Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tibet, China, protest immolation and social medicine

This is a summary of a chapter published in Advances in Medical Sociology; Vol 15; Ecological Health; edited by Dr Maya Gislason; ISBN: 978-1-78190-323-0 (Emerald Press). I also published on this topic in 2015 in Tibetan Review.

In October 2012 I submitted a paper to the 4th biannual conference of the International Association of Ecology and Health, held in Kunming, Yunnan, China. This was shortly before the appointment of the new Chinese head of state, Paramount Leader Xi Jinping, and thus an unusually sensitive time. My rejected abstract proposed a link between public self-immolation — suicide and protest by burning — and “eco-social” distress. It was scored as 0/5 – not warranting presentation even as a poster. As a co-editor of the journal (since 2010) and as an invited keynote speaker at the second annual conference (held in Mexico in 2008) this score was certainly unusual.
However, although my abstract scrupulously avoided mention of either China or Tibet my motivation was in fact to express sympathy and concern about the rate of protest self-immolation by Tibetans in China. At that time about 50 people had died this way, an extraordinarily high rate considering there are only about 6 million ethnic Tibetans living in China. In the following ten months (as I wrote this) this number has  more than doubled. A few Tibetans living in exile in India and Nepal have also self-immolated in sympathy.
In India, suicide by fire is an ancient custom, but there is no Tibetan equivalent, perhaps because of the scarcity of firewood, and the consequent rarity of cremation. Most cases of self-immolation in China were originally in Sichuan but more recently, their focus has shifted to the north, to Guansu and Qinghai (see figure in the chapter), these are Chinese provinces with significant Tibetan minorities. A full list Tibetan protest-immolations is available on the web.

Protest self-immolation
Protest self-immolation has a long history. Some, unlike in China to date, have had significant political impacts, most notably in Vietnam in 1963 and Tunisia in 2010. In 2014 it spread to Australia, when a Tamil asylum seeker from Sri Lanka had his application frozen.
The Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs has tabulated over 500 acts of protest self-immolation occurring between 1963 and 2002, with the highest rate among Kurds. But the highest number occurred in 1990 in India, when in only ten weeks over 200 people self-immolated. These were mostly students protesting at affirmative action aimed at redressing entrenched Indian inequality, thus threatening to reduce access to university and civil service positions to some from more privileged castes. However, in India, self-death by fire is mostly not political protest, but the third most common method of private suicide, after poisoning (often with pesticides) and hanging. Recently, young Bulgarians have been committing self-immolation, to protest deepening poverty and inequality in one of the most deprived parts of Europe.
Outside India, self-immolation retains its capacity to shock and horrify. But few political self-immolations have achieved their desired reforming effect, including, to date, those by Tibetans. Although Tibetan suicides have generated considerable publicity in some countries, they have scarcely been reported in China and seem to have had negligible influence. Some Chinese spokespeople attribute its cause to appeals from the Dalai Lama, absurdly claiming that this Nobel Peace Laureate and spiritual leader is orchestrating self-immolation.

My chapter outlines links between ecology (including dreadful reduction in its once vast wildlife) and human well-being, Chinese oppression of ethnic Tibetans, and the pathways of despair and hope that drive self-immolation, including for Tibetans. It documents Chinese indifference to their desperation and predicts the practice will decline as Tibetans realise it's not changing anything. It argues that this tragic issue is a legitimate part of social medicine and also EcoHealth, including through the legacy of Rudolf Vichow.

I also lament the collective (if perhaps understandable) timidity of the International Association for Ecology and Health, who despite proclaiming a concern for social justice and oppressed people, instead bowed before the powerful East Wind, at least on this occasion.

PS In an interview published on June 17, 2016, His Holiness the Karmapa clearly recommended against the practice of protest self-immolation in Tibet. I strongly support his opinion.

See also

Clarification about the "Fortress World"

Someone from a Facebook group called "Sustainable Population Australia" has stated that for me to raise the possibility of "Fortress Australia" is "a vicious and petty slight on Australians who have already sacrificed much prosperity to accommodate 7+ million who we've welcomed."

Here is a brief clarification. First, there are limits, not only of population, but of affluence and tolerance. It is amazing how many species and people the world can accommodate, but it is not infinite. I am Malthusian in the long run (no space here to defend Malthus; certainly though he has not been proved wrong; the general principle of a struggle between problems and solutions with regard to the support of human numbers is irrefutable.)

Secondly, there are "sweet spots" of population resource ratios. Indigenous Australian population probably totaled less than a million. Given their technology (including their choice to reject subsistence farming, a technology known in nearby New Guinea) they might have been able to feed more, but not 20 million more. Perhaps the optimal population in Australia (for today's technology) is less than 20 million; it is certainly less than 1 billion. But our collective tolerance of immigration reflects the dominant view that we can accommodate more than 20 million, even if that is sub-optimal. So, if we have welcomed 7+ million that is not necessarily at the "sacrifice of much prosperity", any more than immigration to the US in the 19th and 20th century lowered US living standards. But at another part of the curve, the capacity to accommodate 7 million might be at a higher cost, including to our prosperity.

As I wrote in a chapter in a report published this year by the Australian Academy of Science if Australia is to go for a really low population (say 25 million) then later this century we will be invaded, for sure. This is due mainly to the chaos beyond our borders which I think is inevitable - indeed which I first predicted in a published paper in 1991, and have consistently repeated.

People living in "fortresses" do not necessarily exclude more people; they exclude those who are unwanted, particularly welcome are people with skills and money who can strengthen the fortress. These days (in Australia) asylum seekers arriving by boat are collectively unwanted. I think the preference for rich and skilled people is reality, not vicious. But the real risk of what I mean by "fortress" refers to a mentality which cares very little if at all for people living outside the fortress.

We haven't quite got there, as a country (or a world) but we are moving towards it, eg as reflected by our low aid budget. In fact, we have been moving this way since at least 1980, and the large increase in refugees in the world in part reflects the failure of modern economics and development theories. But it also reflects intolerance, corruption and indifference in the world that exists beyond our borders, eg see my article from 2000 about a global "claste" system (here is a free version).

I have chosen to respond here, rather than directly to my critic, as I feel that a conversation just with that person is unlikely to have much success or benefit. My critic also says I have my head in the sand concerning population; which suggests little familiarity with my academic work, for example.

In summary, I think we are heading for an intensified retreat from the project of global civilisation; what is emerging is a "triage" world in which disorderly parts (Somalia, Congo, Syria etc) are increasingly sequestered, where people fleeing chaos are managed in camps; these trends will intensify as climate change and other limits to growth get worse; but for some decades people such as me in Australia will do ok. But eventually it will become intolerable, as desperation drives more brutal attacks and more brutal repulsion. I do think Australia needs to send a strong "fend" signal to asylum seekers (perhaps justifying the proposed New Guinea strategy); but I also think we need to do much more to promote stability and genuine development off shore.

I have been working towards this since 1989, when I co-founded the NGO Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight (BODHI), but I think the attempt is failing; but that's partly because not enough elites have sincerely tried. We could and should try much harder, in the very limited time we now have.

Dr Ambedkar: Breaking chains of caste

In 2005 I attended a meeting of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, in Nagpur, Maharashtra, India. Following that meeting I wrote this piece for our newsletter, "BODHI Times" (number 29). What follows is a slightly edited version. I should add that I recommend the book Ambedkar and Buddhism to anyone who wants to know more - I read this in the 1990s, when its author (Ven Sangharakshita, founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now Triratna) and I corresponded.) He sent it to me - now it's free on the web. What follows is my essay:

There are more statues in India today of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the great Dalit (preferred to the offensive untouchable) leader who died in 1956, than of any other person born in the last millennium, including Mahatma Gandhi, who is so much better known in the West. Ambedkar and Gandhi — contemporaries whose careers often overlapped — were both involved in a great struggle. While Gandhi focussed on freeing India from the grip of colonial Britain, Ambedkar worked mainly to free Dalits from the cruelty and oppression of other Indians, who benefited from the institutional racism and discrimination of the caste system, central to orthodox Hinduism.

Using different methods (which rarely if ever involved Dalits in their formulation), Gandhi also tried to improve the conditions for the millions of people at the bottom of the Indian pecking order. For example, Gandhi used the word harijan (children of God) to describe Dalits, hoping this would uplift their position. Ambedkar and most other Dalits rejected this term as offensive and patronising. Rather than lobby for full socioeconomic and political equality, Gandhi argued that the traditional Dalit jobs — such as sweeping, labouring, and removing dead animals from villages — should be regarded by caste Hindus as dignified and honourable. This was seen as absurd by Ambedkar, who instead called for equal opportunity for Dalits to be educated, nourished and to participate in a fully democratic India, thus extinguishing the very concept of untouchability.

There is evidence that Gandhi — born into the third-ranking merchant caste — absorbed and expressed a psychology which placed Dalits in a lowly position, perhaps in conflict with the Mahatma’s conscious preference. For example, Gandhi is alleged to have asked a Christian missionary to pray for the harijans but not to try to convert them as they did not have ‘the mind and intelligence to understand what you talked. Would you preach the Gospel to a cow?’ (1) Many other examples are said to attest to the low regard which Gandhi had for the average ‘harijan.’ (2)

India’s first law minister

Ambedkar matriculated in 1907, an extraordinary achievement for a Dalit. The rarity of this accomplishment does not show any inherent defect in the mental ability of untouchables, but instead reflected their lack of opportunity and educational access. For many, it probably also reflected an environmentally determined loss of cognitive potential, shared by many chronically undernourished people. Ambedkar then earned four post-graduate degrees in the U.S. and UK, including a Ph.D. from Colombia University in New York and a D.Sc. from the London School of Economics. He became the best educated Dalit of his and possibly all time.

From the 1920s until his death Ambedkar personified and led the Dalits in their struggle for more rights and opportunities. He became integral to the emerging leadership of independent India, not only becoming India’s first law minister but also chairing the committee which drafted the Indian constitution. Ambedkar was far less successful in his attempts to reform Hinduism (as was Gandhi).

In 1935 Ambedkar declared that though born a Hindu he would not die a Hindu. Though he considered conversion to Christianity and Sikhism, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism in October, 1956. Within months of his untimely death in December of that year, several million Dalits had followed, thus extinguishing — at least in theory — any religious obligation to be subservient to higher caste Indians. Today, Buddhists in India who have followed Ambedkar’s example outnumber other kinds of Buddhists in India (such as Tibetans) by tens of millions. Yet, their story is hardly known, even among Buddhists in other countries.

This short piece cannot do justice to the complexity and richness of this movement, whose story and struggle is far from complete.


1. Zelliot, E., Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership, Jambhala Books, 3rd edn, Pune, 2005,
2. Omvedt, G., Ambedkar. Towards an Enlightened India, Penguin, New Delhi, 2004.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The abject moral and strategic failure of a “fortress world”

Just as Kevin Rudd was announcing his New Guinea “solution” to boat people the riot on Nauru was hotting up, reporting to have cost Australian taxpayers $60 million. Australia, which briefly governed New Guinea, will now pay its former colony (and, as of mid-2014 it now wants to do the same to Cambodia) an undisclosed sum to ensure future asylum seekers, if arriving by boat, will never settle in fortress Australia. This is to be the case whether they are found to be genuinely fleeing from terror, or whether they simply want a higher standard of living, rather than the poverty available to them back home.

Bob Carr, the Australian foreign minister when I originally wrote this, had at that time recently taken to informing us (before any official judgment) that an increasing fraction, perhaps even a majority of people desperate enough to try a leaky boat to Christmas Island are “economic” refugees. (Especially Tamils from Sri Lanka, even though one recently self-immolated in Sydney rather than be sent back.)

Of course, Carr (and his successors in the Abbott-led government) vilified such forms of “boat people” because Australia can then lawfully deport them without breaking its obligations under the refugee convention. Since almost all migrants who arrive by plane do not seek asylum their motivation to move here must be mainly economic, so this is surely ok to Australians and their leaders (or do we pretend they move here to increase our standard of living?)

Although Carr and his class will not remind us, to be an economically-driven migrant -- to aspire for a higher standard of living -- is to follow the path of virtually every person who has moved to Australia without being transported as a convict.

In 2002 I attended my first meeting of a scenarios think tank for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Our job, as scientifically-trained futurists, was to consider how the global socio-ecological-political future would unfold over this century, and what this would mean for future human well-being. We developed five main scenarios (one, which was hyper-optimistic, was eventually dropped). One of our possible futures was the “fortress world”. This was a world of increasing haves and have-nots, where the haves were separated from the have-nots by strengthening barriers; financial, educational, electronic, physical, legal, social and so on. The ultimate barrier may be thought. Ultimately, at least in an idealised fortress world, such discrimination is so legitimized, so rationalized and so normalized that the existence of anything else is forgotten, thus erasing the chance of perpetual unease or even and guilt.

To a minority of us at that meeting, this future world was not only plausible, but discernable in nascent form, though of course we were aware of countering trends, such as the spread of literacy and the growth of the internet and mobile telephony. But one of our co-chairs (raised in the majority world; that it is to say he at some stage successfully penetrated the fortress) argued forcefully that this scenario was absurd. In fact, he felt it so far-fetched that it should not even be on the table. He almost got his way. When most of us returned for the next meeting (missing Paul Raskin, the best-known futurist among us, who had argued most cogently for the plausibility of the fortress scenario before withdrawing permanently from the process) its name had been changed, in an undemocratic and Orwellian coup, to “Order from Strength.”

The same co-chair, despite being born in the second most populous nation on Earth, was also convinced that overpopulation was not a problem. One day he told me, airily, that “Boserup had solved it”. He misinterpreted this eminent Danish anthropologist to be a supporter of Julian Simon, and before that, of Mao Tse Tung. Both Mao and Simon believed that the more people there are on our planet the better, because each new person has a brain and two hands, and can therefore contribute to the solution.

Such thinking was common in the “cornucopian enchantment”, which started sometime around the election of Ronald Reagan. With a faith reminiscent of King Canute, people entranced by its spells really did seem to believe that ingenuity would endlessly trump scarcity, that the Limits to Growth was the real fantasy, that cheap energy would be endless, and that perpetual population growth did not matter.

In 2013, the stubbornly high cost of energy is a major contributor to high food prices and to other living costs, which in turn is a factor for the social unrest in Egypt, the unemployment in Europe and the widespread anxiety almost everywhere. Despite the alleged bonanza of shale oil and coal seam gas its high cost and slow rate of extraction mean that the price of energy remains uncomfortably high, at about 75% of its 2008 peak, before the financial bubble burst, when, for a while, it seemed that conventional economic theories would be revealed to be as naked as Hans Anderson’s mythical emperor.

The hope of “Health for All by the year 2000”, declared in 1978, died soon after, just as the Cornucopian enchantment took hold. Rather than development, hard work and social justice, market forces and trickle down were to solve all problems. In such a world foreign aid could be safely and morally reduced, leaving just enough to garner votes for the Olympics.

Australia, for the time being, remains the lucky country. Certainly, many asylum seekers aspire to share our good life, while it lasts. The Australian Climate Commission has told us that much of the world’s remaining fossil fuels should remain unburned, lest we poison ourselves with dangerous or even lethal climate change. We have an ocean of solar potential but a string of Prime Ministers who instead support the expansion of domestic coal seam gas production and coal exports. Like Tony Blair, Kevin Rudd and his successor Tony Abbott go to church, but their faux Christian values are revealed in their cruelty to asylum seekers (Blair revealed his in his support for the illegal invasion of Iraq).

Rudd, in his first incarnation as PM, favoured a modest increase in our miserly foreign aid budget. It remains to be seen if the bribe we will pay New Guinea for strengthening the Australian fortress will be classed as foreign aid. Fortress Australia certainly looks attractive, in the short run, to most voters, at least if we can shut our ears, mind and heart to the misery that exists, and to the conflict that is increasing. But in the long run, the indifference and arrogance revealed in this policy will be remembered, and resented.

The world is in increasing disorder. Civilisation will breakdown unless we and other fortunate populations populations can contribute to global solutions rather than to temporary bandaids. The export of clean and affordable energy is one such solution. Another is to awaken from the Cornucopian enchantment. If we do, we may glean enough resources to keep the nine billion people predicted to inhabit out small world from destroying civilization by 2050, but this seems unlikely if we follow our current trajectory. Limits to growth are real, close and frightening. Mainstream economics with its “more of the same” complacency must be reformed, and Australia must generate and export genuine solutions.