Thursday, 24 September 2015

It’s Time To Get Our Act Together

Recently, there was an earthquake in Chile. I only heard it mentioned once on British television, but some people were killed and damage was done to buildings. The authorities in Chile have a good warning system, and had evacuated people before the earthquake and its attendant tsunami struck. This was why so few people died.

A young friend of mine asked why God lets people get killed in earthquakes. While a proper discussion of all of the issues involved is beyond the scope of a short blog post like this, her question has made me dwell on how we can prevent most of the deaths from ever taking place. Legal documents always used to call such events “acts of God”, as if God had suddenly decided to shake things up a bit. Now that we understand more about the geological processes going on underground, and the meteorological processes overhead, we refer to earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, flooding, etc. as “natural disasters”. We understand that whereas some planets appear in many respects to be lifeless, the Earth we live on has “living” processes, involving volcanoes, undersea fissures, glaciation, avalanches, storms and the like. Of course, any sudden or “extreme” event has consequences for those living on the surface of the planet. Some of these events may be partially due to man’s actions – for example, floods in Bangladesh are now thought to be so devastating because of deforestation in the Himalayas. The trees and soil which should absorb the water are no longer there, so the water simply floods on down to the lowlands. Many people suspect – or are already convinced – that global warming is partly caused by man’s actions, and that the annual cyclones or hurricanes are now more powerful due to man-made climate change.

One possible interpretation of how human life works is that the world is designed in such a way as to give people challenges to overcome. If every problem were solved and there were nothing to strive for, if everything stayed the same and life had no colour, humanity would not be able to progress. Growth and change are both parts of human development. People adapt to the dangers they meet. In Japan, houses were traditionally built of lightweight materials such as wood and paper, to lessen the danger of death from earthquakes, and there were no interior walls, just lightweight partitions. In a number of tropical countries, houses were built on stilts, to reduce the chances of dangerous animals entering the home, or in some places to keep above flood zones. In more recent times, some countries – including both Japan and Chile – have brought in stringent rules which demand that “modern” structures are earthquake-proof. The stunning Bahá’í House of Worship currently being built in Chile is itself (hopefully!) earthquake-proof, and each of the “sails” has been independently seismically tested. However, as the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima power plant showed, even the Japanese regulations were not adequate for the worst possible tsunami, and new equipment and defences are already being put into place for similar plants.

In today’s news, several hundred people were killed in a stampede at the Hajj pilgrimage near Mecca. Early indications are that two different movements of people ended up converging on the same point. This clearly does not count as a “natural” disaster, but again shows the need for careful planning and management, and the need to adapt to new dangers – in this case hundreds of thousands of people in close proximity to one another.

In 2004, a powerful tsunami struck a number of countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka and India. The governments of the world had previously had the chance to install an early-warning system, but had decided it would cost too much money. This was a clear example of mankind failing to put other people’s lives and happiness first. And seven hours later, the same tsunami finally arrived in East Africa, and drowned people there who had simply not been warned about it. Gradually, better warning systems are being created, more organisations are working together to look for survivors of natural disasters, and to provide medical relief, tents, food and equipment.

But somehow, this concern for our fellow human beings is not yet universal. Other groups of people are busy fighting local wars, killing people from rival tribes or different religions. Perhaps we should also ask what can be done about these “unnatural disasters”. In the Bahá’í Writings it says: “Man has been able to bend the powers of nature to his will. God gave this power to man that it might be used for the advancement of civilisation, for the good of humanity… but man prefers to use this gift to destroy instead of to build… for hatred and discord and devastation”.

Let us turn our attention from creating disasters towards preventing them.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A Long Way Short

A lot of people have arrived unexpectedly in Europe this summer, and many of these are fleeing tyrannical regimes and warfare, especially from Syria. At the time of writing, the countries in the European Union have no effective system of coping with those who arrive “illegally” in large numbers. Every day, we see new twists and turns in this story. Some countries are welcoming refugees from countries at war with open arms. Others are building fences to keep them out. Most people see a distinction between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrants”, but without a working system, nothing can effectively be done to deal with either group. This is not just a European problem - other parts of the world are receiving migrants from less fortunate countries.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, urged the world to create a world government. Addressing the immediate future He said: “The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective.” Certainly, the richer parts of the world are incapable of coping in any organised way with the arrival of large numbers of refugees and other unregulated migrants. The world does not even agree on the rights a human being should have. Some countries do not allow their citizens to leave. Far more have no objection to their citizens leaving, but object to people arriving from outside. The world also seems incapable of preventing the organised people smuggling which is undertaken by criminal gangs.

What is more, the world has not created any real mechanism for preventing warfare, either within countries or between countries. The United Nations Organisation was, unfortunately, not set up with a mechanism for preventing the types of war which now occur; nor does the United Nations have the authority, or the armed forces, to intervene at an early stage when fighting does break out. It is the warfare and despotism which the world allows to continue which promotes mass emigration from certain unfortunate countries. The world has also not evolved past the stage of political and religious divisions and fanaticism. Presumably foreseeing this kind of chaos, Bahá’u’lláh predicted that, “Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.” In His letter to Queen Victoria, when talking about the rulers of the world, He said: “Should any one among you take up arms against another, rise ye all against him, for this is naught but manifest justice.” A world government would have the authority to take quick decisions to prevent situations from deteriorating. It would have a form of world police force which could be used in trouble spots, and as long as it functions in the right spirit, it would also have the affection and loyalty of the vast majority of the world’s citizens. In 1955, and again in 1995, the Bahá’ís made detailed proposals to the United Nations Organisation for major reform of the way it is organised and on the areas it should have authority to tackle, but unfortunately no changes have been made.

At present, the world is a long way short of what it could be. The nations need to put aside what they believe is their own interest in order to develop a form of world administration which will be able to sort out the problems which countries cannot solve by themselves.

(Note: cartoon thanks to Simon Kneebone)