Beliefs and principles matter: they are what we make our future with. My beliefs and principles begin with our earth, photographed from space: the blue planet. The universe is vast. Our planet and its solar system are grains of sand scattered in a quiet corner: insignificant in terms of mass and energy; but to us, they matter.
The watery, temperate and fecund blue planet is perhaps not unique in the universe, but certainly unusual. The life forms which have evolved on it seem likely to be unique in the universe.
Our planet frames every definition of beauty available to us. We are, though, alone, and the rest of the universe is awesomely inhospitable. Glance at the neighbours. It’s -174C at night on Mercury, rising to +330C during the day. The atmosphere of Venus is 96% CO2, it has 100 times Earth’s atmospheric pressure, and the surface temperature is around 500C. Jupiter is a mass of metallic hydrogen and its magnetic field is 1,000 times our own. The idea that the human race might ever migrate to a different planet is ludicrous. We came into being on Earth and, like all our fellow earthly life forms, we will expire here.
Homo sapiens sapiens is the dominant life form on the blue planet, despite the recent evolutionary appearance of this species. Populations of this species vastly outnumber those of all other primates combined. The physical weight of human beings on the planet is 300 million tonnes; the physical weight of all other animals on the planet is 100 million tonnes. We are a sudden and major event in the evolutionary cycle. More, indeed: our impact on the planet constitutes a new epoch in geological time (the Anthropocene, following the Holocene) and our presence is bringing about something which only natural phenomena of extraordinary drama have been able to achieve before: an extinction episode. Some 52 per cent of the world’s animals have disappeared in the last 40 years.
How should we respond to this? What follows is my response.
We are one. No human life is more important than any other.
We are one. No evolved animal species is, morally, more important than any other species (though evolution is by definition dynamic and not static, and the mechanisms of evolution involve struggle between species).
The health of the planet is paramount, and of more consequence than the health of individual species. No species, in any case, is likely to survive the entire course of evolution. We will face extinction at some point. All life on earth will cease within nine billion years, as the dying sun destroys the earth.
The two challenges
I believe that our world faces two overwhelming challenges.
The first challenge is population growth. The present human load on the planet is unsustainable. For this reason, I welcome birth control initiatives, declining fertility rates and the full cultural acceptance and celebration of celibacy and homosexuality. Birth control initiatives, declining fertility rates and reproductive silence may mean personal grief and transitional economic challenges, but these are morally preferable to other means of controlling human populations, such as disease, famine and war (which carry a much greater burden of suffering and injustice). They are also less random and potentially more effective.
The second challenge is the environmental degradation and damage caused to the planet, its atmosphere and its life forms by human activity. I support all initiatives designed to limit and, if possible, reverse this damage.
These two challenges in practice fuse into one. We cannot, for example, hope to meet the challenge of climate change without reducing the human load on the planet. Population reduction is the most urgent environmental priority of all.
Horizon: the view from here
I question the assumption that growth is always an absolute good. There are times when stasis or managed decline is preferable. An incipient extinction episode may be one of them.
I am a moral relativist. Moral relativism leads to conflicts in duty and behaviour which cannot in some instances be resolved, but it is less likely to lead to murder and genocide than moral fundamentalism or absolutism. (Moral relativism does not, of course, equate with moral laxity: the moral struggle is vitally important for individual human psychological health as well as the health of human societies.)
I respect all religions for their championing of love, compassion and charity. Sectarianism, fundamentalism and the literal interpretation of ancient religious texts, however, seem to me to be a perversion of the highest religious ideals, and dangerous both for other human beings and for the planet. Religious irresponsibility (concerning human population growth, for example, or narrowly defined spiritual rectitude in the face of human diversity, sexual identity or the competition for physical or spiritual resources) can quickly become a force for evil.
The nation-state seems to me to be a political entity whose use is passing, though historical and cultural nostalgia prevents us from recognizing this. Our security and thus our prosperity depends primarily on the strength, adaptability and resilience of international bodies and institutions, and on the willingness of nations and groups to uphold international law. This will become increasingly true as oil, gas and food resources dwindle in the future.
I am a pragmatic, non-dogmatic socialist in the following simple sense. Human beings are social animals, and I see the most endearing and precious aspect of human culture as being the provision of mutual aid and support to other humans for no pecuniary or material gain. I support any political system which embraces and nurtures such a social spirit. International organisations and systems of international and national law prove their worth, inter alia, when setting limits and constraints on capitalism and the free market. Without limits and constraints, capitalism and the free market become de-humanising forces. With limits and constraints, capitalism and the free market can bring great benefits to human societies, but it is the society rather than the market which is primordial.
I support non-violent means of achieving change. Violence begets violence. Two of the greatest human achievements of my lifetime have been the ending of communism in Europe without violence and the ending of apartheid in South Africa without violence. The resort to violence always indicates failure: victories achieved by violence entail a karmic deficit (they are spiritually contaminated), even when the cause is a just one. Nonetheless I accept that failure in human conflict resolution is so widespread, and power so often clasped in the hands of torturers and murderers, that recourse to violence is sometimes the only hope of ending injustice and tyranny. The gravity of violence, however, is always underestimated — not least because all human history has been written by the survivors of conflicts (and their offspring) rather than by the millions of slain. The millions of slain (and their unborn children) might, perhaps, have written another history, and might with some justice have considered the recourse to violence which ended their lives unnecessary and misguided.
I lament the tyranny of popular culture in western, media-dominated societies. It strikes me as a form of voluntary brainwashing, and its corrosive and stupifying effects impoverish and damage the human spirit. Much the same seems to me true of fashion in all fields, and not simply the obvious ones. Both illustrate how easily human individuals and communities may be manipulated — and underline the vital importance of dissidents to the intellectual health and well-being of those communities.
I do not know if God exists or not. Any workable definition of God delivers an improbable entity, but the enveloping wonder remains.
The sense of humour seems to me to be one of the most precious human attributes. Humour failure is a certain prelude to death. (And if God does exist, sexual reproduction is proof that He or She has a sense of humour.)
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9 v.11
In all human lives, chance is the main force creating outcomes. In other words, most of what happens to us is a matter of chance.
Those living in prosperous, developed nations tend to downplay this, ascribing success, wealth and health to personal achievement. This is almost never true. Success, wealth and health are overwhelmingly accidents of birth and circumstance, and thus due to chance. Who “I” am, and anything I have been able to achieve, is above all the consequence of my having been born and educated in a prosperous area of Western Europe. If “I” had been born in a less fortunate zone of our planet, my life would have been a very different one even if I had lived it with identical effort and assiduity. I would also probably be dead by now. This would also be true had I been born to different family circumstances in the same place.
Even within the small circles of nation and peer group, chance also plays a much greater role in our lives than any of us readily concede. The others who people our personal lives, for example, are all there by an extraordinary succession of chances, yet the texture of our lives, and the tally of happiness or misery within them, is in large part due to those others and our relationships with them. In most professions, those who occupy the most lavishly rewarded posts, or those which entail the most fame or prestige, do so by chance rather than merit. Good physical and mental health is obviously and fundamentally a matter of luck, too: the luck of the genes, the luck not to be accidentally or deliberately maimed, the luck of having enough to eat.
Naturally, one can make the most of one’s luck, or endanger it or destroy it by cavalier behaviour. The margin of manoeuvre, though, is far narrower than our notions of personal freedom encourage us to think.
The material circumstances of our lives, therefore, are what chance has allotted us, rather than what we deserve. Indeed what “we” are is in large part a construct of those circumstances, though our vanity encourages us to think otherwise. Our essence or self is in fact a void which is filled by a corpus of circumstances (the world without) and givens (our gene pool, and its physical and mental consequences), lent shape by our moral being.
Facing the fact that almost everything in life is a matter of chance is uncongenial to us. It feels disempowering. How should we respond?
Acknowledging the primordial role of chance in life is not to encourage fatalism: there is nearly always some small margin of manoeuvre open to us and successful efforts within that margin can improve the quality of life (though by how much is a matter of chance).
Acknowledging the primordial role of chance in life creates solidarity between the fortunate and the less fortunate, and between the living and the dead who have gone before us. It predisposes individuals to compassion, and lends perspective.
Acknowledging the primordial role of chance in life promotes mental and spiritual flexibility and suppleness, and an athletic and responsive mental outlook.
Acknowledging the primordial role of chance in life encourages fortitude and stoicism.
Acknowledging the primordial role of chance in life leads us towards the realisation that the stable and unchanging self is a fiction, that the pursuit of self and selfhood is a trap which can only entail disappointment, and that fulfilment and contentment are to be found in moving beyond the self via physical, mental, moral and spiritual efforts.
These are social as well as personal assets.
Other campaigning issues
- Electoral reform in the United Kingdom: the present electoral system for General Elections is primitive and unjust. It disenfranchises and alienates millions of voters, and means that the UK parliament does not fully represent the political wishes and aspirations of its people.
- House of Lords reform in the United Kingdom, and specifically the institution of a wholly elected Upper House as free as possible from party politics and patronage.
- Britain’s transition from a monarchy to a republic.
- A more democratically representative and politically strengthened European Union.
- An increased role for ethical principles in the foreign policies of all nations, and a more mature view of national self-interest among all nations.
- Increased overseas aid budgets for developed nations — to provide the peoples of developing nations with the tools to help themselves.
- The universal abolition of the death penalty.
- An end to all forms of torture under all circumstances.
- Self-definition for tribes, peoples and cultures based on democratic principles, historical and cultural precedents and the guidelines of international law.
- Green taxes; the increased use of nuclear power and renewable energy sources; and greater provision of cycle routes, combined with road pricing and other constraints on car use, in developed nations. I support alternative routes of development, avoiding the traps, waste and false freedoms inherent in existing development models, for developing nations.