Working to Prevent Extinction of Our Species and/or Eclipse of our Cultures – Why Bother?

September 10, 2011

by  Judith Hand

I live in the Western World, with access to all possible media. Since my view is that in order to change a culture, I need to know what I’m up against, I follow the news.  Most of us working for change do.  And it can be depressing in the extreme.

Follow all the negative news about what humans are doing around the world and it’s tempting to find it all too daunting. To find our situation hopeless.  Big wars and petty wars mar the planet’s face: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia.  In a peaceful country, a fanatic takes a notion to keep his culture safe, decides to do what he can about it, and slaughters nearly forty people, most of them teenagers.  Try to convince enough people to have smaller families and learn to live sustainably so we can prevent a disastrous change in our global climate and the stupidity and stubborness of thought that blocks all progress practically makes one weep.

Consider the behavior in this photo….is this what life should be about?

I will confess to having the thought cross my mind now and then that what I’m doing, well, is it really worth it?  Maybe getting us to change is a hopeless cause? And I’ve had the even more insideous thought, are we worth saving?Maybe it wouldn’t be all that great a tragedy if the planet eliminates our cultures, given that we are causing extinctions of plants and animals at an amazing rate.  And maybe we are just too stupid to save, even if one wants to.  Be honest.  Hasn’t thoughts like these crossed your mind, at least once?

Earlier in the year I accepted the opportunity to present my speech, “No More War: the Human Potential for Peace” at an international conference of humanists in early August in Oslo, Norway. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has a big conference every three years, and the theme of their 2011 meeting was peace: “Man. A Peaceful Animal?” A friend of many years was excited to accompany me.

Sami Reindeer

We both agreed that if we were going to pay the money to go that far from our homes in California, we needed to do more than just Oslo. So we added St. Petersberg, Russia, Helsinki Finland and the far northern land of the Sami, the nonviolent and nonwarring culture that specializes in herding reindeer.

Sami Father and Daughter

They are commonly called Laplanders by others, and I was eager to visit the area in person since an interest in nonviolent cultures relates directly to my work. We would then travel by ship down the Norwegian coast to Bergen, and then cross eastward to Oslo.  And after the conference, we’d do Edinburgh and it’s surrounds.  My friend plays golf.  She wanted to include a pilgrimage to the home of golf, St. Andrews.

Catherine's Palace - Russia

It took us a month. And there was so much that I saw and learned on this trip that I scarcely know where to begin.

Each country had at least two fabulous highlights. St. Petersberg displays the opulence and sophistication of the time of tsars….they wanted to outdo Versailles, and they did. I haven’t seen China yet, but so far, in all my travels I have never seen anything to equal the Opulence or tsarist Russia. Catherine’s Palace, The Winter Palace, the Hermitage. Great beauty on display, something we do well…create astonishingly beautiful things.

Swan Lake

The architecture, richly embellished with gold, was beautiful. We also went to the ballet.  In my mind, the perfect choice: Swan Lake. Also marvelously beautiful in sight and sound.

In Finland I started learning about the Scandinavian way of life. What I learned about the so-called “Swedish model” will help me structure my next book on war.  These are people doing their best to pursue an ethos of peace.

While in Russia, my Mac laptop computer had stopped working, and I was in a panic since my speech is a slide show and the computer was essential. Happily, in Helsinki I eventually found a computer repair shop that would diagnose and treat on the spot…all I needed was a new battery. The willingness of so many people who sympathized with my stress and went out of their way to get me to the help I needed to fix my problem was a reminder of how very helpful people are to each other.  It’s another of our very best traits.

Mural of Sami Village

Then in northern Finland we visited and learned about the reindeer herding Sami. They are one of the over 80 nonviolent and nonwarring cultures I refer to in my speech. Others are the Amish in the U.S. and the Hopi of the U.S. Southwest. Anthropologists consider the Norwegians have also embraced a nonviolent, nonwarring cutlure. Think of it.  They have shifted from living by a Viking ethos to living by a peace-seeking ethos.

Seeing the Sami museum and having a chance to ask some questions of a young Sami woman and her father was invaluable. And the experiencing “the midnight sun” was a unique thing to see. This planet has truly fabulous sights to delight.

One of the questions I put to the young women was “What is the social status of Sami women. Is your culture, in fact, egalitarian?”  She looked a bit puzzled, then said, “Of course women and men are the same. We all do the work.”  This was confirmation of what experts and experience indicate about so many nonviolent cultures, that they are socially egalitarian. It was also a reminder to me that we really do have within us the power to live in communities that if not purely egalitarian, at least approach that condition.  So working toward that end is NOT a fruitless effort to reach some impossible goal.

Oslo City Hall - Nobel Ceremony

Norway…well, I suppose the success of my talk in Oslo has to count as a highlight. But also having a reception in the very Oslo City Hall where the Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded was a total delight. We learned about the history of the design and construction of this magnificent facility. The architect, and those seeking to have a city hall, wanted to have a structure that would be “the people’s building.”  The Parliament has their building. The King and his family have theirs. This was to be a beautiful building for the people, and it should reflect the importance of the people.

The scandinavian model is staunchly democratic.  It is the people who decide what the government is to do. A very high percentages of Norwegians vote (on average, 80%) and they have many referenda.  Here was a reminder that if the people of a culture, even a culture that has had the vote for some time, feel that their voices count, they care and they vote.

Norwegian Confirmation Ceremony - by Arid Nybo

I also attended a humanist confirmation ceremony for teens, something traditionally Norwegian.  It used to be done by the Luthern Church, the country’s predominant faith, but humanists have also begun to provide secular ceremonies that celebrate the transition from childhood to adulthood. The young people take classes that include instruction in ethics, the Norwegian ethos, the responsibilities of adulthood, sex education, humanist philosophy, and so on.

A public building that had a formal feel was the site for the ceremony, and the young people wore fancy dress of their choosing.  Their proud parents were present. They could invite a given number of friends and family.

There was music, dance, poetry, and some spoken words. Very uplifting and hopeful. A lovely event. All children deserve such care and concern. We could use something like these classes and culminating ceremony for the many young people in the U.S. that have no such equivalent.  Because we do not meet this need of a great many of our young people for a passage to adulthood under the care of adults, we end up with a lot of them in our prisons or bearing children when they are way too young to give a child proper care.

And finally, medieval Edinburgh….and going to the fabulous Highland Scottish Tattoo (in the rain no less)…and seeing how very different Scotland is from England, and being in the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie was born, and going through Edinburgh castle and on and on. Like I say, the whole thing verged on mind-blowing. 🙂

So I came home exhausted, but also inspired, and reminded:  WE ARE WORTH SAVING!!!  The things of beauty that we have created should not perish because we blindly, lazily, or stubbornly let our capacity for stupidity and short-sightedness overwhelm our brilliance and goodness.


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