Monday, 11 December 2017

Obama’s right, women are superior to men. Let me count the ways

Julie Bindel                         Guardian/UK                   6 December 2017

As a lifelong feminist I have always balked at the idea that women might be “better than men” because it perpetuates the myth that women and men are polar opposites, and that our skills (or lack of them) is to do with innate qualities rather than as a result of socialisation or opportunity. This particular competition of “who is best at what” further ingrains the false belief that “the battle of the sexes” is here for time immemorial.

The reality is that after thousands of years of living under patriarchy, through no choice or fault of our own, women have developed certain skills as a result of this tyranny. A feminist friend once remarked that “if oppression made one a better person there would be something to be said for it”, and while I agree wholeheartedly with this, the truth is that we have had to become far better than men at most things.

We beat men at raising money from crowdfunding, which is just as well because we are paid less for doing the same job. Women even fare better in those jobs traditionally thought of as “for the boys”. A study published this year in the British Medical Journal found that women make better surgeons than their male counterparts, and that 4% fewer patients die following an operation performed by a woman.

We beat men at raising money from crowdfunding, which is just as well because we are paid less for doing the same job. A report published in Fortune found that globally, women are consistently more successful than men in reaching funding targets. In terms of self-care, we even do that better. More than half (53%) of women will talk through problems with friends compared with only 29% of men according to a survey by the mental health charity Mind.

And women are much safer (and therefore more skilled) drivers, causing fewer accidents and being more likely to survive a serious crash. We are less likely to abandon our children, and therefore make better parents. Our washing up and general cleaning skills are far more honed (we have had loads more practice).

Cooking, ditto. Laundry, ditto.

While men love to brag about “boy’s food”, meaning massive burgers and slabs of greasy protein, women are more likely to have the recommended five-a-day. I would hazard a guess that those men sucking up the carrot juice and quinoa as opposed to burger and chips do so because women prepare it for them.

“Ah,” I hear some men cry over the sound of scraping at the bottom of a barrel, “We are better at DIY than you are!” But even men’s practical skills are diminishing, as they get lazier and more complacent. A survey carried out by a bathroom firm found that women are increasingly likely to get on with tasks such as fixing a leaky tap, fixing the toilet, hanging wallpaper, and sealing windows rather than hanging around waiting for the “man of the house” to drain his lager, switch off the football, and move into action.

But here is the rub. Women tend to be better than men at so many things because we have no choice. Yes we are better at washing up, but only because we do it way more often than men. This state of affairs self-perpetuates our oppression, highlighted by ridiculous scenarios such as restaurants advertising for female washer-uppers because men are rubbish at it.

Boys are privileged from the moment they are born. The fact that girls often exceed them in so many ways is testimony to the fact that patriarchy is really not up to much after all. [Abridged]

• Julie Bindel is a freelance journalist and political activist

Oceans under greatest threat in history

David Attenborough                   Guardian/UK             5 December 2017

The world’s oceans are under the greatest threat in history, according to Sir David Attenborough. The seas are a vital part of the global ecosystem, leaving the future of all life on Earth dependent on humanity’s actions, he says.

Attenborough will issue the warning in the final episode of the Blue Planet 2 series, which details the damage being wreaked in seas around the globe by climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and even noise.

Previous BBC nature series presented by Attenborough have sometimes been criticised for treading too lightly around humanity’s damage to the planet. But the final episode of the latest series is entirely dedicated to the issue.

“For years we thought the oceans were so vast and the inhabitants so infinitely numerous that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them. But now we know that was wrong,” says Attenborough. “It is now clear our actions are having a significant impact on the world’s oceans. [They] are under threat now as never before in human history. Many people believe the oceans have reached a crisis point.” His sequel to The Blue Planet will focus not only on the marvels of sea life but also the threats to it. The naturalist explains why plastic pollution, climate change and overpopulation are problems too urgent to be left to ecologists

Attenborough says: “Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.” Brownlow said much of the footage shot of albatross chicks being killed by the plastic they mistake for food were too upsetting to broadcast. The programme also filmed on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, witnessing the worst bleaching event in its history.

Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise, bleaching the corals vital as nurseries for ocean life, and waters are warming rapidly in Antarctica too. Jon Copley, from the University of Southampton and one of many scientists appearing in the final episode, says. “What shocks me about what all the data shows is how fast things are changing here [in Antarctica]. We’re headed into uncharted territory”

The noise from shipping, tourism, and fossil fuel exploration is also revealed as harming sea life. Steve Simpson, at the University of Exeter, who works on coral reefs in southeast Asia, says: “There is a whole language underwater that we are only just getting a handle on. They use sound to attract a mate, to scare away a predator. You hear pops and grunts and gurgles and snaps.” He shows the noise of motorboats distracting saddleback clownfishes from warning against a predator attack.

The Blue Planet 2 team found plastic everywhere they filmed, even in the most remote locations such as South Georgia Island, an important breeding site for wandering albatrosses. There, Lucy Quinn from the British Antarctic Survey says many chicks are killed by plastic fed to them by their parents, including one young bird whose stomach was punctured by a plastic toothpick.

Overfishing, which remains prevalent around the world, is also addressed. “Every night thousands of miles of fishing lines laden with hooks are set – there is enough, it is said, to wrap twice around the world,” says Attenborough. But the programme also highlights some success stories, such as the revival of sperm whales off Sri Lanka and herring stocks off Norway after bans or restrictions were put in place.

Attenborough also visits Trinidad, where the conservationist Len Peters has transformed the prospects of the giant leatherback turtles who come to the island to lay their eggs and whose numbers have fallen catastrophically in recent decades. “I grew up in a house where turtle meat was normal,” says Peters. But his work to end turtle hunting and encourage tourism has seen numbers rise from 30-40 to more than 500.

Daniel Pauly, who leads the Sea Around Us programme at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and was not involved in Blue Planet 2, endorsed its stark conclusion. He said vast, subsidised fishing fleets were scraping the bottom of the barrel and that ocean acidification could be terminal for many species. [Abridged]

The Christmas Stories

Ian Harris                     Otago Daily Times                    December 8, 2017 

The Christmas stories blend clear-eyed knowledge with grand fabulations – and there’s truth in both, says Ian Harris.

There are many Christmases tumbling towards us, and as many ways to celebrate it. There’s the “thank God we’re on holiday” Christmas. The “what will Santa bring me?” Christmas. The retail bonanza as customers spend up large. The family reunion, with all its joys, tensions, and opportunities to over-indulge. The atheists’ Christmas – they might demur on principle, but will take the holyday anyway. The working Christmas for nurses, police and others who draw the short straw. Muslims will think of the prophet Jesus, born of a virgin under a date palm.

And Christians will again celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some will exalt him as the supernatural God in human form, others hail him as the very human son of a poor working family, born in the nondescript village of Nazareth in Galilee. Either way, he was destined to change history. Born in Nazareth? Shouldn’t that be Bethlehem, as the Bible and carols say? Modern scholarship says no. Bethlehem is there for its Jewish cultural and political associations, but as history it’s most unlikely.

Today we must distinguish between what one writer calls “respect for clear-eyed knowledge” on the one hand, and “reverence for the grand fabulations with which we redesign this messy, cheerless world” on the other. Clear-eyed knowledge is what science and verifiable historical fact tell us. The grand fabulations are the stories told to plumb the deeper meaning of events and our existence. Both are true, each in its own way.

Clear-eyed knowledge is respected when we register that the gospels of Matthew and Luke differ markedly in what they tell us about Jesus’ birth. Matthew, for example, has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem, so they have no need to look for an inn, and they move to Nazareth later. Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. But he knows that Bethlehem, 130km south, is the right place for a messiah to be born, and needs a reason to get them there. He finds it in the census which the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius, ordered in 6AD.

That poses a problem or three. The Romans didn’t expect property owners to travel back to their ancestral birthplace to register for taxes – that would have created chaos and been of little use to the tax-gatherers – but to enrol where they had property to be taxed. Well, was Joseph an absentee landlord with property in Bethlehem? Probably not, as he and Mary were poor folk. And if Joseph had a property in Bethlehem, that’s presumably where he would have headed – and without Mary, because census rules did not require a heavily pregnant woman to accompany him on such a long and difficult journey. Then again, while Rome had given the Syrian governor authority over Judaea in southern Palestine, he had no responsibility for Galilee in the north, so his census would not have applied to anyone in Nazareth.

There’s one other wrinkle: Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born while Herod was king of Judaea. Herod died in 4BC. Quirinius’s census was in 6AD. Clear-eyed knowledge concludes that Luke’s device for linking Jesus with Bethlehem is not historically accurate. Most scholars today conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Nazareth.

So why the grand fabulations, and what are we to make of them today? Jesus’ Jewish followers identified him as the king or messiah predicted in their sacred scriptures, who would restore the lustre of their people. That required a royal connection, and Bethlehem provided it. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, pivoting on the great King David. Bethlehem was David’s family home and the place where he was anointed king. The prophet Micah had written that from Bethlehem would come “a ruler who will govern my people Israel”. Matthew leapt on that, discreetly ignoring Micah’s description of this ruler as like a marauding lion devastating the Jews’ Assyrian foes.

That’s a world away from Jesus, Prince of Peace. Nevertheless, the text gave scriptural blessing to the grand fabulation: Matthew and Luke needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem to add cultural resonance to their prime purpose of affirming him as the Jews’ long-awaited messiah. When people realise this, they can see the stories in a new light, appreciating the grand fabulations for what they are, while concluding with the scholars that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. What matters from both perspectives is the man he grew up to be, and the hugely positive influence he still has on the hundreds of millions who follow him.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A New Reformation

Ian Harris                      Faith and Reason              ODT November 10, 2017

For much of last century talk has wafted in the ecclesiastical air about a “New Reformation”. Over the past year churches around the world variously noted, celebrated or ignored the 500th anniversary of the old Reformation that rocked Christendom after the Catholic monk Martin Luther proposed to debate troubling aspects of his church’s teaching. The ensuing convulsion reshaped Europe politically, and in church life produced new emphases and practices. But as English Anglican Bishop John Robinson observes, the institutions that emerged were “a cluster of little catholicisms, each reproducing the characteristics of the parent, with its own ministry and sacraments, its own buildings and budgets”.

More importantly, the basic affirmations of the medieval church – a supernatural reality, a theistic God, a divine Jesus who died to appease that God’s wrath at human sinfulness – flowed through into the Reformation churches. The Reformation transposed the Christian symphony into another key, but it was essentially the same symphony.

Closer to our own time, some hailed the movement towards unifying five major New Zealand denominations in the 1950s and 1960s as a new reformation. In hindsight, it is more likely to have entrenched those traditional doctrinal emphases further. In some denominations, that’s what happened anyway, as a confession of faith adopted by the New Zealand Presbyterian Church in 2010 attests. Powerfully appropriate as those doctrines were to people’s understanding in the 1500s, in today’s world they are past their use-by date. A living religion must be free to evolve and find new expressions within contemporary realities, or it will wash up on the shores of irrelevance. Any new reformation will have to cut much deeper than the old.

For the church, ideally, does not exist for itself. It exists for the world in which it is set – and for most New Zealanders, that world is secular. A New Reformation would be worth little unless it truly became leaven in this new cultural environment, rethinking its theology so as to offer above all the prospect of a more humble, more compassionate humanity.

Robinson is clear that in such a reformation the church must abandon metaphysical and supernatural thought-forms that have become meaningless in the modern world. American Episcopalian Bishop John Spong fleshes that out in the first of 12 theses for a New Reformation: “Theism as a way of defining God is dead . . . A new way to speak of God must be found.”

Spong would therefore happily jettison some central doctrines of traditional Christianity, based as they are on outmoded understandings of God, the world, and human life poised between heaven and hell. The only reformation that will serve the world, he says, “will not be concerned with authority, ecclesiastical polity, valid ordinations and valid sacraments . . . but rather will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself.”

There are fringe movements which further that examination. But they are not owned or encouraged by official church institutions, and often express themselves in social activism rather than plumbing the depths of faith itself. A New Reformation, if it happens, will be as divisive for the institutional churches as was the old. You will know it is on the way when visionary leaders roll away cartloads of metaphysical embroidery, set aside the Bible’s 3000-year-old science in favour of what we have learnt since Copernicus and Galileo, Newton and Darwin, Freud and Jung, and tune in fully to the world around them. They will, as Robinson urges, sit down with community groups around them to hear the real questions of life and meaning people in society are facing and then shape their liturgies accordingly, for Christianity still has a life-enhancing perspective to offer.

Congregations will need to muscle up to expand beyond residential chaplaincies for the few, and become creative life centres, accepting all-comers, sharing but never imposing. They will add depth and breadth to their communities through tapping into the vital core of their Christian heritage, drawing inspiration from the in-dwelling Christ as archetype of love, grace and transformation.

I’m not holding my breath. Two months ago Christchurch’s Anglican Synod had a golden opportunity to blaze a new trail by saying goodbye to its medieval Gothic cathedral in order to risk a 21st-century architectural statement of faith in the heart of the city. It voted to gaze firmly backwards. Nothing significant will come from painstakingly preserving an obsolescent past. In today’s world, even a New Reformation would be inadequate. What’s required is a Transformation. For Christianity the choice is stark: transform or perish

War's toxic legacy can no longer be ignored

The battle for Mosul has left the city caked in soot and shrouded in smog. When will the world realise that the environment is not merely a silent victim of war?

Erik Solheim           Head of UN Environment          Guardian/UK           3 November 2017

The smoke that billowed from the burning oil fields was so thick it blocked out the sun. By the time I reached Qayyarah, where Islamic State fighters had set fire to 19 oil wells, a film of black soot had settled over the Iraqi town like toxic snow. Even the sheep had turned black.

The fires may have been extinguished, and Isis ousted from the city, but the environmental devastation caused by the battle for Mosul will linger for decades. The destruction of hospitals, weapons factories, industrial plants and power stations has left behind a toxic cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful waste. Many of these pollutants are mixed up with unexploded bombs and mines in the vast amount of rubble generated by the fighting. Our team has already found high levels of lead and mercury in Mosul’s water and soil. This is the toxic legacy of one of the fiercest urban battles of the modern age.

When we measure the brutality of war, we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. In the din of battle and the rush to treat and shelter its survivors, the toxic legacy of war is often ignored – as is the long-term damage to the health of millions of people forced to live amid the pollution.

When bombs fall, the environment suffers. In Colombia, which hosts 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, half a century of war has destroyed some of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems. The mining of gold, which funded rebel forces during the conflict, has polluted the country’s rivers and land with mercury. In Ukraine, three and a half years of fighting in the heavily industrialised country has contaminated the groundwater. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan has destroyed more than half the country’s forests. Often, the environmental destruction is deliberate. Environmental infrastructure is increasingly targeted to drain the enemy of popular support. When power plants, water facilities and sewage systems are destroyed, disease and pollution spread and civilian health plummets, prolonging the suffering of people whose lives have already been devastated by violence.

The environment isn’t just a silent victim of war. When poorly managed, the environment can also trigger and fuel armed conflict. In Syria, severe drought drove millions into cities that were ill-equipped to cope with the burden. Popular anger grew inside some of the country’s poorest urban areas, fuelling protests that erupted into a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Around the world, natural resources are funding militias, prolonging violence and making it even harder for peace deals to stick.

There are encouraging signs that the world is beginning to wake up to this need. Social media, smartphones and satellite imagery are making it easier to identify pollution hotspots, allowing governments and aid agencies to respond faster and more effectively to reduce the harm to human health. The UN is drafting new laws to protect the environment during conflict, laws which have barely evolved since the 1970s. And the international criminal court may soon try cases that involve the destruction of the environment and the illegal exploitation of natural resources during conflict.

In December, the third UN Environment assembly will take place in Nairobi. Curbing pollution – in all its insidious, life-threatening forms – will dominate the agenda. It is my sincere hope that member states will pass a resolution tabled by Iraq that calls for the creation of a UN Environment taskforce responsible solely for tackling conflict pollution. This would be a major advance in the battle to combat war’s toxic legacy.

Worrying about the environment during war may seem like a luxury. But this is not about birds and butterflies. This is about protecting the soil, air and water that all of us depend on to survive. When we destroy the ecosystems that sustain us, when we pollute the rivers and land with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, we cripple our health and our ability to rebuild amid the ruins. If we continue to ignore the environmental toll of conflict, then we will continue to perpetuate the misery of war and prolong the suffering of those caught in the crossfire. [Abridged]