Sunday, 2 December 2018

Environmental Legacy of Conflict

In November Laurence Menhinick, of The Conflict and Environment Observatory, gave a talk on The Environmental Legacy of Conflicts - an overview of the past 100 years.

CEOBS- the Conflict and Environment Observatory was founded in 2018 and builds on the work of the Toxic Remnants of War Project. Its aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the environmental and derived humanitarian consequences of conflicts and military activities. Laurence has worked with the Toxic Remnants of War team and is now one of CEOBS trustees.

The War Damage Act of 1965 is an Act of United Kingdom Parliament which exempts the Crown from liability in respect of damage to, or destruction of, property caused by acts lawfully done by the Crown during, or in contemplation of the outbreak of, a war in which it is engaged. It abolishes the rights at common law to compensation for certain damage to, or destruction of, property.
There are many types of war including: invasion; civil war; and external engagement, such as the French in Mali. It is often difficult to establish responsibility for clear-up and remediation.

Laurence gave a long list of conflicts which have taken place over the last hundred years, but said that there are many we never hear about. The direct results are Toxic Remnants of War due to military weapons contamination, damage and loss of access. Indirectly there is often loss of governance; lack of property; trafficking, theft and dumping; and minimal health monitoring.

World War 1 left much ground contamination, a devastated landscape and piles of shells, exploded and unexploded. Shells were made of heavy metals lead, copper and bronze, fuses of copper and zinc.

Ammunition contained noxious chemicals. Other sources of contamination are: leaky unexploded ordnance, open-pit burning of waste, poor storage of chemical weapons and corpses.

The Post War clean up involved filling in the trenches, removing barbed wire, and rebuilding/repairing 293,000 dwellings.

To deal with soil contamination, areas were divided into zones, designated Red, Yellow and Blue. Red Zones were considered impossible to clean and were just fenced off. Most are still there as evidenced by a map shown to us by Laurence. In other areas there was de-mining; disposal and burial of the dead; clearing up of dead animals and a clean-up of chemical weapons. Clean-up was poor until the mid-1970s. Today 30 tons of explosives and ammunition remnants are recovered each year.

The Yellow and Blue zones are now mostly cleaned up and a limited range of activities is allowed in them e.g. woodland management, remembrance tourism, ghost villages and military activity. A Hundred Years on there is no end in sight for a total clean up.

Chemical Weapons were banned by the 1925 Geneva protocol, but many are still produced “in case the other side has them”. Many of these weapons were disposed of at sea (maybe up to 1.6 million tons). There is a possibility of leakage and a chance of them being caught by trawlers.

1972 brought The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and The London Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution. In spite of these Conventions the Americans were able to use Agent Orange, a mass defoliant, and Napalm as both were said to have other primary uses. An estimated 73 million litres of chemical agents were deployed. 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange and 3,100,000 hectares of forest were defoliated, not to mention the water contamination and the effect on wildlife. 

Nuclear fallout and depleted Uranium (used in weapons and armour) affect large parts of the world not just Japan and Iraq.

Industrial contamination when factories are bombed, as in Syria, is characterised by release of toxins from pharmaceuticals, textiles and plastics.

Oil contamination is also widespread in the world. Some examples are the 1989 NATO bombing of Novi Sad, when refineries were targeted resulting in contamination by 73,000 tons of crude oil products. The Oil Well fires in Kuwait in 2007 left a black deposit a foot deep on the desert.

There are many indirect consequences. Loss of governance in The Yemen and the Civil War there pose a risk to the Red Sea Ecology. Floating Storage and Offloading terminals (FSOs) are a disaster waiting to happen. Large refugee camps e.g. in Jordan, make demands on water supplies, firewood etc. and produce pollution because of lack of suitable infrastructure. In many countries where war has resulted in lack of governance there is illegal exploitation of natural resources. Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo results in DNA damage in children.

CEOBS, the Conflict and Environment Observatory, wants the United Nations Environment Program to be broadened beyond the post-conflict environment and to take the principles of International Law into wartime. They aim to gather data for better monitoring, push for recognition of the needs of civilians, and push for remediation action. 

For further information go to 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Living in Styal (Prison)

At Stockport in September Eddie Tarry, Community Engagement Manager at HMP and YOI Styal talked to us about the history of Styal Prison, the daily life in the prison and the activities delivered to benefit women on release.  He called his talk Living in Styal “Building Hope, Changing Lives”.

Eddie spent five years in the Royal Navy before joining the prison service and was also a football referee for 25 years.

The prison has 16 houses each now holding 16-20 women (formerly 36) set in 32 acres of land of which 2/3 is grass. About 70 women, some of whom have never had a job, work on the grounds. 

The place was originally built in 1890 as an orphanage which was closed in 1956 to be used for holding Hungarian refugees.

The first female prison opened in 1962 with prisoners being transferred from the then women’s wing at Strangeways. In 1985 a Young Offenders Unit was added and in 1999 a new remand wing was added because of the closure of HMP Risley remand centre. The remand wing is called the Waite Wing named after Terry Waite who used to live in Styal Village. It was designed to hold 180 but this has now been reduced to 140. The wing is painted in bright colours.

In 2013 Styal became a Complex Prison costing £16 million per year to run of which £8.2 million is spent on health care. Healthcare is provided by Spectrum Community Health CIC. In 2014 it became a resettlement prison, in line with all female prisons in the country, where prisoners are held for the last three months of their sentence as near to their homes as possible. In 2015 an Open House Unit was added for 25 prisoners in Open Prison conditions.

He went on to discuss a profile of the offenders. 46% have suffered domestic violence and 53% have suffered emotional physical or sexual abuse as a child compared with 27% of male prisoners. 23% self-harm compared with 5% in the total population, and 48% will be reconvicted within a year of being discharged.

On arrival from the courts prisoners are processed in the reception area. They receive an initial induction, a medical assessment, and risk assessments including cell-sharing risk assessment, following the death of a male Asian sharing a cell with a violent racist.

Attempts are made to reduce reoffending. The main focus is on addressing the offending behaviour. Programmes available include Thinking Skills Programme, Drugs and Alcohol Recovery Service, and Victim Awareness. Restorative Justice done on a voluntary basis can work.

Education is also important and concentrates on functional skills. Foreign nationals with little or no English, such as Colombian Drugs mules, are offered English as a Second Language courses.

Vocational courses include: hairdressing, beauty therapy, Industrial cleaning, IT, Horticulture and Radio presenting. Pay for work in the prison is about £9 per week.

Work in the community includes the Clink Restaurant which employs 14 women per session and the chance to get an NVQ level 3. Recycling Lives is a recycling charity that takes women on strict criteria and supports them on release. Silk ties made in the prison are sold in John Lewis. Fruit and vegetables grown in polytunnels are sold to staff and prisoners. Styal prison has had an entry in the RHS Tatton Flower Show for six years and has received 5 silver medals and one silver gilt.

Eddie showed a DVD of the work done by Recycling Lives but unfortunately the sound did not work very well.

Sunday, 2 September 2018


Julia Marwood of Manchester Stoics described how she became interested in Stoicism during her times as a student including going to Stoic Week. She downloaded a handbook of exercises and then joined Manchester Stoics. She recommended the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, which describes principles that can help with anxiety.

She gave a short history of Stoicism, comparing the Greek and Roman philosophers. In ancient times Greek stoicism was aimed at developing morals, while in Roman culture it was about gaining tranquility.  Zeno of Citium (333BCE) from Cyprus was considered the founder of the Stoic school of Philosophy which taught that Reason was the greatest good in life. He taught in Athens from about 300BCE. Other Stoics included: Musonius Rufus, Roman Stoic philosopher in the 1st Century BCE; Epictetus, born a slave, but ended up as a Stoic philosopher in Greece; Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor known for his philosophical interests especially Stoicism.

In more modern times Rene Descartes’ ethical philosophy was influenced by stoicism - his ethics gives a central place to the notion of appropriate action in a sense reminiscent of the Stoics’ kathekon (appropriate behavior). Within this category are included a human being’s duties to God and to other human beings, and actions whose aptness stems from their promotion of the survival and health of the body. 

Victor E. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and a holocaust survivor, had a philosophy based on Stoic Principles. He said; Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist who in 1955 developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which led to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He said: The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. 

Modern Stoicism is the home of Stoic Week, Stoicism today and Stoicon (conference). Donald Robertson was one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism and Stoic Week, and is the author of: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010); Build Your Resilience (2012); Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).

Massimo Pigliucci, scientist and philosopher wrote How to be a Stoic.

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is a translation of selections from several stoic philosophers including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Zeno and others. It aims to provide lessons about personal growth, life management and practicing mindfulness

Stoic techniques for a happier life include:

The dichotomy of control (DOC) - the assertion that some things are ‘up to us’ (within your power), and others are ‘not up to us’ (not within your power).

 Negative Visualisation- appreciating what you have by imagining being without it.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Morality - A Tale of Three Evolutions

At Stockport in July Brian Gane of Central Lancashire Humanists spoke about Morality: a Tale of Three Evolutions.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe” said Carl Sagan. The Big Bang resulted in the evolution of the universe. Gravity pulled together matter to make stars and eventually material from stars made planets. Under the right conditions amino acids were formed leading, after 3 billion years, to the Human Brain. Some examples of evolutionary stages include Pikaia which had the beginning of a spine and may have been related to the common ancestor of all vertebrates. Eusthenopteron lived in the mouth of rivers and moved into the shallows, developing a neck, lungs and stubby fins which eventually extended into limbs. Aconthostega was among the first vertebrate animals to have recognizable limbs. Tulerpeton lived in shallow waters and breathed air. Its limbs were stronger than the fins from which they developed and it could lift its head giving it an advantage over other animals whose heads only moved side to side. 

The animals that survived the dinosaurs were very small shrew like creatures which developed into modern mammals. Human beings have 96% genes in common with chimpanzees. Humans are more intense and better at reading faces than chimps are. As chimps have no whites to their eyes it is difficult to see where they are looking.

Brian claims that morality begins with early humans and he considered three moral clusters which contribute: co-operation, empathy and justice. Humans are born with a co-operative streak and this is shown by the behaviour of young children who are eager to help where they can. They would pick up items that someone had dropped accidentally, but would not pick up an item that had been thrown in anger. Examples of co-operation are when taxes are paid to obtain infrastructure etc that would not be possible for individuals. The ultimate in co-operation is the CERN project, funded by 10 countries and employing scientists from 100 countries. Threats to food supplies leads to tribalism in early humans. In modern times gangs and political organisations take over this role. 

Small children tend to get upset if companions are upset. If a child is put with an upset child he/she will join in. Laughter is also infectious. Smiling results in a release of hormones into the blood. People with big smiles tend to live longer than those who rarely smile.

A sense of good and bad begins at about 4 months of age and a sense of fairness is a very powerful emotion. Some issues where unfairness has been addressed, at least in part, are slavery, health care via the NHS, women’s rights, the labour movement. Gay rights and the legal system.

Legal systems have been internationalised. Interpol has reciprocal arrangements with other countries, and the International Criminal court was formed in 2003 to put on trial those people accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity whose own countries will not or cannot put them on trial. The United Nations encourages Jaw Jaw rather than War War. The EU has the European Court of Justice and the European court of Human Rights.

The Brain has three levels of morality.1. Basic Instincts about In-Groups( Co-operation, empathy and sense of justice), and 0ut- Groups(tribalism), 2.Individual caring, 3. Societal caring (evolution of social norms). There is an expanding circle from the Human Family to International events.

According to Steven Pinker there has been a decline in violence from biblical times to the present day. And that in many areas (e.g. homicide, war and poverty) we are doing better than previously.

We are all connected.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Is Humanism A Religion?

At the Stockport May meeting John Coss considered the topic Is Humanism a Religion? Much of the answer depends on the definition of Religion, which is a toxic word in Humanist circles. John considered two definitions which he called Religion 1 and Religion 2. Religion 1 is the strict dictionary definition which includes supernaturalism; Religion 2 is a more modern definition which permits, but does not require, dogma or supernaturalism. John hopes that religions will increasingly drop these features but until they do it is best not to refer to Humanism as a religion. But it is still worth regarding Humanism as a religion in the Religion 2 sense.

So Humanism can be a religion or an alternative to religion. Less controversially it is: a belief system, a world view, a life stance, a philosophy of life, a moral perspective, an ethical system, a spiritual path, an approach to life and a meaning frame.

The Amsterdam Declaration is a statement of the fundamental principles of modern Humanism and is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought. Humanism is ethical, rational, supports democracy and believes in personal liberty and human rights, values artistic creativity and imagination, and aims at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. It provides an alternative to dogmatic religion.

Humanists live as if there is no god or other supernatural agency intervening in the world or taking an interest in world affairs. 

John dealt with a range of views on Humanism and Religion of various non-religious thinkers including our own David Seddon, Alain de Botton, Noel Cheer, Julian Huxley, Albert Einstein and Ronald Dworkin. 

So what kind of thing is religion? And what is it about/for? Its beliefs are about matters of ultimate importance, community/fellowship, ethics, making sense of the universe, rituals and ceremonies, spirituality, the meaning of life and how are we to live?

According to the anthropologist, David Eller, Its functions fill individual needs, provide explanation for origins and causes, exercise social control, provide solutions for immediate problems and fulfil the needs of society. According to Jared Diamond it provides explanation, diffuses anxiety, provides comfort and hope and meaning in life, justifies obedience to the state, getting along with strangers and hatred of believers in other religions. 

There are some humanly essential pursuits that religions engage in such as supporting people through difficult times (chaplaincy, spirituality or emotional fulfilment, morality without authority, a forum for philosophical discussion and debate, and community fellowship that need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

It is difficult to get a consensus of a definition of religion. There are various dictionary and encyclopaedia definitions and many thinkers have provided their own definitions. E.g. Thomas Paine: “independence is my happiness . . . and my religion is to do good.” David Sloan Williams: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices that unites members into one single moral community”. Examples from various websites include: “an explanation of the meaning of life and how to live accordingly” and “Our human response to being alive and having to die”. 

From these and other definitions John concludes that Humanism is a religion according to some reasonable modern ideas of what religion is (Religion 2) He went on to discuss the implications of this conclusion for Humanism and the challenges ahead.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Suicide Prevention

Rising to the Challenge of Suicide Prevention: Psychological Approaches.

Stockport's April meeting heard from Yvonne Awenat, a Research Fellow at the, University of Manchester, Division of Psychology & Mental Health, School of Health Sciences.  She discussed her team’s research into suicide prevention.

In the UK there is one death from suicide every 90 minutes, so each year about 6,000 people die by suicide, and there are about 140,000 suicide attempts - that’s one attempt every 4 minutes.  These figures have only slightly reduced over the last 30 years.

There are various risk factors for suicide based on Demographics; History of suicidality and Mental Health Problems. There is an increased risk associated with: Psychiatric hospitalisation / Imprisonment, Depression, Psychosis, Trauma (PTSD), personality disorder, substance and / or alcohol misuse, adverse life events.

There is no accurate method of predicting who will die by suicide. Static risk factors cannot be reduced (E.g. gender). Current practices are flawed – most patients who died by suicide had been assessed at No or Low Risk. Suicide risk assessment scales have limited clinical utility and may waste valuable resources and are no longer recommended (NICE, 2011; Quinlivan et al, 2017)

Psychological treatments are effective in reducing repetition of suicidal behaviour and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most promising treatments. Psychological treatments are effective in reducing repetition of suicidal behaviour. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most promising treatments but should have a specific focus on treating the underlying psychological mechanisms specific to Suicide involving: Attention Broadening, Thought Challenging, Problem Solving Training, Mood Management, and Improving Self-Esteem & Resilience.

Qualitative Research involves semi-structured in-depth interviews to investigate participant or other stakeholder’s: ‘Real-world’ subjective experiences; views, perspectives, attitudes; understandings; needs, priorities, preferences. Interviews are audio-recorded, transcribed and analysed.

Qualitative Analysis involves a systematic rigorous method to identify patterns (or themes) within participants’ narratives, reading & re-reading transcripts, line-by-line coding, clustering similar codes together and Identifying tentative themes, then collapsing tentative themes to form final themes.

In experimental intervention, treatment is given by a qualified clinical psychologist or CBT therapist employed for the clinical trial over a period of 4 – 6 months, once or twice a week. There are normally 20 -24 sessions each of 30-60 minutes. 

One particular study was Cognitive Behavioural Suicide Prevention (CBSP) in Psychosis, also known as the Recovery Trial. It took patients aged 18-65 years on the schizophrenia spectrum who had previous suicide attempt and/or current suicidal ideation. There was improvement in suicidal ideation. A reduction in suicide probability, and an increase in self-esteem. However there was increased risk of depression. 

Another study (PROSPeR) for the prevention of suicide in Prisoners aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of conducting an RCT of CBT for suicide prevention in a prison setting showed a reduction in self-injurious behaviour in the therapy group given CBT.

A randomised controlled trial of CBT for suicide prevention in inpatient settings (THE INSITE study) suggested that CBSP may be cost effective.

The CARMS trial: Cognitive Approaches to coMBatting suicidality is ongoing and has not as yet yielded any results.

Future studies will build on and extend exiting research on suicidal prisoners and psychiatric inpatients and explore new areas such as: suicide and bipolar disorder, suicide and alcohol or substance misuse, suicide and sleep problems.

There are the following sources of help for sufferers;

NHS - GP; A&E; NHS Direct 111, or 999.
Samaritans – Phone 116 123 24 hrs. all year 
NHS Choices – more resources 
The Sanctuary – Phone: 0300 003 7029      8pm – 6am overnight support

Sunday, 1 April 2018


In March Peter Baimbridge spoke to us about Autism. Autism is a Condition not a Disorder, a Disability, or a Disease. It is an observable state in which autistic people are different. They are Apple Macs in a PC world.

An MRI scan shows much more activity than a “normal” brain leading to some of the problems faced including a greater incidence of nightmares.

Peter described his own position. He has an IQ measured at 150 and has a degree and Chartered Status in Marketing and Sales Management and managed to trash a number of careers and businesses. He spent 30 years in and out of Mental Health Services before being diagnosed with Autism at the age of 56. He is now off medication and is self-managing his condition. He is using his experience and expertise to support, advocate for and to train others.

He has given presentations to various University Departments such as Clinical Psychology (University of Manchester) and Nursing (University of Salford). 

Peter created the charity Salford Autism which is run by autistic professionals. It provides support for everyone who is, cares for, or is affected by someone with an ASC and has a 24 hour emergency phone line.

Ordinary people seem nuts to autistic people, who do not do innuendo but work on precise information. The UK prevalence rate of autism is 1-1.5% but as it is thought that as many people go undiagnosed it could be as high as 5-6%. There is an impact on the health and benefit bill as most workers in the field do not understand the problems. Most children with autism look normal but with some abnormal attributes. Women are just as likely to be autistic as men but are better at “fitting in”.

Work is a big problem as 75% of autistic people are able and willing to work but only 15% have a job. 

When stressed autistic people, particularly children, can go into meltdown. Many people think they are tantrums but they are quite different. Tantrums are controlled, targeted, manipulative and stop when successful, leading to a happy aftermath. A meltdown is spontaneous, involuntary, random and unstoppable, leading to an emotional wipeout. It is similar in nature to an epileptic fit. To help someone in meltdown it is essential that one person only helps and keeps everyone else away. They should not tell the person to calm down but they should speak softly and reassuringly and wait it out. They should be ready to deal with the total emotional wipe-out the follows.

Autism is neither a learning disability nor a mental health problem, although mental health problems can be more common among people with autism and it is estimated that one in three of adults with learning disability also have autism. It is a life-long, pervasive, developmental spectrum condition with many facets, any of which may be present (or not) to a greater or lesser degree. 

Autism is an 'abstract diagnosis' arrived at with difficulty by assessment of reported behaviour. In communications and social behaviour visible indicators include: non-verbal to highly articulate communications, problems with unwritten rules of conversation & social interaction, difficulties with non-verbal communication, poor attention, single-channel processing, using and interpreting language literally, processing delay, and receptive language problems. Autistic people have different communication motivations, they find social interactions stressful and draining rather than energising and need lots of 'alone time' to 'recover' after socialising. They struggle with “rules” of social interaction and often “get it wrong”.

Autistic people have inflexible thinking and rigid repetitive interests. They struggle with imposed, unexpected or unexplained change, struggle to see another's point of view, and struggle to plan and organise. They are often focused on detail, missing the context, and struggle with imprecise or incomplete information. They struggle to generalise skills and learning, needing rules and clarity. They are often oblivious to common dangers (including danger from others). They need routine, ritual and structure for reassurance and often have obsessive special interests. 

Relevant legislation and guidelines include the Mental Health Act (1983), the Mental Capacity Act (2005), the Autism Act 2009, the Equality Act (2012), the Care Act 2014, Think Autism: updated strategy for adults with Autism in England (2014), Autism in adults: diagnosis and management (2012), Challenging behaviour and learning disabilities: prevention and interventions for people with learning disabilities whose behaviour challenges (2015).

Further Information:
National Autistic Society (