The Choice Before Us

There is a quote by Sonya Renee Taylor that originated on Instagram that has been doing the rounds on Facebook that reads: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. “

I must admit that at the beginning of the period of lockdown I too longed to go back to what I considered ‘normal,’ even though I did recognise a lot wrong with the world and was an advocate for change, especially for the sake of the environment.

Here in Australia we had just come through a summer of drought and devastating bushfires, clearly results of human made climate change. But during this period of enforced inactivity through lockdown we have all been given a glimpse of what could be with the air and water clearing and noise reduction from less road and air traffic.  The main problem is that for those personally and financially affected by the economic downturn and job loss as a result of the pandemic, their glimpse of a future without the economic model that afforded them the lifestyle they enjoyed pre-corona has nothing to recommend it. Whatever future we move into has to take into account the human fallout of a global financial crisis.

We are faced with 2 realities: the truth, positive and negative, of the world we considered ‘normal,’ and the truth, positive and negative, about the post-pandemic world we hope for. To explore this theme, this will be the first of a series of blog articles, using as a basis a piece that appeared in ‘Golden Age of Gaia’ by public speaker and author Charles Eisenstein where he masterfully captures the issues involved in choosing where to from here. In that article he writes:

“For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter, waiting for a nip of the black swan’s beak to snap it in two. Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?

“COVID-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. None of the world’s problems are technically difficult to solve; they originate in human disagreement. In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless. A few months ago, a proposal to halt commercial air travel would have seemed preposterous. Likewise for the radical changes we are making in our social behaviour, economy, and the role of government in our lives. COVID demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important.

“COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future. We might ask, after so many have lost their jobs, whether all of them are the jobs the world most needs, and whether our labour and creativity would be better applied elsewhere.

“We might ask, having done without it for a while, whether we really need so much air travel, Disneyworld vacations, or trade shows. What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of? And on a darker note, what among the things that are being taken away right now – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, in-person gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and public life – might we need to exert intentional, political and personal will to restore?

“We are right to stop, stunned at the newness of our situation. Because of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, some lead in the same direction we’ve already been headed. Some lead to hell on earth. And some lead to a world more healed and more beautiful than we ever dared believe to be possible. 

“Going without hugs for a few weeks seems a small price to pay if it will stem an epidemic that could take millions of lives. There is a strong argument for social distancing in the near term: to prevent a sudden surge of COVID cases from overwhelming the medical system. I would like to put that argument in a larger context, especially as we look to the long term. Lest we institutionalize distancing and reengineer society around it, let us be aware of what choice we are making and why.

“The same goes for the other changes happening around the coronavirus epidemic. Some commentators have observed how it plays neatly into an agenda of totalitarian control. A frightened public accepts abridgments of civil liberties that are otherwise hard to justify, such as the tracking of everyone’s movements at all times, forcible medical treatment, involuntary quarantine, restrictions on travel and the freedom of assembly, censorship of what the authorities deem to be disinformation, suspension of habeas corpus, and military policing of civilians. The same goes for the automation of commerce; the transition from participation in sports and entertainment to remote viewing; the migration of life from public to private spaces; the transition away from place-based schools toward online education, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores, and the movement of human work and leisure onto screens. Covid-19 is accelerating pre-existing trends, political, economic, and social. 

“While all the above are, in the short term, justified on the grounds of flattening the curve, we are also hearing a lot about a ‘new normal’; that is to say, the changes may not be temporary at all. Since the threat of infectious disease, like the threat of terrorism, never goes away, control measures can easily become permanent.”

At the present moment, a third of the way through May, the official statistics are that 282,709 have died from COVID-19. By the time it runs its course, the death toll could be ten times or a hundred times greater. Each one of these people has loved ones, family and friends. Compassion and conscience call us to do what we can to avert unnecessary tragedy.

What will the final numbers be? The question is impossible to answer, but more recently, estimates have plunged as it became apparent that most cases are mild or asymptomatic. A recent paper in the journal ‘Science’ argues that 86% of infections have been undocumented, which points to a much lower mortality rate than current case fatality rate would indicate. Everyday the media reports the total number of COVID-19 cases, but no one has any idea what the true number is, because only a tiny portion of the population has been tested.

The point of this reflection is, however, if we can change so radically for COVID-19, why can’t we imagine doing it for other conditions too? In 2013, according to the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization), 5 million children worldwide die of hunger every year. Suicide kills a million people globally each year, connected of course to despair and depression. Drug overdoses kill 70,000 in the USA alone each year. Why are we also not frenzied about averting nuclear Armageddon or an ecological collapse? Why are we able to unify our collective will to stem the Corona virus, but not to address other grave threats to humanity?

The answer is simply because in the face of world hunger, addiction, suicide, or ecological collapse, we as a society do not know what to do. That is because there is nothing external against which to fight. COVID-19 is an external threat that we know how to meet, unlike so many of our other fears.

Charles Eisenstein’s article continues, “Today, most of our challenges no longer succumb to force. Our antibiotics and surgery fail to meet the surging health crises of autoimmunity, addiction, and obesity. Our guns and bombs, built to conquer armies, are useless to erase hatred abroad or keep domestic violence out of our homes. Our police and prisons cannot heal the breeding conditions of crime. Our pesticides cannot restore ruined soil. Covid-19 recalls the good old days when the challenges of infectious diseases succumbed to modern medicine and hygiene, at the same time as the Nazis succumbed to the war machine, and nature itself succumbed, or so it seemed, to technological conquest and improvement. It recalls the days when our weapons worked and the world seemed indeed to be improving with each technology of control.

“What kind of problem succumbs to domination and control? The kind caused by something from the outside, something Other. When the cause of the problem is something intimate to ourselves, like homelessness or inequality, addiction or obesity, there is nothing to war against. We may try to install an enemy, blaming, for example, the billionaires, Vladimir Putin, or the Devil, but then we miss key information, such as the ground conditions that allow billionaires (or viruses) to replicate in the first place.

“If there is one thing our civilization is good at, it is fighting an enemy. We welcome opportunities to do what we are good at, which prove the validity of our technologies, systems, and worldview. And so, we manufacture enemies, cast problems like crime, terrorism, and disease into us-versus-them terms, and mobilize our collective energies toward those endeavours that can be seen that way. Thus, we single out COVID-19 as a call to arms, reorganizing society as if for a war effort, while treating as normal the possibility of nuclear Armageddon, ecological collapse, and five million children starving.”

(To be continued in next month’s blog article)

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The Ballad of Dunny Roll

The year was 2020, early March, or thereabouts;

off the back of quite a summer plagued by bushfires and droughts.

So the nation was exhausted, many folks weren’t thinking straight

Which goes some way towards explaining #ToiletPaperGate.

It started with a virus, some say China was the donor.

They called it COVID-19 but we called it My Corona.

And we saw the illness spreading and the cruise ships quarantined.

And we sanitized our fingers as we lined up to be screened.

Then in amongst the panic, someone headed down to Coles

And loaded up their trolley full of toilet paper rolls.

We’ll never know who did it, what their motive was or why.

Or what brand of roll they hoarded, was it scented or two-ply?

All we know is in that moment, when they took it from the shelf,

They unleashed a chain reaction as a nation shat itself.

Now we’ve faced wars and cyclones, we’ve survived them all as one.

But a toilet paper shortage? Well it made us come undone.

For the people started hoarding all the last remaining sheets.

There were punch ons in the aisles, there was panic in the streets.

“Me crack’s in need of wiping!” Someone cried in desperation.

What else can I bloody use to solve this situation?

Some stooped to using gum leaves. Others left it on the floor.

Many wiped with plastic bags and returned them to the store.

While others rocked on the verandah with a shotgun fully manned.

To protect their precious stock, they’d rather die then use their hand.

And the cheeky bidet owners with their derrieres unhurt?

Well they rented out their bathrooms, $20 for a squirt.

But the greatest single irony throughout this sordid farce,

You get Corona in your nose and lungs, not shooting out your arse.

So we’ll never know when faced with a pandemic-level slaughter,

Why we spent our cash on poo tickets instead of food and water.

‘Cause history will tell you how the virus was contained.

But the rush on toilet paper? That can never be explained.

And I wonder if the Anzacs were infected by some jerks

Who’d fight over a dunny roll instead of fighting Turks.

‘Cause it seems to me it could just be a true blue Aussie trait,

to panic in a crisis and steal bog roll from your mates.

This poem, by comedian Sammy J, appeared on the ABC on March 12 of this year. I begin this month’s blog entry with it as, while a humorous and satirical commentary on the panic buying of toilet paper that marked the first real impact of the COVID19 pandemic on Australian society, it concludes with a pertinent question about, not only Australian society, but human beings in general. That question is really just how civilised are we as human beings?

It’s clear, as the panic buying illustrated, that our higher capacities for reason, civility, compassion and rationality quickly vanished when the instinct for self-preservation kicked in. It is somewhat surprising and painful to discover how shallow a veneer our ‘civilized’ way of life really is. We like to think of ourselves as progressing and growing in sophistication, education and in our humanity. But the truth is that we are still members of the animal kingdom, with all the instincts for survival that we share with other animals. This is not a new realisation. The theme was explored poignantly in the novel, “The Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding. Golding explored this very point in his story about a group of upper class English school boys marooned on an uninhabited island and how their behaviour quickly deteriorates to include murder, violence, and domination of the weak by the strong.

The story asserts that in such a situation where the structures and norms that keep us civilised are removed, we revert to a Darwinian survival of the fittest. When our survival is threatened, all reason and rationality fly out the window. In our case, even though there was enough for everyone in terms of food, toilet paper, etc., unnecessary panic buying quickly developed, and the most vulnerable missed out.

Yet, this behaviour shouldn’t surprise us. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs points out that our ‘higher’ pursuits are dependant on having our more basic needs met.

Our need for safety is pretty low in the scale, which suggests that once it is threatened, we would abandon our higher pursuits in favour of efforts to assure our survival.

For many of us, though, who hold a high opinion of humanity, it is disappointing to see our fellow human beings revert to more base behaviour. It feels as if it reflects on us. The behaviour of our fellow human beings challenges our own self-esteem, which we have pinned on participation in the human race or in our culture, race or society. We rely on the society to which we belong to give us a measure of ourselves. When that society behaves in a way we do not expect, or rather in a way that is less than we expect of ourselves, we are dismayed and wonder what does this say about us. It weakens our anchor point and our sense of security. Our confidence in society is based on believing we understand the rules we all play by. We feel secure in the belief that people in our society will behave in a certain way and we can rely on them to be civilised, rational and reasonable. When that proves not to be true, our security is threatened. We lose trust in them, though denial usually holds us for a while as we put the blame on a few ‘ratbags’ rather than accept that human beings on the whole are not as civilised as we like to think they are.

To steel ourselves in response to this realization we may be the kind of person that tends to consider the worst case scenario, so as not to be taken by surprise again. Our disillusionment with humanity, however, can jaundice our outlook. To get the full picture, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the other end of the spectrum. Crises like the COVID19 pandemic, while bringing out the worst in some people, also brings out the best. Stories of selfless acts have emerged such as that of an infected elderly priest in Italy who declined the use of a respirator in favour of a younger patient, and dying as a result. We shouldn’t blind ourselves to the number of volunteers who have stepped up to help those who are most vulnerable by shopping and delivering groceries to them. We shouldn’t fail to take into account the sacrifices and professional commitment of our healthcare workers and essential service providers, who put their lives at risk daily in this crisis to continue to care for the sick and the dying.

As human beings, we are a mass of contradictions, and always have been. Victor Frankl, in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ put it this way: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

 

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The Threat from the Right

I was taken aback last week when I heard ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) director-general Mike Burgess naming neo-Nazi groups as one of Australia’s most serious security threats. In his first annual threat assessment from Canberra, he expressed concern at the ‘hateful ideology’ of right wing extremist groups saying, “In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”

Pope Francis recently condemned the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. He linked it to the rise of populism. “It is troubling to see, in many parts of the world, an increase in selfishness and indifference, lack of concern of others and the attitude that says life is good as long as it is good for me, and when things go wrong, anger and malice are unleashed,” he said. “This creates a fertile ground for the forms of factionalism and populism we see around us, where hatred quickly springs up…where hatred is disseminated.”

To some degree I would expect to find this in some countries of Europe, fuelled by the war on terror, the fear of terrorist attacks, the great influx of Muslim refugees, the global financial crisis, and now the Corona Virus Pandemic. Nazism was born in a time of economic hardship for Germany, and as part of that nation’s memory, it is easy for those seeds to germinate amongst those who feel disenfranchised.

It is even easier to expect to hear about this taking place in the United States where a civil war was fought along the lines of white supremacy (at least in the public mind), and segregation was part of its history.

But for me it is another thing to find it named as a serious threat in Australia. From what I’ve read, Australia’s alt right groups are diverse, according to experts, and would not necessarily publically self-describe themselves as Nazi, nor would it be common for them to be talking about or collecting memorabilia. In Australia there are some key groups and many of these groups overlap in their ideas, but many of these groups are quiet, which ASIO considers a danger. Only one group proudly claims the title ‘Nazi’ and that is the ‘Antipodean Resistance.’

The Antipodean Resistance describe themselves as ‘the Hitlers you’ve been waiting for.’ To join the men’s chapter, you need to be white, straight, young, monogamous and date only other white people. The group rose to fame when they put up swastika stickers in places like Fitzroy and on the Monash University campus in Melbourne.

Another identified group are ‘The Lads Society,’ run by Blair Cottrell and Tom Sewell, who brand themselves as a fitness group, but have radical racial undertones and want to create ‘Anglo-European’ enclaves in Australian cities. Because it is not overtly Nazi at the start, it’s easy for a wide range of people to see appeal. Dr. Campion, a lecturer of terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University, said, “They use whiteness, heritage, the natural order, narratives around threats through immigration and invasion, and that’s when they start to attack Jews, Muslims, occasionally Christians.”

Other groups are more hidden and silent, but their ideologies have only hardened, particularly since the Christchurch Mosque massacre. That attack energised the extreme right and awakened certain ideas. According to ASIO they have infiltrated the ‘Young Nationals,’ committed murder and arson, hold Reclaim Australia rallies, and recruit members as young as 13.

Last December, the distinguished German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, spoke of his concern about the resurgence of nationalism around the world. Moltmann himself served in the Hitler Youth as a boy and was a WWII POW at the time of his conversion to Christianity. So he has a personal perspective on the evils of nationalism. He called the new wave of nationalism taking root in many countries a ‘setback for humanity.’ “Humanity precedes nationality,” he said in a lecture to students at the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland.

Moltmann, now 93 years old, spoke candidly about growing up under the extreme nationalism of Nazi Germany and the impact this had on his own family. He recalled that, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he was seven years old. “My larger family was divided between anti-Hitler socialists and pro-Hitler Nazis.”

In 1937 his father was told to either join the Nazi party or lose his job as a teacher. His father joined the party to save his family and when the War broke out volunteered for the army, remaining at odds with Nazism. Moltmann, himself, was drafted into the Army along with his entire school class at just 16. After the war ended, when he returned to Germany, he felt lost over the things he’d learned about Auschwitz and the killing of German soldiers by the SS.

“Since then I have been convinced there is no fatherland in dictatorship,” he said. He challenged Christians to reject nationalistic ideas saying, “The church of Christ is present in all the people on earth and cannot become a ‘national religion.’ “The church of Christ ecumenically embraces the whole inhabited earth,” he said, “She is not a tribal religion, nor a Western religion, nor a white religion, but the church of all humanity.”

 

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Health, a Justice Issue

When it comes to health concerns, at present all attention is focused on the Corona Virus outbreak and efforts to contain it. Of the infections and diseases that afflict humankind, some are caused by viruses and others by bacteria. Bacteria can be combatted using antibiotics. These drugs have no effect on viruses. The best approach with dealing with viral infections is prevention – that is by developing a vaccine, whose effect is to trigger an immune response in the person vaccinated so that they develop an immunity to that particular viral strain.

The development of antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial infections, when it first came, was a game changer and has allowed human life to successfully flourish. Prior to their advent, most people did not survive many curable infections, although the use of Sulpha drugs and alcohol disinfectants improved things compared to what had happened previously.

In recent times, though, overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics, as well as the natural processes of genetic mutations and natural selection, has seen the development of the ‘Super bugs,’ or antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacterial strains have developed a resistance to normal antibiotics and as a result Pharmaceutical companies have invested a lot of research money into developing new generations of antibiotics to combat these diseases. It is like a medical arms race. As new drugs are developed, it is only a matter of time before the bacteria develop resistance to them, and so the research must continue as to lose this arms race could plunge humanity back to the dark ages of pre-antibiotic levels of infection and death.

But today the world is at risk of losing effective antibiotics altogether. Big Pharmaceutical companies are now abandoning the expensive pursuit of developing new antibiotic strains, leaving the global population at the mercy of previously treatable diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of declining private investment and lack of innovation in the development of new antibiotics that are undermining efforts to combat drug-resistant infections.

The perverse reason for this is that there is no real money in it. It costs billions to develop new strains of antibiotics, much of which is soaked up by repeated failures. As a result of such costly development, once a new drug hits the market, hospitals can’t afford to pay for them.

Antibiotics, which are ordinarily taken over a number of days, aren’t money-spinners for the Big Pharmaceuticals, unlike cancer drugs or the treatments for chronic ailments like arthritis. Smaller companies that have stepped into the breach are going bankrupt, discouraging further research and development. These smaller to medium sized companies are the primary drivers of research and development for new antibiotics while the Big Pharmaceuticals (like Novartis and Allergan) continue to exit the field. But because the costs are prohibitive for little financial reward, start up research projects fail to go the distance. Many of the remaining US antibiotic companies are teetering towards insolvency.

Two new reports by the WHO established that the 60 products in development bring little benefit over existing treatments and very few target the most critical resistant bacteria, while drugs currently in research will take years before they reach patients. But the grim financial outlook for the few companies that are still committed to antibiotic research is driving away investors and threatening to strangle the development of new lifesaving drugs at a time when they are urgently needed.

A UN report that came out in 2015 laid out that drug-resistant diseases already caused at least 700,000 deaths globally per year, including 230,000 deaths from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a figure that could increase to 10 million deaths globally per year by 2050, under the most alarming scenario of no action being taken. About 2.4 million people could die in high-income countries (including the US, Canada and Australia) by 2050 without a sustained effort to contain antibiotic resistance. The economic damage of uncontrolled antibiotic resistance could be comparable to the shocks experienced during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis as a result of dramatically increased health care expenditures; impact on food and feed production, trade and livelihoods; and increased poverty and inequality.

What is the way out of this mess?

WHO noted that only government intervention might save the day. The UN report notes that the issues are complex but not insurmountable and perhaps not even that economically costly if a longer-term view was taken by government. Stronger political leadership, advocacy, coordination and accountability are needed at all levels to enable a sustained “One Health” response to antibiotic resistance. All stakeholders – including governments, civil society and the private sector – need to be engaged and to collaborate in an unprecedented effort across the human, animal, plant, food and feed production and environmental sectors, based on a shared vision and goals. If we address this issue, the results would pay for themselves due to costs averted.

Sadly, however, when the UN report was released, the ABC reported: “In Australia it’s taken the government 6 years to respond to a senate committee into the issue, and it’s acting on few of the recommendations.”

The prime unanimous recommendation was the establishment of an independent coordinating centre. The Federal Government rejected the recommendation. Professor Lindsay Grayson, Department of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, said that we’re not talking about spending a lot of money but rather about the coordination of the existing structures. It is this that has not been implemented nor supported by the government.

In the News recently there was talk of control of prescribing antibiotics and preventing doctors from prescribing repeats of antibiotics as a way of containing the spread of resistance.

We may have grown up with the impression that the Big Pharmaceutical companies are altruistic organisations and that research into medical treatments are fuelled by the drive to help humanity fight disease and live longer. The truth is, as always, money is the driver. It is profits and not our health that is the primary interest for the Big Pharmaceuticals.

So if we can do something to push the agenda along, we need to do so. Write to local politicians and to federal politicians about your concern. Write to the Big Pharmaceuticals or sign petitions, when they come along. Do not presume that they have your best interests at heart. They are only interested in lining their own pockets.

 

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St. Anthony In the Fields Ecology Project

Many of you know that St. Anthony in the Fields, at Terrey Hills, NSW, was the birthplace of the Passionist Family Group Movement, but you may not know the lead it is taking in becoming a green church that is implementing the teachings of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

The parish was given to the care of the Passionists at the end of the 1960’s and flourished under the leadership of Fr. Peter McGrath, CP. Some 20 odd years ago, the Passionist Congregation gave the parish back to the Broken Bay Diocese due to our lack of personnel to continue to care for it directly. Since then, with a change of administration, many who used to attend, and who had come from other nearby parishes, decided to worship in their own geographical parishes, leaving a faithful remnant to carry on the Passionist Charism and Spirit.

I recently visited the parish on a tour to support and promote the Passionist Family Group Movement and gathered with some 40 people to talk about the future directions of the Church and the place the Family Groups have in that future. It was through this visit that I was introduced to a project initiated by the Social Justice group in response to the call to care for the environment and act on the teachings of Laudato Si. Ann Lanyon and Brian Norman showed me what they have been doing and their plans for the future. I’d like to share that initiative with you in this month’s blog article, in the hope that it may inspire others to take such initiatives in their own parish grounds or other green spaces. What follows comes in the words of those involved in the project, expressing their vision and hopes, the current state of their efforts and what has to be done.

“St. Anthony’s is located close to Garigal National Park and to endangered Duffy’s Forest plant communities. Kierans Creek, which traverses the site, provides important habitat for many species of small birds such as the Yellow Robin, reptiles such as the Eastern Water Dragon and the Black Swamp Wallaby. Surrounding properties in Myoora Rd. have been, or are in the process of becoming alienated from the natural vegetation, with the St. Anthony’s property soon to become one of the last remaining tracts of Duffy’s Forest Wildlife Corridor. There is a sacred duty to help preserve the movement of life and the revegetation project has attracted interest and support from Greater Sydney Landcare, Northern Beaches Council and other conservation bodies.

“In our Parish, God has given us both a unique challenge and an opportunity to respond to the call of the Gospel, to bring Laudato Si to life. For several years now, we have been revegetating the grounds at St. Anthony in the Fields Church to create a ‘Sacred Forest,’ a place to inspire ecological conversion and reconciliation, somewhere truly Australian to celebrate what it is to be Church in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.

“The grounds of St. Anthony’s are of particular significance to the local Aboriginal cultural identity, and religious ceremony. We have learned that it stand on both men and women’s country, near to a bora ring, where Gaimaraigal, Guringai and Dharug peoples met, traded and engaged in ceremonial ritual. Our creek was a thoroughfare for women and girls, travelling from as far as the area where Gosford now stands. The grounds continue to inspire Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to commune with nature and, through nature, with God. Each of our three parish churches were carved from indigenous Australian bushland and we recognise that we owe a debt to repay some of what we have taken and to display the stewardship Pope Francis asks of us.

“Over the years, teachers and clergy have used the grounds at St. Anthony’s for days of reflection and prayer. People come into the grounds to enjoy the serenity and to pray outside our Eucharistic chapel. Open-air celebrations of the Eucharist were a tradition over many years. Aboriginal people hold ‘yarn-ups’ around a campfire, whilst for Somali-Australians and their children from the Auburn area, the grounds at St. Anthony’s represent a place of wonder. Members of the David’s Place Community from Surry Hills visit for prayer, reflection and fellowship with our community and Mass.

“The church buildings are flexible, providing space for meetings, forums, gatherings and dinners. We hold forums on ecological issues and their related impacts and on other social Justice issues. We also hold gatherings and concerts with our indigenous friends and our youth use church and grounds for their activities. For a number of years, the church has been turned into a warm and welcoming environment for a gathering in solidarity with survivors of abuse.

“With the church buildings used for seminars, faith and environmental education, inter-faith dialogue, social justice forums and the like, regeneration of the grounds is providing first-hand opportunities to learn about and to experience the story of creation.

“Emboldened by Pope Francis and wishing to bring Laudato Si to life, our parish has begun to create, at St. Anthony’s, a sacred bushland space which, we hope, will become a resource for our diocese and our community, where people can discover God through the gifts of creation and use this discovery to bring healing to the environment.

“Our hopes and goals for a Sacred Forest at St. Anthony’s include:

  • To respond to the call of the Earth and the call of the Church through Pope Francis to nurture the Earth, to nurture creation, to keep it and make it grow according to its laws.
  • To revegetate the bushland of St. Anthony in the Fields church so as to enhance movement of native-species through the Duffy’s Forest Wildlife Corridor.
  • To seek reconciliation with the natural world, through symbolically attempting to restore what has been destroyed or taken away.
  • To continue to develop St. Anthony’s as a place for retreat, prayer, reflection and liturgical celebration, as a centre for environmental education and the development of environmental ethics.
  • To become a focal point for youth and young people to incorporate the social justice messages of the Church Fathers into a vibrant, contemporary sense of Christianity.
  • To establish the Parish as a good environmental citizen, through bush restoration, which is consistent with international practice in increasing carbon capture.
  • To provide safe habitat for threatened species of birdlife and other animals affected by habitat removal in nearby properties.
  • To enhance on-going sharing of the story, sharing the land relationship between the Northern Beaches Aboriginal community and the Frenchs Forest Catholic Parish.
  • To contribute towards growing the Church community through engaging the community in the project into the future.
  • To grow relationships with the local community through keeping it informed of activities and inviting participation in the project and use of the facilities.
  • To increase financial sustainability of St. Anthony’s through generation of a range of sources of income.

“It is vital for the present generation to hand on to future generations a world that is beginning to heal and to recover from the damage inflicted upon it since industrialisation. Pope Francis said, “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environment crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

“An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this Earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent Earth on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The Earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters…” (Evangelli Gaudium #183)”

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Growing Homelessness in Australia

The housing affordability crisis has been much on the news of late, as you are all aware. But what you may not know is that a key cause of the problem is that Australia has the highest housing costs and highest household debt in the world.

It is a problem that is getting worse and so I thought to provide you with some important information as well as responses you can make to this growing problem for Australian society. The information below is taken for the Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) magazine, ‘Just Now,’ volume 4, November 2019.

Adequate shelter is a basic human right recognised internationally and in Australia. Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that access to affordable housing is an essential element of living a dignified human life. Catholics have an important role to play in advocating for a more efficient housing system that views shelter not as a commodity, but as a basic human right. Society has a responsibility to protect the life and dignity of all persons. We believe there is enormous value in an effective housing system, striving to mitigate injustice and supporting those who lack the basic necessities for life.

However, with 1 in 200 people homeless on any given night in Australia, there are a number of key areas where the current policy is not working to achieve the best outcomes for persons at risk.

“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing…The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to be a homeless person, what it was to start life without a roof over his head. We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking. How is it that the Son of God has no home? Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing?” – Pope Francis 2015

WHAT IS HOMELESSNESS?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines homelessness as a state where a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives. A person is considered homeless when their current living arrangement:

  • Is in a dwelling that is inadequate;
  • Is in a dwelling that has no tenure, or if the initial tenure is short and not extendable;
  • Does not allow them to have control of, and access to, space for social relations.

So called, ‘rough sleepers’ represent just 7% of all homelessness Australia-wide. People who are experiencing homelessness are usually staying in:

  • Improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out;
  • Supported accommodation for the homeless;
  • Temporarily with other households;
  • Boarding houses;
  • Other temporary lodging;
  • “Severely overcrowded dwellings.”

“I recently met a woman in her 70’s whose entire pension paid for her rent. She relied on her meagre earnings from a casual job to pay for all other living expenses. She lived in fear of losing her job or not getting enough work to pay for her living costs. She feared for her future. After many years of waiting, she finally received affordable housing. The result was transformational. Every person needs the stability of a home. It’s a human right. Without a home, it’s impossible to get a hob, to look after your health or plan for the future. Affordable, permanent housing ends homelessness.” – Sue Mowbray, CEO of the Mercy Foundation.

SPOTLIGHT ON RURAL HOMELESSNESS

When most people think of homelessness, many think it is only a metropolitan occurrence. In reality, 60% of homeless Australians live in regional and rural locations.

An important reason for the growth of homelessness in regional Australia is a chronic shortage of affordable housing. Homes are scarce and unobtainable, especially for young people. A lack of access to support services is compounded by an increasingly more expensive private rental market and the fact that there has been a new construction of social housing since 2008 and the lack of access to support services is compounded by the unwillingness of Government to accept any responsibility for the housing crisis.

The phenomenon disproportionately affects young people, as there is limited employment and education options, which couples with inadequate formal support networks. The Australian Housing and Urban Research institute emphasises the importance of policies and programs in finding responses to youth homelessness in rural and regional areas. Research indicates that while homelessness is most common in rural areas, access to support services for young people tends to be found only in the large regional centres. The creation of local networks for young people experiencing homelessness in rural areas is crucial in ending the cyclical nature of the issue. Life skills training should also be provided alongside improved access to formal skills training at school, TAFE and University.

FAST FACTS

Census statistics reveal that there was a 14% increase in the number of people living in Australia and experiencing homelessness between 2011 and 2016. On census night, 116, 427 Australians were experiencing some form of homelessness. 58% were male and 42% were female. This works out to 50 out of every 10,000 people.

CAUSES

“The lack of housing, an extremely serious problem in itself, should be seen as a sign and summing up of a whole series of shortcomings: economic, social, cultural or simply human in nature. Given the extent of the problem, we should need little convincing of how far we are from an authentic development of people” – Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern.

KEY AREAS FOR REFORM

“Homelessness is devastating. Every person experiencing homelessness has had their own personal crisis that has led them there. Most people blame themselves for their situation, but the blame lies squarely on structures that drive poverty, housing and support systems that are broken and a damaging shortage of affordable housing. We should be ashamed that older women who have led conventional lives are the fastest growing cohort to experience homelessness.” – Sue Mowbray, CEO of the Mercy Foundation.

  1. Support for homelessness services – Supporting the homeless in Australia places an extraordinary burden on charities and not for profits. Addressing the variety of challenges presented by homelessness requires a coordinated policy reform across homelessness services and other frameworks supporting disadvantaged Australians. Better coordination is needed between health, family support services, domestic and family violence services, the justice system as well as other social support services.
  2. Affordable housing – Funding for affordable housing has steadily declined since 1996 and the average waiting time for a family sized public housing unit is 3 to 5 years. An unaffordable rental market means that only 6% of public housing tenants leave each year. Homelessness as a growing problem creates an obvious challenge as there is not nearly enough social housing to support the local need. Mission Australia suggests State governments reform their planning systems to require at least 15% affordable housing for new housing stock.
  1. Reform of the housing taxation system – The Australian Council of Social Service suggests that the currency housing tax system is the root cause of Australia having the highest housing costs and highest household debt in the world. Not only do we need better safety nets to support those who need access to public housing, but a major review of taxation is required to repair the broken private rental market. National Shelter argues for a significant overhaul of national tax treatment that would target negative gearing, exemptions from Capital Gains Tax and other tax settings contributing to the housing affordability crisis.

BUSTING THE MYTHS

  1. Experiencing homelessness is a choice – in most cases, it is not.
  2. Homeless people just need to get a job – They would if they could – there is only one job for every 6 people looking.
  3. Homelessness means rooflessness – Statistics show otherwise. Homelessness is a state where a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives.
  4. Homelessness doesn’t happen to ordinary people – One of the fastest growing groups is single older women who are homeless for the first time.
  5. There is no solution to homelessness – Homelessness is a structural problem that Governments could resolve if they change their priorities.

THE MERCY FOUNDATION: WHAT CAN CONGREGATIONAL MEMBERS DO TO HELP PEOPLE EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS IN AUSTRALIA?

“The Mercy Foundation works to end homelessness for people with chronic needs and for women. We work to address the key drivers for homelessness through our grants program, by working directly with communities to support them in ending homelessness, through advocacy and education. Ending homelessness is a collaborative effort – we can’t do it alone.

“Most people will just need housing to solve their homelessness. We must continue to advocate for more permanent, affordable and social housing.

 “What can we do about it? We can join the ‘Everybody’s Home’ campaign and the ‘Raise the Rate’ campaign. We can support organisations working to permanently end people’s homelessness or prevent people from becoming homeless. We can be more informed about the drivers of homelessness, the facts of homelessness and the solutions to homelessness.

“We can ask our local, State and Federal governments to deliver more long term, affordable housing, and for the small number of people experiencing homelessness who also have complex needs, permanent supportive housing.

“We know how to solve homelessness and we also know the toll it takes on people’s lives if we don’t. There is no excuse for people to endure the indignity of homelessness.” – Sue Mowbray

Sue Mowbray has been with the Mercy Foundation since 2009 and CEO since 2016. She has a keen interest in social justice issues and has collaborated on projects to address homelessness.

WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?

  1. Get more informed – Homelessness Australia has a number of factsheets that are easy to read and detail the many ways in which homelessness affects Australians every day. The factsheets can be accessed here: https://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/fact-sheets
  2. Have a look at the Mercy Foundation website – to see if there is anything that you could do to help: https://www.mercyfoundation.com.au/
  3. Remember – the 1 in 200 Australians sleeping rough tonight in our prayers.
  4. Encourage others in your local community – to insist on the urgency of law reform and better support for those at risk. Continue the conversation by highlighting some of the issues raised above.
  5. As Sue Mowbray suggests – write to, visit or telephone your local MP about why the policies on homelessness and affordable housing need to be addressed urgently. Ask your local member to raise the issue in the Party room or in question time. Share your views as to how these policies can change.
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How to Psychologically Explain Climate Change Denial

Days after millions of young people demanded an end to the fossil fuel era at protests around the world, a landmark U.N. backed study of the links between oceans, glaciers, ice caps and the climate, was clear that allowing carbon emissions to continue their upward path would upset the balance of the great geophysical systems governing oceans and the frozen regions of the Earth so profoundly that nobody would escape untouched. The report projects that sea levels could rise by one meter by 2100 – ten times the rate in the 20th century – if emissions keep climbing. Thawing permafrost in places such as Alaska and Siberia could release vast quantities of greenhouse gases, potentially unleashing feedback loops driving faster warming.

If this happens, because of our inaction, the picture is grim. As oceans get hotter, what are known as ‘marine heat-waves’ are becoming more intense, turning coral reefs, such as sections of the Great Barrier Reef, bone white. As more carbon dioxide dissolves in the water, the oceans are also becoming more acidic, damaging ecosystems. The rising temperatures are in turn starving the upper layers of the water of oxygen, suffocating marine life, creating growing dead zones, and disrupting the circulation of ocean currents, which then unleashes more disruptive weather on land.

While this is the latest official report, we have known about the consequences of climate change for some time now. We have also known that we have passed a tipping point so that it is no longer a question as to whether climate change will happen but rather how severe will its effects be. A lot depends on whether we continue on the course we are on or act now to change our behaviour patterns contributing to it. The U.N. panel of experts found that radical action may yet avert some of the worst possible outcomes of global warming. “The key thing that’s coming out of the report is that we have a choice,” said Michael Meredith, and oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey and one of the report’s authors. “The future isn’t set in stone.”

Because of long lag times at work in oceans, even if the world stopped emitting all its greenhouse gases tomorrow some of these changes will inevitably intensify over centuries. But if emissions are allowed to continue rising then the impacts are likely to start accelerating so rapidly that they will overwhelm societies’ capacity to cope, with the poorest and most vulnerable communities and countries succumbing first.

Given that the vast majority of scientists agree with this conclusion, it is hard to comprehend why our elected governments refuse to take steps to respond to this crisis. Instead, they continue to deny our role in climate change and go on with business as usual. Clearly they believe that the people who elected them want them to continue to focus on promoting an economy that will deliver the unsustainable lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Their voters fear losing this in the present more than they fear facing some future disaster that will probably take place after they have died.

How do we explain such nihilism and short sightedness? How do we explain such self-destructive behaviour on such a grand scale?

We’ve all known people who have engaged in self-destructive behaviour, who know they should stop for their own good, but can’t help themselves. Sigmund Freud eventually came to believe that the life instinct in us, which he called Eros, alone could not explain all human behaviour and so concluded that there must also be a death instinct operating in us, which he called Thanatos.

Eros, the life instincts, deals with basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. These instincts are essential for sustaining the life of the individual as well as the continuation of the species. Behaviours commonly associated with life instincts include love, cooperation and other pro-social actions. This drive compels people to engage in actions that sustain life, such as looking after their health and safety, and motivates people to create and nurture new life.

Thanatos, the death instincts, are a concept described by Freud as based on the fact that the goal of all life is death. Freud believed that people typically channel their death instinct outwards in behaviours like aggression and violence. Freud explained that sometimes these instincts towards destruction can be directed inwards, resulting in self-harm or suicide. Freud concluded that people hold an unconscious desire to die but that the life instincts largely temper this wish. Death instincts were an extension of that compulsion wherein all living organisms have an instinctive “pressure towards death” that stands in stark contrast to the instinct to survive, procreate and satisfy desires.

Of course people are not all the same. Some people will have an incredible survival instinct while others give up easily. Some want to live, while some don’t care if they die. Some actively seek death.

There was an experiment done where doctors would electrify a section of a floor under a dog, causing him to jump to another section. They would then electrify that section and so on until no matter where the dog jumped, he was electrocuted. Eventually the dog gave up and lay down regardless of the shock. The dog’s spirit was broken and he no longer cared. This can happen to people as well. People give up when to them their efforts seem fruitless, when they lose hope, when they don’t see an end to their suffering.

But that is not all. Another powerful instinctual force within us, connected to Eros, is the pleasure principle. In the 1950s, the psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner modified a chamber so that a lever press would deliver direct brain stimulation through deep implanted electrodes to rats. What resulted was perhaps the most dramatic experiment in the history of behavioral neuroscience: Rats would press the lever as many as 7,000 times per hour to stimulate their brains. This was a pleasure centre, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus.

A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure circuit stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly cross foot-shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their newborn nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would self-stimulate as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.

If we combine the two – the pleasure principle with the death instinct, the results can be devastating. I have an uncle who, despite doctor’s advice to control what he eats and lose weight for his heart’s sake, cannot stop himself from continuing his self-destructive eating habits. It is not that he hasn’t tried on numerous occasions to cut down on the wrong foods and do some exercise. But these resolutions are short lived. They do not provide the same immediately pleasurable rewards he gains from eating what he craves. Each time he backslides he perceives it as a failure that only increases the perceived hopelessness of changing his behaviour effectively. For him it is like fighting a losing battle with the inevitability of death. He perceives his efforts as fruitless and so has given up. Even though he can hardly walk and cannot sleep at night with panic attacks, his only satisfaction in life is the pleasure he receives from eating, and so he continues to buy the most unhealthy foods as he cannot let go of the pleasure he receives in eating them, even if it kills him.

I believe that these are the principles at work behind climate change denial.

As the world passes one tipping point after another in the climate change crisis, much of the approach by environmentalists has been to try to wake people up to the imminent danger that Climate change presents us with, much like my uncle’s doctors have tried to bring home to him the fatal consequences that will result if he does not change his self-destructive behaviour. This is a valid approach and, even though the governments of countries like the USA and Australia are still pushing in the opposite direction, many people finally appear to be waking up to the need for radical change.

In particular we are seeing a mobilisation of young people with the world wide student strike this last September to express their concern to their governments about climate change. Greta Thurnberg has become the voice of young people whose anxiety is growing, recognising as they do that their generation will be the one that will be most affected by the climate change crisis. For them the problem is urgent and their frustration and fear, at the inaction of those in power, acute. They cannot see why, what is so obvious to them is not motivating action from those in power.

But just like for my uncle changing his self destructive behaviour looks too much like hard work with no immediate promise of a reward, any adequate response to climate change will require sacrifice, and people do not make sacrifices without motivation. Too many people alive today do not see the need for sacrificing their comfort to reduce climate change. Most will be dead before the worst happens. In addition, the worst impact will be on the poor, not the wealthy, whose money can mitigate the consequences of global warming.

As the pleasure principle above suggests, people in power do not want to sacrifice their pleasurable lifestyle to bring about real change that would deny them the pleasure for no immediate or equally pleasurable reward. Just as the rats in Olds and Milner’s experiment were prepared to die rather than relinquish the pleasure they were receiving, we can expect those in power, and those who put them there, to perform in the same way.

Perhaps only a real and imminent threat to their lifestyle, say through a popular groundswell that could bring about real political change causing them to lose office, may push them to respond to the crisis in a helpful way. However, people give up when to them their efforts seem fruitless, when they lose hope, when they don’t see an end to their suffering. They may as well enjoy the present pleasures as death is inevitable and unavoidable.

Responding to climate change will require courage, motivation, support, and a moral vision that puts the poor and future generations on an equal footing with ourselves. A libertarian vision where each person seeks his own advantage will not work. Common effort and common sacrifice for the common good are what is required. And, perhaps, we can draw hope from the fact that not all people are like my uncle. Many people do manage to change their self-destructive patterns in order to survive. They are prepared to sacrifice whatever it takes to live. Can we find this within us before it is too late?

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