“Why are we running around trying to be more successful in a system that is driving us to collective suicide?”
At a conference on women’s leadership, I spoke about the role of education in enabling the critical thinking that is necessary for leadership. I explored the relevance of the approach of Charlotte Mason, who founded the Lake District campus in 1892 which is now the home of our Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS). In the talk I challenge participants to question their assumptions in order to drive change, rather than just “succeed” within existing systems that are damaging people and planet. I reveal one famous activist was home schooled, and what his mother told me about her approach to his education. You can discuss this talk in our Linked In group, linked via www.iflas.info
People working on the environment, human rights, and social progress have not always had an easy relationship. The idea of “sustainable development” that first became popular 20 years ago was meant to bring them together. Instead, it has enabled an obsession with profit making to creep into thinking and practice in most areas of environment, rights and social progress. On the positive side, that has led to business and banks engaging with these issues more than they might otherwise – something Ive been involved in for the last decades. But what might have been lost in that process?
A speech on rights and media freedoms was the keynote at a festival to celebrate what an amazing future we have ahead of us if we embrace the transition to sustainability. In Sweden, at FuturePerfect, Wikileak’s editor in chief, Julian Assange, delivered a recorded speech from the Embassy where he has been given asylum by Ecuador.
What has Wikileaks got to do with sustainability? Here are some highlights from the talk, and some reflections on what they mean for the “sustainability profession”, by which I mean those of us who have day jobs working on the social and environmental aspects of business, finance and economy.
Assange believes free media is critical to us understanding our society and what challenges we face. Thats key to enough people organising to promote sustainability:
“there is no civilisation, there is no society without media. That is: let’s take away all media, let’s take away all mediums, let’s take away all ability for humans beings to communicate with each other in the present and also it will learn from past experiences to teach the future. If there is no communication between people, if every person is entirely isolated like a tree in a forest, then clearly there is no civilisation and there is no society.”
“With the best possible communication, with the best possible ability to learn from our experiences, we have a chance of not simply doing the dumb thing. We have a chance of being more civilised to each other, we have a chance of avoiding pitfalls that have been discovered in the past.”
He also explains that our media is now so controlled by incumbent interests, that it marginalises critique, or those who want to see a transformation in society, such as towards a more sustainable one:
“Now the [corporate] media insofar as it is successful and is profitable and widely distributed, as an industrial body is inherently corrupt. And to understand where the corruption comes from, first of all see that an industrial body, an organisation that becomes powerful in influencing others, is able to manufacture consent and suppress dissent. As a result, the people who work within it, and those proprietors who own it, are invited to sit down at the table of power and are given certain concessions in their life and their business practices. They thereby become part of the very establishment that they are meant to be policing.”
The internet provides us with an opportunity to communicate and better understand our common predicaments, but not one that isnt being counter-acted by the amount of content produced by mainstream media:
“it is clear that most of the mainstream media outlets in Sweden are able to publish a truthful article on even perhaps the most controversial issues. But what they cannot do is show any sign of an institutional agenda to do so. They cannot publish in volume on those issues. Of course, when we are dealing with politics, we are dealing with perceptions en masse. And perceptions en masse are affected by communications en masse. It is not enough to simply reveal the truth in one isolated article or one isolated tweet; what is important is to have the truth revealed en masse, where people can see it en masse and where opinions can be affected en masse.”
The answer, Assange says, is therefore for all of us, in our personal and professional lives, to become engaged in developing and scaling up alternative media. Many people working on sustainability are working towards a better future, and can sometimes forget that may be taking for granted existing hard one freedoms and situations. Assange reminded participants at the conference of the situation facing many people today:
“We face a choice of whether we can have something not just for our grandchildren but even something for ourselves,” he noted. “We are rapidly approaching continuous war, in fact most of the Western countries have now been involved in war over 10 years and are being
increasingly involved. We see a tremendous increase in the size of intelligence agencies; the border between police and military is starting to collapse, with the weaponisation of police; increasing amount of body armour that police have. Across the world we see a collapse in the rule of law, politicised and arbitrary justice, with U.S. assassination lists approved by the President in secret with no due process; the continued detention without charge of children in Guantanamo Bay for over 10 years with no prospect of release.Mass surveillance being introduced into every country with no effective oversight by the population. The linking up of international companies and networks of influential people of the banking people, all these people lifting up the democratic and electoral control of their respective population bases.”
In the past decades “sustainability” has become a profession, with people working in business, government and civil society on various aspects of the agenda. It is useful therefore, to be reminded of the insights of those who are activists, people who take personal risks and do not have to worry about their employer or client.
“We face a serious global crisis, so we must understand that this is not a choice about doing the right thing, this is not a choice about whether we
appear to be moral, this is not a choice about whether we make friends, or are approved as an effective member of society. We face a choice of whether we will have a civilisation that is civil or not.”
So what should sustainability folk do?
“first of all we must understand the problem, we must understand the severity of the problem, we must tell the others the severity of the problem, we must explain that it is not a choice, that is not something we could get out of, that there is a very real chance of a global technological and political dystopia appearing…”
Thats an useful reminder of speaking it as you see it, rather than worrying about how to frame your message in a positive tone that will help sell some products or votes.
“Then we must link together with people with a similar understanding, we must invent new technological means to fight fire with our own form of fire, we must have absolute unity and determination in the response. If we look back at the previous resistance struggles, similar phenomenon that occurred in the past, that is what has held the day in the end. Unity, determination, understanding and creativity, looking for every possible venue where the forces of darkness can be held back, that is the only way that we are all going to survive that ongoing threat that is against everyone.”
So what has Wikileaks got to do with sustainability?
In a field in Sweden, I learned that we should, sometimes, ditch our silos, labels, and professional affiliations in order to get a better sense of the interconnected causes of the various problems we face. If sustainable development is to be a true integration of social, enviornmental and economic priorities, then we need to lose the blinkers that our desire for an easy life have given us.
You can hear the speech or visit the organisers of FuturePerfect to see more about this great festival project. Im proud to have been associated with the organising of it, and look forward to more conversations and celebrations of how to be fully awake, connected and hopeful in our work at these critical times.
Open Letter to Ann Clwyd MP, from Dr Jem Bendell, October 25th 2010.
My name is Jem Bendell and we met in 1996 during the time when a couple of my friends were among the British hostages being held in West Papua and you offered to help. You kindly worked to get a letter written to the OPM rebel leaders from Klaus Hensch, then President of the European Parliament. The letter seems to have played a role in helping organise a release, although the release failed when the OPM leader Kelly Kwalik changed his mind during his speech. You may recall the British hostages got out, as they fled, later, when the kidnappers starting killing the Indonesian hostages, two of whom died. Thank you for your efforts back then. I remember you from then as a principled MP.
I was always surprised and disappointed at your stance on the invasion of Iraq. I was working as a consultant at the UN in 2003. I organised the writing and UN staff signing of a letter sent to all non permanent members of the UN Security Council to remind them of the principles of the UN Charter. We were concerned the UN might endorse an invasion, as that would have set a new precedent in international law, suggesting that a state with power and prejudice could launch an attack because it felt threatened. In the letter we simply reminded them of the UN Charter, which international civil servants at the UN are meant to uphold, rather than focusing on specific issues they were deliberating. The UN hierarchy did not like our efforts – security paid us a visit. Fortunately a few brave non permanent Security Council members did not cave in to the bribes and phone taps, and the resolution to authorise an invasion was not passed. This meant that PM Blair could no longer say the UN would back the coalition forces as implementing the will of the ‘international community’. It might also help in him being prosecuted as a war criminal one day, and thus serving as a warning to Western leaders in future. However, it did not stop the war, which appeared inevitable to everyone, including the millions of protestors who did not believe it when politicians said war was not inevitable. Never has there been a bigger display of the general public believing their leaders to be liars than that anti war march before the invasion.
I was wondering whether over the years you have rethought your views on how one deals with oppressive regimes and dictators. The latest leaks show that terrible abuses have been widespread since the invasion. For instance see the Guardian stories showing the level of abuse, and the official policy of the US Army to ignore it. This is aside from more than 60000 civilian deaths, documented by the US Army in the leaked information. In 2003 you talked of men being shredded by Saddam Hussein being a justification for war. So many more people have been shredded by bullets since, as well as tortured, due to the war. The depravity of killers is not the primary issue that should influence our judgement, rather the extent of the human rights abuses, the extent of the killings, and what responses will work, not make things worse. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/22/iraq-detainee-abuse-torture-saddam)
This level of violence was predicted by the anti War movement in 2003, whose analysts said it would be a long fight, with sectarian violence, and the likelihood of invading forces reestablishing a despotic government or militia in order to keep some control. They also said it would stoke hatred and trigger terrorism against the West. It appears the anti War movement had the smartest military intelligence; or perhaps they were simply not being willfully ignorant due to political and professional pressure in 2003?
When faced with evidence of human rights abuses in Iraq, you told the Chilcot inquiry earlier this year that “it is disappointing but understandable” and explained that it takes time after wars to achieve security. You didn’t express such patience about dealing with torture and death under Saddam Hussein. You told the inquiry you have made representations to the Iraqi government to uphold human rights as “one of the main reasons for going in there, to get rid of the kind of tyranny and cruelty that was going on in that country. I don’t want to see it perpetuated.” It appears from recent leaked documents from Wikileaks that you had little impact in that regard.
Some make statements such as “it was right to get rid of Saddam”, which is meaningless as it could justify any level of destruction in pursuit of that aim (would we nuke a whole country to get rid of one man? No, and so in isolation it is a nonsensical justification). Some make statements such as “its important to focus on the future” as if the future wont include other situations where we face dictators, human rights abuses, and opportunistic politicians seeking to take countries to war, and so we need to learn our lessons.
Do you now see that to deal with dictators and despotic regimes you need effective sanctions that take away the ability of a regime’s elite members of society to move or bank abroad? That those and only those sanctions are the ones that work, and we need more progress to ensure all governments, including offshore financial centres, participate in such sanctions in future, and where there are tough trade sanctions against countries who do not participate in such efforts against dictators? And that, conversely, we need to engage more with the people living under dictatorships, giving them visas for tourism, study, business etc, and funding them to study abroad, etc, as part of the process of creating a lasting change?
Ann, you said that war was right to stop torture. Now you know the amount of torture and death it has caused, what have you learned?
A lot of people died in a War that you helped to justify. You have been largely quiet in public about revelations about abuses in Iraq since the invasion. It would be a good time to say something new.