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Posts Tagged ‘George Monbiot’

‘Is it reasonable to hope for a better world?’ Illustration: Michael Kirkham

There was an excellent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian last Saturday. I meant to share it sooner but got side-tracked by events. What he offers is a secular solution to our dangerous predicament but even so it’s very much along the lines of the Bahá’í spiritual one. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Donald Trump. North Korea. Hurricanes. Neoliberalism. Is there any hope of a better world? Yes, but we have to come together to tell a new, kinder story explaining who we are, and how we should live.

Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? Study the cruelty and indifference of governments, the disarray of opposition parties, the apparently inexorable slide towards climate breakdown, the renewed threat of nuclear war, and the answer appears to be no. Our problems look intractable, our leaders dangerous, while voters are cowed and baffled. Despair looks like the only rational response. But over the past two years, I have been struck by four observations. What they reveal is that political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. They suggest to me that it is despair, not hope, that is irrational. I believe they light a path towards a better world.

The first observation is the least original. It is the realisation that it is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives. The political history of the second half of the 20th century could be summarised as the conflict between its two great narratives: the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. First one and then the other captured the minds of people across the political spectrum. When the social democracy story dominated, even the Conservatives and Republicans adopted key elements of the programme. When neoliberalism took its place, political parties everywhere, regardless of their colour, fell under its spell. These stories overrode everything: personality, identity and party history.

This should not surprise us. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

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‘In Leeds, a cafe run by the Real Junk Food Project (pictured) addresses not only the waste of food but also the waste of social opportunity.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

‘In Leeds, a cafe run by the Real Junk Food Project (pictured) addresses not only the waste of food but also the waste of social opportunity.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

There is a moving and and insightful piece by George Monbiot in today’s Guardian. It suggests that there is more hope out there in our society than generally hits the headlines. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

If there is an irrepressible human trait it’s the determination, against all odds, to reconnect. Though governments seek to atomise and rule, we will keep finding ways to come together. Our social brains forbid any other outcome. They urge us to reach out, even when the world seems hostile.

This is the conclusion I draw from touring England over the past few weeks, talking about loneliness and mental health. Everywhere I have been so far, I’ve come across the same, double-sided story: stark failures of government offset in part by the extraordinary force of human kindness.

First the bad news: reminders of the shocking state of our mental health services. I met people who had waited a year for treatment, only to be given the wrong therapy. I heard how the thresholds for treatment are repeatedly being raised, to ration services. I met one practitioner who had been told, as a result of the cuts, to recommend computerised cognitive behaviour therapy to her patients. In other words, instead of working with a therapist, people must sit at a screen, using a programme to try to address disorders likely to have been caused or exacerbated by social isolation. Why not just write these patients a prescription instructing them to bog off and die?At least then they wouldn’t have to wait a year to be told to consult their laptops. I heard of children profoundly damaged by abuse and neglect being sent to secure accommodation – imprisoned in other words – not for their own safety, or other people’s, but because there is nowhere else for them to go.

These are not isolated cases. It is a systemic problem. There has been no child and adolescent mental health survey in this country since 2004 (though one is now planned). Snapshot studies suggest something is going badly wrong: figures published last week, for example, suggest a near quadrupling in the past 10 years of girls admitted to hospital after cutting themselves. But there are no comprehensive figures. Imagine the outcry if the government had published no national figures on childhood cancer for 12 years, and was unable to tell you whether it was rising or falling. . . . .

But amid the rubble of a collapsing state, I kept stumbling into something wonderful. Performing with the musician Ewan McLennan, using music and the spoken word to explore these subjects, has brought me into contact with groups that restore my faith in the human spirit.

In Leeds we ate in a cafe run by the Real Junk Food Project, whose meals are made from waste or donated food. Seeing people of all ages, from all stations of life, who had never come together before, yakking away over dinner like old friends, I realised that the project is addressing not only the waste of food but also the waste of social opportunity. Breaking bread together: this is still the best and simplest way of reconnecting.

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George-MonbiotEarlier this week   flagged up  a study that suggests that humanity is more humane than we think. This is so relevant to the themes of my current sequence of posts I couldn’t resist publishing about it. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Do you find yourself thrashing against the tide of human indifference and selfishness? Are you oppressed by the sense that while you care, others don’t? That, because of humankind’s callousness, civilisation and the rest of life on Earth are basically stuffed? If so, you are not alone. But neither are you right.

A study by the Common Cause Foundation, due to be published next month, reveals two transformative findings. The first is that a large majority of the 1,000 people they surveyed – 74% – identifies more strongly with unselfish values than with selfish values. This means that they are more interested in helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness and justice than in money, fame, status and power. The second is that a similar majority – 78% – believes others to be more selfish than they really are. In other words, we have made a terrible mistake about other people’s minds.

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.

review article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out that our behaviour towards unrelated members of our species is “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. While chimpanzees might share food with members of their own group, though usually only after being plagued by aggressive begging, they tend to react violently towards strangers. Chimpanzees, the authors note, behave more like the homo economicus of neoliberal mythology than people do.

. . . .

So why do we retain such a dim view of human nature? Partly, perhaps, for historical reasons. Philosophers from Hobbes to RousseauMalthus to Schopenhauer, whose understanding of human evolution was limited to the Book of Genesis, produced persuasive, influential and catastrophically mistaken accounts of “the state of nature” (our innate, ancestral characteristics). Their speculations on this subject should long ago have been parked on a high shelf marked “historical curiosities”. But somehow they still seem to exert a grip on our minds.

Another problem is that – almost by definition – many of those who dominate public life have a peculiar fixation on fame, money and power. Their extreme self-centredness places them in a small minority, but, because we see them everywhere, we assume that they are representative of humanity.

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drowning-in-bags

More commentary is rolling in about the corrosive effects of materialism. I got the heads up on this one from a good friend. What is surprising perhaps is not so much that materialism is toxic, but rather that so many people seem to need to have that pointed out.  Below is an extract: for the full article, which gives a clear account of how materialism so successfully perpetuates itself, see link.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 10th December 2013

That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week(1)) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches(2), a youth posing in front of his helicopter(3), endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools, spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse; something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.

The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled onto her vast bed(4). It’s captioned “shoppy shoppy” and “#goldrush”, but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.

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