one another in building that alternative?
- What resources can we draw on to help ourselves and others deal with pressures of change in ways that are peaceful and build sustainable security?
- What are the political and practical consequences of this?
- What opportunities can you take to raise these concerns with others and to take positive action for change?

And to help anyone grapple with these, there is an extremely useful links page
Friends worldwide are also addressing such concerns in an international frmae work. Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC - the unbrella body for Quakers around the world) has in train a worldwide consultation on global change. There is a set of questions for Friends to consider - called 'queries' - a term that Friends use for taking questions as a device prompting both corporate and individual self-examination.

1. How has global change affected our communities and ourselves?
2. What actions have we taken in response to global change as experienced in our area, to express our responsibilities towards all creation? In what ways have my own activities or those of my community contributed to positive or adverse local and global change?
3. How do changes around us affect our relationship with God? How does my relationship with God affect my responses to changes around us? What role does faith have in my life and in the life of the community? In what ways do I and my Friends church or meeting community bear witness to our Testimonies in our daily lives?
4. What stories and experiences from past times of catastrophic happenings such as major droughts – perhaps from Scripture, perhaps the record of regional or local events- might inspire us to respond to changes the world is facing today?
5. How can we bear witness to the abundance God offers us and testify to the world about ways in which justice, compassion and peace may address significant disruption, stress and tension?
6. How can we support one another in rekindling our love and respect for God’s creation in such a way that we are messengers of the transforming power of love and hope?

Quakers in The Netherlands have added their own further questions, more specifically addressed to their Western European context:
1. Do we as a world-wide Quaker community faithfully maintain our testimonies of equality, simplicity, truth, justice and peace in the face of the global challenges of our time? Do we translate them into action at local, national and international levels when called to do so?
2. Do we as a world-wide Quaker community take up our responsibilities for the conduct of local, national and international affairs in responding effectively to the interlocking economic, ecological, climatic, food, energy and political/institutional crises?
3. Do we as a world-wide Quaker community encourage our international Quaker agencies (FWCC, QUNO, QCEA) sufficiently to contribute to the necessary transformation of the current economic system into a more just and equitable economy? Remember this also requires us to support and respond to these agencies’ projects, publications and calls.
4. Do we as a world-wide Quaker community actively stimulate our International Quaker agencies working within the framework of the United Nations to also work for the reform of the international institutions (UN, Security Council, IMF, World Bank, WTO etc) themselves, so as to equip them better to build a truly sustainable just and peaceful world order?
5. Do we as world-wide Quaker community urge our Quaker agencies on to engage in combating climate change effectively by helping to strengthen the United Nation’s capabilities towards this end? Remember this would first and foremost involve urging our national governments to take appropriate and meaningful action in this respect.
6. Do we as a world-wide Quaker community support our international Quaker agencies in working towards abolishing war as an instrument to settle conflicts, disarmament and a ‘global zero’ for all weapons of mass destruction?
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QPSW has a set of display panels on Sustainable Security: You can view the panels online.
The sustainable security display explains the concept of sustainable security in a clear, easy-to-read format. Sustainable security refers to a sustainable approach to global security, emphasising the long-term resolution of the root causes of insecurity and conflict.
The display is made up of 8 panels and is available in large A1 (borrow for free) and smaller A3 (buy for £25, borrow for free) formats. The display is an excellent resource for use by Meeting Houses, peace and social justice groups, church and community groups and individuals.

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Monday, 25 October 2010

How did their gardens grow?

I've posted several times this year about gardening. There was the article about Woodbrooke's gardens and grounds, and another specifically about the walled garden. My colleague Ben told us about transforming his garden for 'grow your own', and then I posted about my own very-small-space vegetable garden, to encourage those of you without lots of space to have a go.

It's been a bit of a strange year for gardening - the long winter and late, cold spring; the very hot, dry June and cold rainy August. That contrast has confused a good number of the plants in my garden, and I have spring bulbs in flower, spring-flowering shrubs in flower already, as their autumn foliage turns colour, and other spring plants blossoming.

So how have the vegetables done? First I asked Steve Lock, Woodbrooke's gardener, to tell me what kind of season it has been in the walled garden this year.

double-click on any photo to see a larger version, and then click 'back' to return to the blog
Steve writes: I refer to the Walled Garden as a nourishing landscape. The Vegetable Garden, the Cutting Garden, Herb Garden and Fruit Garden. The vegetable garden is what we think of first for nourishment but all play their part in the Woodbrooke experience.

The weather was unusually dry in June which meant far more watering to get crops going. I/we grow special crops more than staples, and harvest herbs with the vegetables. I always experiment with a few new things. So, for the first time we grew corn [maize] and we harvested 60 ears.

We grew Pak Choi, although later in the season which meant we couldn’t be vigilant enough with the slugs so lost the crop. I saw enough to know that it’s worth growing again. Celeriac proved a challenge to get started, with not a good crop in the end. The Winter Cabbages have been enormous with very few losses. The kitchen was supplied with lettuce and salad crops from June through August. It is the human stories in the season which feed me. The excitement of harvesting corn when it’s juiciest. Accompanying a volunteer on a new experience, growing a pumpkin from a seed, seeing it now.

What people experience is a larger picture of abundance.I am connected with the elements, with cycles of nature, with the ground. There is often a deficit in our connection with nature, with the awe and wonder, sadness and disappointment. In looking at the season, I have experienced God’s gifts that come for free and through the labours of many people including myself, the harvest has been plentiful.

And I asked Ben how things have been with his garden - he sent me some photos taken by his 5-year-old daughter, Florence, and wrote this:  
As you can see, the first year's growing has been phenomenal. Using permaculture and forest gardening principles, we have even had fruit from new trees and bushes, and the polytunnel is up and the yurt gone, freeing space for goats and chickens maybe.

Two weeks away in August meant lost of grass cutting by hand and the high grass meant slugs got over the bottles in places but we have collected over 250 slugs and put them onto a school playing field and the bottles are helping enormously.

There is a hosepipe ban in the Northwest and we have rigged up a system for using our chemical-free bathwater to irrigate the greenhouse and will use a water butt system for the polytunnel. The garden is full of wonderful smells, butterflies and bees and it is so much better than just growing grass! We have hardy-kiwi and grape vines coming in November and a lime tree for salad leaves too. We have grown our first melon! With the hot spring and wet summer, we are expecting a bumper damson crop.

In my own garden it's been a mixed story. The onions and garlic growing in troughs on my shed roof have done well. It's been an excellent year for climbing beans and courgettes, both of which have been prolific, and my freezer is now stuffed with them. The sharp frosts over the last few days have finally brought them to an end.
The butternut squash, on the other hand, took exception to the weather and didn't even flower until early September - in spite of being a variety ('Sprinter') that promises to flower and set fruit early in the season! As a consequence I have only two very small squash, currently wrapped in bubble-wrap in the hope that they might just grow to be edible before winter gets them. In previous years I've had four or five large fruit off each plant, and eaten them through the winter - if stored properly, they keep in good condition right through to Easter.

As with Steve, the cabbages I grew over winter were huge. Some of the early sown crops didn't like the hot, dry June, and immediately ran to seed - so there was a gap while later sowings of lettuce, chard and beetroot grew to edible size.

I grew two varieties of tomato, both outdoors (I don't have indoor growing space). One was Texas Wild, a heritage variety from Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library. Each plant produced hundreds (I really mean that) of sweet juicy Smartie-sized tomatoes. They're so small that they're a complete pain to harvest. But if you have children, they would be just perfect for growing somewhere where the children could pick and eat them like sweets - they would work well in a hanging basket, set just at child height!

The other variety - and quite different - was Ferline. These are sold as a blight-resistant variety, and for three consecutive years thay have reliably been just that. My garden backs onto allotments, so if there's blight anywhere there, I imemdiately get it in my garden. But each year I have harvested Ferline tomatoes into September and October with no sign of blight at all. Right now, they're wrapped up in fleece to protect them from the frosts that have arrived so early. This year they've produced a huge crop of larger-than-usual fruit - they're tasty, juicy, thin-skinned and good for either salads or salsa - highly recommended!

The soft fruit has done well - good crops of redcurrants, raspberries, alpine strawberries and blackcurrants; and I allowed my new-last-year cordon fruit trees to set fruit this year - apples, pears and plums; two of the apples got woolly aphid on them, so I've taken organic advice about what to do if that happens next year. The wild damson hedge out at the back of my garden has been laden, and the fruit has been sweet enough to eat as plums, straight off the tree - no need to make jam or compote to make them edible (though I did make compote, to preserve them, and gave some to Lizz Roe so she could make jam).

Unlike Ben, I didn't suffer a hosepipe ban, but after the very dry weather in June I decided to double my water-storage. I've now got 400L of water-butt capacity in the back garden. They're all linked together, and so they all fill from one single attachment on the down-pipe from the gutter; they can be drained together from one connecting pipe, or can be isolated and used separately. I was amazed to see how much the colour had faded in the two older butts.

I've now got onions and garlic, spring cabbage and early peas, in for next year. There's winter salad and chard still providing green leaves, and they will go on all winter. And I've a freezer full of green beans, courgettes and damsons!

I'm not the only one at Woodbrooke practising Square Foot Gardening - raised beds in small spaces. My colleague Judith Jenner has also been growing by this method.

Judith writes: Two years ago Tina and I moved into the Warden's Bungalow [at Cotteridge Quaker Meeting House] and I was pleased there was a garden. At the same time, at the Northfield Ecocentre, I made a pledge to grow my own vegetables. The garden was full of shrubs, one side was overgrown and there was a falling-down shed at the far end. The fencing has been replaced, most of the shrubs removed, a new shed created, a patio built and the other extended. The garden is an L-shape and the two pictures show the length of it.
In 2009 I started growing using the square foot garden method, because the soil was not in a good condition, and this is a temporary home. In 2010 more raised beds were built and the north side, with south-facing wall, was used for squash beds. We got another plastic greenhouse in the spring and grew squash, courgettes, sunflowers, aubergines, lettuce, spinach beans, salad greens from seed. Tomatoes, cauliflowers, beetroot and strawberries were from seedlings.
Having only a small space, the raised beds made sense, growing potatoes and strawberries in bags also saves space.We have eaten lots of tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, courgettes, salad greens during the summer. Pumpkins did very well and some are in store.

What did not grow well this year: beans garlic, cabbages - although I am still waiting for them to develop.
Jobs for the winter include planning where to move the raised beds on the west side now the fence has been moved back about 2 foot. Creating an outside room for relaxing, eating and entertaining in 2011. Deciding what vegetables and fruit to try.
This picture: squash wine fermenting

And now's the moment to introduce you to my colleague Louise Scott. Louise works in the Marketing department at Woodbrooke, and if you're one of the readers that picks this blog up via Facebook or Twitter, Louise is the person to thank for that. Each week, she posts a 'trailer' for the new blog post on both those paltforms, as well as on our own website. In order to write the summary, she reads all of the posts, and all this talk of growing-your-own inspired her to have a go herself. It's always wonderful to see a new gardener get hooked!
Louise writes: We moved into our first home together last summer and inherited a very overgrown garden. Bit by bit, we’ve cleared the garden but were unsure what to do with the raised section at the very back. After reading the Good Lives blog and seeing the results Pam had achieved in her small space, we felt inspired to try and grow our own and thought the wasted space at the end of the garden would be perfect.
As we didn’t start until the end of June, we decided to use this year as a trial run before properly planning what we grow next year. We decided to attempt to grow the things we bought often; tomatoes, baby carrots, spinach, sweet corn, courgettes and green beans. Some we grew from seed, others were bought in the sale at our local garden centre or were given to us by friends. After three months, our crops have succeeded to varying degrees.

Our tomato plants, which cost just 50p for nine, have produced over 100 tomatoes but are yet to ripen. We had a lot of initial success with our spinach and went without buying any for over a month but unfortunately the dry weather caused them to bolt.

Our baby carrots and green beans have been very successful and are crops we’ll definitely grow again next year and the sweetcorn has grown really well and are almost ready to harvest. Unfortunately, the red peppers and courgette plants were eaten by slugs.

Although we have had some disappointments and an ongoing battle with slugs, the pleasure of eating home grown food has greatly outweighed the expense and disappointment.

At the moment, the long-range weather forecast is suggesting a cold and quite dry winter in Britain. That's not good for the areas that suffered drought this summer, as they need to replenish their aquifers and reservoirs. It also means that we may have to do some watering - it's always hard to remember that this might still be necessary, even in winter. The sharp frosts already will be doing their bit to control some garden pests - one benefit from the late cold spring this year was that the slugs and snails were late getting moving - but they were very hungry once they did!

But right now, with the clocks going back next weekend, it's time for the pleasure of the 2011 seed catalogues!
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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Is there ever 'no alternative'?

In Britain we are waiting with some anxiety for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to announce, on Thursday, the results of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. We are expecting severe cuts in public spending, and we are being told ‘there is no alternative’ because of the state of the public finances.

This week’s post comes from Simon Beard. Simon is a freelance political researcher and consultant working on a wide range of issues, from feed-in tariffs to same-sex marriage. He writes for several think tanks and is also currently studying philosophy and public policy at the LSE. He is a member of Littlehampton Quaker Meeting.
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Readers familiar with the UK in the 1980s may shudder at the mention of the name TINA. Nothing to do with the pop star Tina Turner but an acronym, for ‘There Is No Alternative’, frequently used by the Conservative government in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher, to justify a whole range of drastic market based policies, many of which later proved disastrous. Schools, Housing, the National Health Service and taxation were all cut, sold off, chopped and changed, all under the assumption that doing anything else would simply have been impossible.

Readers who are also familiar with the UK at the moment may feel a sense of déja-vu as a coalition government of the Conservatives and (my own) Liberal Democrats appears to be making a strikingly similar argument to achieve the same purpose.

Personally I find this disturbing, for two reasons. First, because of now only lingering attachment to a party I have supported for as long as I can remember; but secondly because, despite many misgivings, I find myself thinking that they have a point – when we are leaving our children a world of depleted resources and a changed climate is it really acceptable to leave them substantial public debt as well?

However, it is really something we should all feel disturbed about, whatever our views of government cuts and market based reforms, because as campaigners for the abatement of climate change we often end up using the same arguments ourselves. How many times have you ended up exasperated by a climate sceptic or shameless consumerist thinking 'why can't they see that living like that just isn't an option?'

It is also a wider problem for Quakers. For instance, while we are very good at making the case for alternatives to violence, I think many Friends end up in denial about the existence of acceptable alternatives to non-violence, for instance in the case of intervening in the Rwandan genocide. I do not mean by this that we should change our position on cuts, climate change or pacifism. The thing is to remember that we are arguing for the best option, not the only option (or even for the only acceptable, rational, moral, feasible or 'Quakerly' option).

The problem with thinking like TINA is twofold. First, as the case of Thatcher's reforms illustrates, it can lead to making disastrous decisions, and to keep on making disastrous decisions in the face of the evidence that this is what is happening. However, even if the right choices are being made, TINA is still dangerous because it gets in the way of persuading others that these choices are the right ones.

When we cease to accept that there are alternatives to our own way of thinking, and move from believing it to be the best alternative to assuming it is the only alternative, we cease to take seriously the arguments of those who disagree with us. They move from being 'bad' arguments to being 'wrong' arguments and eventually to 'irrelevant' arguments not worthy of our consideration.

However, when we do this we can no longer engage with them, and hence put ourselves at a clear disadvantage when trying to persuade others that it is we who are correct. In closing ourselves to the possibility that we may be mistaken we can end up closing ourselves to the possibility of showing others their own mistakes. I find I can hardly bare to read the arguments of climate change deniers any more, but if I do not read them how can I hope to refute them?

No matter how convinced we are that climate change is real, that the moral and economic arguments for acting quickly to reduce it are compelling, that the means of doing so are effective, and that the effect of changing our own lives is more likely to be positive than negative, we still need to entertain the possibility that there is an alternative. If we start to think that all these beliefs cannot be false - i.e., if we start to think that there really is no alternative - then we become less able to show others the errors in their thinking, and so less able to help them see that all these things are true.
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Thanks to Simon for this post. Simon will be the co-tutor for the Good Lives(politics) weekend 1-3 April next year (not yet on Woodbrooke’s website).
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Saturday, 9 October 2010

How far does empathy extend?

Frans de Waal has a new book out, about empathy. De Waal is a primatologist (head of the primate behaviour department at Emory University, Atlanta) and has published widely on primate behaviour and on what we can learn from primates about our human peculiarities. The Age of Empathy: nature’s lessons for a kinder society is out now, published by Souvenir Press (part of Random House).

De Waal believes that the success of Homo sapiens rests primarily on our capacity for empathy and our urge to understand and appreciate others. We possess an innate sensitivity to the emotional states of other members of our species. De Waal shows that this understanding is possessed by most mammals, particularly primates (and also dolphins and elephants), but especially by humans. We are a social species, and we have thrived because empathy as has enabled us to be kind. The dark side of this is, of course, that it is precisely our empathy, distorted, that also enables certain people to devise punishments and torture – they know very well the effect that such actions will have on the victims.

But in evolutionary terms, our empathy has hard-wired us for co-operation and altruism. Empathy creates a strong and effective social group that gives its members a survival advantage. It seems that empathy arrived with the evolution of maternal care in mammals. A female needs to be in touch with her offspring and understand when they are in danger or trouble. That probably explains why women tend to be more empathetic than men, a fact that has a biochemical basis. The female mammalian hormone oxytocin is the key. If you study cooperative and competitive behaviour among a group of men and women, and then you administer a nasal spray of oxytocin, you get an increase in trust and empathy within both kinds of behaviours.

However, more complex mammals go beyond the limits of a chemical prompt. They try to understand why another animal is feeling sad or frightened, say. Mice don't do this but primates, dolphins and elephants, for example, do. In humans, this emotional perspective appears around the age of two, at the same time as the infant develops self-awareness; and this link is displayed across other species as well. The more self-aware an animal is, the more empathetic it tends to be.

Empathy has been crucial to the development of human society. It holds our societies together and drives us to care for the sick and the elderly for example. It also allows us to get along in cities. Chimpanzees – which can be very tolerant of others – would simply not put up with being surrounded by strangers of their own species and would start killing one another. Humans – on the whole! – do not do this. We put up with masses of strangers around us. In that sense, we are very strange: we can tolerate others in huge numbers.

It is important that we understand this. Mainstream economic models are based on the idea that everything in nature is competitive and that we should set up a society which is competitive to reflect that. If some people can’t keep up, that’s just hard luck on them. De Waal believes that this is a total misinterpretation of the facts. The individual is not all-important – we are deeply social animals. We can be selfish but we are also highly empathetic and supportive. These features define us and should be built into society.

You can watch De Waal talking about the book and listen to him taking in a US radio interview.

But empathy can produce some surprising effects – remember that it evolved in its human form when we were living as hunter-gatherers in small tribal groups. Our relationships to others were face-to-face and immediate, and there weren’t very many of those others. And although de Waal argues that it is our empathy that enables us to live in crowded cities, there are other ways in which we fail to extend it to wider groups. For example, if people are asked to donate money either ‘to help save the life of a sick child’, or ‘to help save the lives of a group of sick children’, the amount of money given is consistently higher when the request is for one child. Aid charities have realised this and the increasing number of opportunities to ‘sponsor a child’ (one named child) are testament to its effectiveness in fundraising.

In both experimental and real life situations a criminal who has seriously defrauded one person will be sentenced more severely than one who has defrauded many. It’s as if we empathise more with the imagined one person than with the group or crowd.

We can see this in media reactions and public interest in world events. I wonder if you remember the incident in 1981 when a little Italian boy fell down an artesian well. The attempted rescue was long and arduous (and eventually failed). For three days, round the clock, the world’s media reporters were at that well-head. News bulletins updated viewers and listeners throughout the day. Well, you might think, what’s so strange about this? What is interesting is that, at the same time as this, an earthquake in Iran had caused devastation, and many dead children (as well as adults, of course) were being dug out of the rubble . . . but the news focus remained on this one boy. I know Iran wasn’t one of the West’s favourite countries, even then; but more than that – somehow it’s easier to focus on one human tragedy than many.

We have an analogous situation now with the Chilean miners and the victims of the floods in India and Pakistan. Ordinary British people have given very generously to the flood appeal but the story is fading from the media. What can one continue to say about millions of people displaced? It’s a human tragedy on a vast scale – almost too big to think about, too difficult to contemplate. But the drama of the group of miners remains a news item – and, as in Italy 29 years ago, there is a permanent vigil at the head of the mine. So there is not only the human drama of the miners, but also of their families waiting for them. There are individuals, personalities, life stories we can relate to. We can perhaps imagine being trapped underground. And there is a progressing news story – how well the drilling is going, what items are being sent down the supply shaft, what the cage looks like (we can all imagine standing in it) . . . and so on. Empathy is an emotional response, and our emotional selves respond to such stories.

How can we extend our empathy? We have a situation in Britain at the moment where we are facing draconian cuts to public services (the government spending review comes on 20 October), with the NHS and overseas aid being the only two areas of expenditure that are protected. The government must be given credit for not reneging on Britain’s promises to the world’s poor, but their stance is not widely supported by the British public, and may become even more controversial as public sector cuts really start to bite.

As the world continues to warm in response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, those who suffer first and suffer the most will be the poor in the developing world – the Pakistan floods are a taste of things to come. Can we learn to extend our empathy to millions of faceless other humans? Can we fend off ‘compassion fatigue’

We can practise empathy, and we can tell stories - a process that appeals to the heart more than the head. A US pastor in Illinois gives us this checklist (for more details on the list, click the link):
1. Listen more, talk less.
2. Stop interrupting.
3. Don't finish others’ sentences.
4. Don't give advice.
5. Ask good questions.
6. Give focused attention.
7. Slow down.
8. Acknowledge your own feelings.
9. Genuinely care about others.
10. Read good fiction.
11. Visit other cultures.
12. Ask people about their feelings.
13. Care for pets and babies.
14. Participate in theatre

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Friday, 1 October 2010

Radical - Green - Peace - Quaker co-operation in Norwich

This is a guest post from Lesley Grahame, in Norwich. Lesley is a member of Norwich local Quaker meeting, a Resource Person for the Living Witness Project, a Green Party Activist, and now one of 14 Green Party Councillors on Norwich City Council.
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Sometimes when I give a workshop, I cite Norwich's One World Column as a success story. One World Column (OWC) started in 2004, and ran until September 2010, when it closed with less than a week's notice.

Photo credit: Andy Street
About the Column

The One World Column raises issues such as international development, poverty, globalisation, peacemaking, human rights, international relations and the environment. Our columnists intend to provide a positive voice for the future and to represent a wide group of concerned Norfolk people. We welcome feedback and healthy debate!

The column is published every Saturday in the Eastern Daily Press.
It started with a protest about the way protest was reported, and in true Quaker style, a polite request was made to the Eastern Daily Press (EDP) for a right to reply. It was a time when 1-2 million people marching against invading Iraq got two column inches which dimissed us as terrorist sympathisers ("for us or against us" in Bush terms), in a newspaper which gave a double page spread to the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance march, a tiny fraction of the size, in the same month. Another indicator of the atmosphere of the time was the decision of security staff, at a major public venue, to call the police to stop us reading out the names of the dead from the Iraq war. The police told them to leave us alone. The local radio station said they would report the incident only if someone got arrested.

In this context EDP's decision to allow us that precious right of reply was brave, and totally unexpected. The monthly column became a weekly one, and presumably sold papers and encouraged discussion.

In 2006, a member of the Muslim community hired a quarter of that same venue (referred to above) for a day's Peace Camp, and invited local peace groups to have stalls there, to meet each other and the public. This was the year when Israel invaded Lebanon, so there was mileage for the newspapers in Jews and Muslims working together to resist war and occupation. This year (2010) Peace Camp hired the whole venue, in a deal which included the free use of a panoramic screen displaying a virtual peace garden in the week leading up to the main event. Thirty-five local peace groups showcased their activities; the event was opened by the Green Lord Mayor, and visited by Simon Wright, the local Liberal Democrat MP.

The groups involved have undertaken some activities together in the times between the annual Peace Camps, including a Question Time for Candidates on Peace, hosted and run by Quakers, which gave the participating groups public statements on their issues from both Norwich MPs. Adrian Ramsay saying:
'no, we won't just stop subsidising the arms trade, we will stop the arms trade'
convinced me that another way of doing politics is possible. (You can read a list of the questions put by the various peace groups on the Norwich Peace Camp Forum's website.)

And somewhere along the way, an activist newsletter emerged to facilitate groups sharing and supporting each other's activities. This is now run by two Quakers.

A thriving Transition group, acting locally, is an important part of the mix, and only yesterday I was asked by a Transition activist why so many Transition-ers are Quakers. This month, Norwich elected 14 Green Party City Councillors, I am very honoured to be one of them.

This month also saw the demise of the One World Column, a sad loss for intelligent debate in Norwich. I don't know if all good things come to an end, or how far the OWC influenced the climate of opinion that allowed Greens to be elected; the attitude of the venue that once called the police on us to now offer us hospitality; and peace views to be sought and reported in mainstream media. I miss the Column, but celebrate its legacy, and have high hopes for the alternative visions that it helped to foster.
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Thanks to Lesley for this post.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at  and I can post it for you.

If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says!