Sunday, 20 March 2016

Global Justice Now

In February, Stephen Pennels spoke to the Stockport Group about the Global Justice Now (formerly World Development Movement).

The World Development Movement began over 40 years ago and grew out of NGOs such as OXFAM. It provided a front organisation to prevent the NGOs losing their charitable status. Over time Development became a dirty word, being associated with the World Bank imposing development and debt on the third world, so the organisation changed its name to Global Justice Now (GJN).

The issues addressed are global. It is no longer a case of North versus south but the 1% versus the 99%, the increasing injustice and imbalance between a small number of people who have money and power and the rest whose lives are shaped by the 1%.

The slogan of GJN is "People before profits or Global Injustice" because of the sell-out to Transnational Corporate power grabbers: Banks, tax dodgers, agribusiness, construction, arms dealers etc.

Governments are often implicated in practices which are not in the best interests of the majority of people. There are conflicts between farmers being able to control what they grow and food security where there is little choice of what is provided. Food sovereignty may be more productive in the long term. Sustainable models such as timber grown widely apart with crops in between were mentioned.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TTIPs) are also causing concern. The ongoing negotiations and draft papers are being kept secret, but it is understood that companies will be able to sue governments if legislation prevents them fully exploiting resources e.g. if they are prevented from fracking or if, say, the channel tunnel is closed because of migrants on the lines. The European commission is trying to change the formula but the changes are cosmetic. Quebec has already been successfully sued over fracking. The system of courts with three lawyers presiding has an in built bias in favour of the corporations. 

There is a suspicion that the US is trying to establish international norms before China gets its foot in the door. It is expected that all countries will be expected to adhere to the rules set by the corporations, even poor countries like Bangladesh. Fortunately the UNESCO declaration of 2005 enables local culture to be nurtured. Otherwise , for example, TV could be pulled in from the US completely ignoring local output.(Including in the UK.)

Governments are already heavily in the pockets of the corporations. The last Labour Government introduced PFIs tying the public sector to paying corporations for years even when the resource is inappropriate. Under the coalition aid money is going to industries. 

The food industry is dominated by Monsanto, leading to monocultures going against the food sovereignty issue. An animal feed company (KOGIL) has been given a concession to take over African agriculture.

In Lesotho most of the aid money has gone on a single hospital, costing more than one in this country. Even our own NHs is not what we think it is. Expensive car parking fees go to private companies and a private x-ray scanning contract is 
more expensive than under the NHS.

The EU has a list of 1,377 chemical banned from use in cosmetics because of safety concerns, the USA has only 11. Cosmetic products cannot be tested on animals in the EU, but America has no such legislation. Under TTPI all this will all change.

Any exclusions from TTIP legislation need to be included in the treaty. With fast moving technology this will prove difficult if not impossible.

Stephen ended with a brief discussion on where the UK political parties stood on these issues.

There was a lively Q and A session.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Are The Religious More Cooperative?

The regular February Manchester meeting was was replaced with a celebratory evening at the Manchester Conference Centre to mark Darwin’s birthday on 12th February.   The Darwin Day Celebration spanned the evening and was attended by 142 visitors including a number of Muslim families.  There were a range of exhibits from Water Aid, Amnesty International, Population Matters, Hominid Evolution, Natural V’s Supernatural, digitart, LGBT and several Manchester schools displayed projects on evolution and Charles Darwin available throughout the evening .  At 7.30pm children from Abraham Moss and Alma Park Primary Schools provided individual presentations on Darwin’s work and this was followed by a group song on evolution to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”.  The children were extremely enthusiastic in their delivery and their teacher Paula Hayes has to be commended for the smooth direction of the acts.

Dr Susanne Shultz then presented an outline of contemporary research and thinking on evolutionary biology and on the studies that she directs at the University of Manchester in light of the wider question of whether religious societies are more co-operative.  

Susanne touched upon a number of strands of research.  She talked about her own research into the factors that make primate societies distinctive and why humans have been able to develop large complex societies.  There has been a positive correlation over evolutionary time between brain size and the level of societal co-operation and thus group living.  Human cognition allows for the appreciation of art, and enables us to dance, to write, to make music, to communicate and to cooperate.  Susanne explored whether religion was a by product of human cognitive advancement in that it meets both individual and group level needs.  On an individual basis people get a sense of belonging and can be provided for materially through the religious system which provides security.   In addition, it has been shown that membership has health benefits and communal activities activate positive hormonal changes in the form of endorphins.  The group benefits relate to bonding and cooperation and provide a mechanism for punishing cheats.  Susanne highlighted that there are always costs and benefits associated with membership of such groups.  The costs can be associated with a particular dress code, punishments or abstinences and these can also signal membership.  People are prepared to pay this price for membership and belonging and for rules to exclude dishonest members.  Susanne touched upon similar evolutionary traits in the animal world, where some animals develop highly distinctive or costly characteristics to be part of an exclusive group, e.g. the peacock’s distinctive plumage.  Sosis (2002) has examined communal societies and how long these societies lasted.

Susanne focused on whether religious groups were more cooperative than non-religious groups as analysed by the findings of the World Social Values Survey.  This survey examined how religious and non-religious groups viewed anti-social behaviour, helping others, and volunteering and how they viewed outside groups.  The  survey found that religious groups were more cooperative but were less open to people from groups other than their own.  

Suzanne pointed out that it has been empirically accepted that religious societies are more cooperative.  However a number of recent studies are serving to counter this.  For example, Decetey (2015) found that non-religious children were kinder than religious children.  Suzanne also referred to her own work in this area which argues that primates have inherent characteristics of cooperation that we have evolved these tendencies and that religion is not the only method by which groups can cooperate.  She suggested a number of other ways of providing the positive benefits of religious membership.  The positive feelings associated with religious rituals are also found in other ritual activities such as football audience participation.  In addition, the individual benefits relating to security associated with religious membership can be met by modern day welfare state systems: religious membership levels have fallen in western societies with their introduction.