Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Tasmanian fires, climate change, and reflections on petitions


The catastrophe of fires and climate change in Tasmania

Richard Flanagan is probably the most famous living Tasmanian, known for his 2014 Booker Prize  and his many essays critical of the abuse of power. He was once called “a traitor to Tasmania” in the Tasmanian parliament, and later told by the then premier that he and his writing were “not welcome in the New Tasmania” after he published an essay critical of the culture of the state Labor government of the day. 

Yesterday (Feb 5, 2019), Richard published a typically eloquent essay; this time about climate change, government apathy (his sub-title was "those in power laugh at us", referring especially to the current Australian prime minister's highly visible support for coal) and, the terrifying, health-damaging fires in Tasmania, which for the third time in six years (2013, 2016, 2019)  are devastating parts of the state. The current one seems the worst, and its health impact will be greatly magnified by smoke inhalation, in an island which already has a high rate of asthma, especially in indigenous children.

My petition and its complications (updated Feb 7)

A few days before Richard's essay was published I started a petition. This calls for the Tasmanian government, led by Liberal premier Will Hodgman, to play a more active role in educating the Tasmanian people about climate change. Although it is now clear, including in Tasmania, that the climate has changed (mainly due to greenhouse gas forcing), there is still time to reduce even worse consequences. In the three decades I have been researching climate change, mainstream politicians, whether socially conservative or left wing, have largely missed the point. Overwhelmingly, they have been indifferent to the arguments made by the environmental movement that adequate environmental resources are necessary for human well-being. We are steadily eroding our environmental buffer, in a process I call "environmental brinkmanship".

I have signed petitions before, but never initiated one. I used a web platform called "Change.org". According to their FAQs I was supposed to be notified via email once my petition became "promotable", presumably when it reached a threshold (as far as I can tell, the number is not stated on their website, but an email received Feb 7 advised that the number was 500 - however, when I discovered they were using my petition as a vehicle to raise money for themselves and their allies the number who signed was less than 300). Even now, (i.e. Feb 7) I have not received such notification, and the number who have signed exceeds 500.

When I accidentally discovered that people who signed this petition were being asked for money I felt deeply embarrassed. I now realise, after reading the fine print, that I could have asked for this fund raising option to be disabled, but not by ticking a box (which would have alerted me to its possibility) but instead by writing to their help section. I believe the box option would be more ethical.

I asked Change.org if they could contact the donors to offer a refund, but they declined, though they stated that they will make a refund if donors contact them. They suggested that I do this by posting an update. I will also try to contact some of the people who gave money; I think I have identified some by capturing their names, and in some cases facebook pics, as they flash past. I hope this update might reach some of them.

Change.org is a profit-seeking company, and they provided a service to me for which I did not pay. But if they made this donation feature more transparent many would still agree; Change.org would still make money.

I am trying to find out what happens to these funds if the donated sum cannot be returned. At the moment, it seems that the funds raised can only be spent on advertising the petition (i.e. all the donated funds go to the company and its allies with whom ads can be placed). If this is correct then I am in a "lose lose" position. That is, I either spend the money on advertising, or the money is lost (and presumably goes to Change.org - I have written to ask them, and will update this blog if I learn more). Either way, I feel the donors have been ripped off and I sincerely apologise.

Conclusion

I have long felt ambivalent about petitions, now I feel distinctly uncomfortable, at least for those on Change.org. This article also expresses concern, while this one sheds more light on their tactics and profitability. Change.org presents itself as an ethical business, and I don't mind if they make a profit. But I don't like the way they currently operate. 

If you have read this far, thank you. Please consider signing the petition, but please do not make a donation unless you want to give money to Change.org. If you want to use your hard earned money to bring about change in Tasmania (and don't have time to directly contact a politician or use another method that takes time) then you might consider donating to an independent climate change lobby group such as the Climate Council. Or, you could donate to a charity such as the Red Cross that helps people harmed by fires and other emergencies (including in Tasmania), and which is also aware of how climate change is increasing the risks of disasters.

You might also reflect on this plea by firefighters for us all to take climate change far more seriously. It says, in part:
“Having just spent a majority of January supporting firefighting operations in Tasmania and New South Wales, I have seen the exhaustion that firefighters power through to battle increasingly uncontrollable fires, and the fear, anxiety and loss that communities suffer,” he said.

Thank you.

Friday, February 1, 2019

An appeal to the Tasmanian government to better recognise the links between fire and climate change

Tasmania is experiencing terrifying, health-damaging fires for the third time in six years (2013, 2016, 2019). The nature and risk of fires has changed in many countries, due to climate change; in Australia's island state the climate is hotter, drier and there is more dry lightning. The Tasmanian Fire Service website is excellent, yet climate change is barely mentioned. It needs to be a major subject heading, to help educate an uncertain public. The absence of climate change as a prominent theme on this site may reflect ambivalence or even attempted suppression of this issue by the Tasmanian government. This is not good enough. Please help us convince the the Tasmanian government to be part of the solution, not add to the problem.

Some politicians claim that making the link between climate change and tragedy is insensitive, but keeping silent on this issue would be like a doctor ignoring the smoking behaviour of a patient who just had a heart attack.

Climate change also threatens to greatly harm the summer tourism industry in Tasmania. Tasmania, which is already a world leader on carbon neutral electricity, must awaken to the many risks caused by climate change and, led by its democratically elected government, do what it can to reduce those risks.

Please sign and circulate the petition, and also write directly to Premier Will Hodgman at will.hodgman@parliament.tas.gov.au

Footnote

It was my experience of being awoken by the smell of smoke, in the Tasmanian forest, in the heatwave of January 2103, which made me decide to be arrested for civil disobedience about the collective failure of Australians to do enough to slow climate change. In 2014 I became the first (and so far only) Australian contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to have been arrested for civil disobedience on this issue, and the first (and, also, so far only) contributor to the health chapter of the IPCC.

Unfortunately, mainstream media almost completely ignored this at the time, with one exception.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

BODHI, the Bahujan Hitay Pune Project, and the ongoing work of Dr Ambedkar


In June 2019 the 16th Sakyadhita conference will be held, for the first time ever in Australia. See here for details. These are large meetings; the previous one, held in Hong Kong in 2017, attracted about 800 attendees from 31 countries. BODHI Australia will be attending this meeting, represented by at least 4 committee members and one partner, Karunadeepa. Below is the summary of our paper, and below that is our current draft of the full paper.

The paper is designed to be read; some repetition is deliberate

Authors: Maxine Ross, Karunadeepa, Emilia Della Torre; Colin D. Butler

Summary: In 1956 the great reformer Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar led, in Nagpur, India, a mass conversion to Buddhism, involving at least 300,000 people. Millions more have since converted in an ongoing social movement, still keenly needed, reaching for greater justice in India, particularly for women, and particularly for Dalits, once called “untouchables”. Since 2005 the NGO BODHI Australia (founded in 1989) has supported the work of a team led by Karunadeepa, a Dalit whose grandfather took part in the historic Nagpur conversion, and who for decades has worked for an Indian NGO, based in Pune, India, itself largely supported by the UK Karuna Trust, allied with Triratna, whose founder (Venerable Sangharakshita) first met Dr Ambedkar in 1952. The work BODHI Australia has supported with Karunadeepa and her team mainly seeks to enhance the life-chances of slum-dwellers, especially migrants from rural Maharashtra (not necessarily Dalit, nor Buddhist) by improving education, health and awareness of family planning. In 2017 Karunadeepa, with Dalit colleagues, started to develop a new NGO, the Bahujan Hitay Pune Project, entirely governed by Dalit women, which will extend and deepen this work, but which also presents new challenges. In this talk, Karunadeepa, during her first visit to Australia, will discuss these activities, together with representatives of BODHI Australia. BODHI’s work to support Dalit-led and other development-promoting projects in India may seem a drop but can also be seen as a key to inspire, to resist oppression, to support development and to assist escape from poverty and vulnerability.
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Dr Ambedkar. https://www.culturalindia.net/reformers/br-ambedkar.html original source unknown
Full paper:

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This paper starts by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land this conference is held on, the Gundungurra, the Indigenous people who have thrived on this continent for at least 65,000 years. The authors of this paper are all apprentices of dharma. Between us, we have been exposed to about two centuries of close contact with Buddhism. One of us (Karunadeepa) was born Buddhist. However, none of us claim, or admit, deep knowledge of Buddhist scholarship. We thank the organisers of this historic conference for the opportunity to speak and to be published in this setting, alongside the work of people with far more scholarly knowledge of Buddhism than we will ever have.
The main motivation for this talk and essay is to provide information about the work of some followers (in Pune, India) of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who lived in India from 1891 until 1956. Dr Ambedkar was 65 years old when he died, coinciding with the Buddha Jayanti festival, to honour Buddhism’s 2500th year. The Dalai Lama first arrived in India, mainly to attend this celebration, only a few days before Dr Ambedkar died.

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The traditional Buddhist dharma wheel, representing interdependence and liberation, was added to the Indian national flag at Dr. Ambedkar’s suggestion. Here it is on a stamp, issued to celebrate 2500 years of Buddhism. Source
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While three of us were not born Buddhist, an important reason for our attraction to it is its links with social justice, or fairness, including its rejection of the principle that hereditarily transmitted inequality is legitimate. A basic teaching of many religions (maybe all of them) is the principle of cause and effect. In both Buddhism and Hinduism this principle is called karma, yet the dominant group in each of these two faiths, otherwise quite similar, appears to have a drastically different interpretation of this principle. Because we are not scholars, even more than from lack of time, we cannot trace these differences to early teachings. Instead, the observations in this paper are based mainly on our own personal experience, and our understanding of world events, both today and in the fairly recent past.

Whether or not there is a future life, the three authors of this paper, not born Buddhist, have all been, at various times, intensely moved by the unfairness of the social world, as was Dr Ambedkar, born a Hindu, but who converted to Buddhism in October 1956. This was in Nagpur, Maharashtra, in central India, at a mass gathering attended by over 300,000 people, one of whom was a grandfather of the fourth author of this paper, Karunadeepa, the only one of us who was born Buddhist.

In Australia, even among those of European descent, much inequality is passed through the generations, and along family lines, by privilege and unequal access to opportunity. Many people who are wealthy went to exclusive, expensive schools, where, in time, they send their own children. It is well-known, and not just allegation, that many rich people do not pay a fair share of tax. Mackenzie Bezos, the soon to be divorced wife of Jeff Bezos, the founder of the company Amazon, is reported to be due to receive almost US$70 billion in her divorce settlement. In so doing, she will become the richest woman in the world. Bezos, himself, is reported to have humble origins, the son of a teenage mother and a father who has been described as “deadbeat”. But his example of transition from hardship to fabulous wealth is more the exception than the rule.

Dr Ambedkar, who served as Law Minister in the first Indian government in 1947, was also exceptional. This was not through extraordinary entrepreneurial skills and alleged “robotization” of employees (the Bezos route), but from an vigorous and courageous intellect, some protection in childhood (due to descent from several generations of soldiers, including his father who rose to be an officer, in an army whose British leaders were far less caste-conscious than most Indians) (1) and hard work. Timing and history was also important. Ambedkar became a leading public figure through his central role in the struggle for Indian independence from Britain, recently reported as plundering the equivalent of $45 trillion from India during its long occupation (2).

We said that Dr Ambedkar was born Hindu. More accurately, as a member of the Mahar caste, he was born “untouchable”, meaning that close contact with him (even if indirect) was considered, by orthodox Hindus, to pollute or contaminate those who were conditioned, usually since birth, to consider themselves “higher born”, such as Brahmins.

For example, as a schoolboy, Ambedkar not only had to sit in a separate section at school (sometimes outside) but could not touch the tap if he was thirsty. In order to drink, a peon, considered “touchable” had to be found to turn it on.

Once, while travelling to visit his father, Ambedkar, aged 9, with a brother and two young nephews, all children, were stranded for over an hour at the station (following their first ever train ride), waiting for a servant that never arrived. The stationmaster was at first sympathetic to four well-dressed children, until discovering their lowly caste. Eventually, however, he helped them to find, with difficulty, a bullock cart driver, who agreed to take them to their destination, for twice the normal fee. But this was on condition that the children acted as driver while the driver walked, for fear of caste “pollution”. En route (on an overnight journey), as part of a harrowing ordeal, they were refused water (3).


Reflecting on this, Ambedkar wrote: “it left an indelible impression .. before this incident occurred, I knew that I was an untouchable, and that untouchables were subjected to certain indignities and discriminations.        All this I knew. But this incident gave me a shock such as I had never received before, and it made me think about untouchability--which, before this incident happened, was with me a matter of course, as it is with many touchables as well as the untouchables.

To non-Indigenous Australians the idea of caste might seem ludicrous. But there are traces of the caste system here too. We see it in films of past European royalty, and there are echoes in Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and in the different punishments for white collar (executive) crime compared to those committed by blue collar wearers (working class). Discrimination based on skin colour, religion or age is officially banned (but persists) in Australia, though discrimination based on ability to pay is everywhere. We are nor arguing against laws and punishment, we are instead proclaiming support for the need for a fairer world, including of more equal opportunity.

Today, in India, the injustice of caste is milder, especially in urban areas, than in Dr Ambedkar’s time. This is partly due to Dr Ambedkar, partly to increased Westernisation of affluent Indians, and partly the work of liberal Hindus, such as the Ramakrishna mission. But chiefly, it is from the struggle and inspiration of tens of millions of people (sometimes called Dalits) who have renounced the legitimacy of caste as a concept. Karma may still exist, but it no longer can be unquestioningly interpreted as meaning, at least in India, that parental status and income completely determines one’s life course, though, naturally, the culture that children are reared in has a powerful “throwing” effect.

Many injustices still exist, in India and elsewhere, including for millions of “tribal” people. One group, seeking to reduce this injustice, and inspired by the teaching and legacy of Dr Ambedkar, is led by Karunadeepa. In 2017, with colleagues, almost all of whom are women, Karunadeepa started to develop a new non-government organization (NGO), called the Bahujan Hitay Pune Project. Since 1982, this work has been undertaken under the umbrella of a larger NGO, the Trailokya Baudha Maha Sangh Gana, but the time has come for a new, legally distinct group.

Bahujan refers to the people in the majority, meaning in India, “Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes”. Bahujan Hitay roughly translates as “for the welfare of many”. The work of the Bahujan Hitay Pune Project is principally with disadvantaged slum dwellers (scheduled castes and scheduled tribes) in this city of about six million, in the sprawling state of Maharashtra, parts of which are afflicted by drought and accompanying desperation, including farmer suicide. Consequently, many people migrate to Pune, seeking better conditions.

This work in Pune has, since 1982, been supported by the Karuna Trust a British charity founded by the late Ven Sangharakshita, who, as young man seeking to work for the good of Buddhism, based mainly in Kalimpong, in the Himalayan foothills, met Dr Ambedkar three times, including shortly before his conversion (4). Since 2005, this work led by Karunadeepa has also been supported by two NGOs with an Australian connection. These NGOs (BODHI and BODHI Australia) were co-founded by Colin Butler and his late wife Susan, in 1989. Since then, these groups have raised and distributed about A$0.5M to partners in six countries in Asia, mostly in India. The acronym means Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight. BODHI Australia also helps to support the Aryaloka Education Society, a Dalit-led NGO, based in Nagpur, which teaches basic computing skills, mostly to young women from poor villages.

In this talk, Karunadeepa, during her first visit to Australia, will discuss some of the activities of the Bahujan Hitay Pune Project. Four members of BODHI Australia’s committee, in addition to Karunadeepa, are attending the whole conference, and they hope to learn from and gain inspiration and encouragement from other individuals or NGOs engaged in similar development work.
Mrs Rubina Khan who trains slum dwellers in beauty therapy and hairdressing trainer. With permission.These three photos were taken in Pune, Maharashtra, India, in March 2018 (by Colin Butler)
Mrs Sushma Chavan, an assistant teacher in the an assistant teacher at the Hadaspar balwadi (kindergarten) (Pune), with her two daughters.

The boy (Aniketh) is soon to have surgery - provided for free by the Indian government. 

Whether or not there is a future life, we believe that the creation of good karma is important to try to reduce suffering, in this life. In our understanding of Buddhism, core values are compassion (karuna) and wisdom (panna or prajna), while the first Noble truth refers to the reality of suffering, not only of the perceiver, but also of others – human, animal and even Nature herself.

In the three decades of BODHI’s work the barriers facing partner organizations, in order to receive foreign funds have worsened. This steepens the challenge to reach the poorest people and to promote genuinely long-lasting development. But there is still great need. We ask for your support, either directly, or in many other ways.

References


1.  Queen C. The Great Conversion. Dr. Ambedkar and Buddhist Revival in India. Tricycle. 1993.
2. Patnaik U. How the British impoverished India. Hindustan Times. 2018.
3. Ambedkar BR. Waiting for a visa. In: Moon V, editor. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Bombay, India: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra; 1993.
4. Sangharakshita U. Ambedkar and Buddhism: Windhorse Publications; 1986. Free pdf of book here.
  
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