Bob Douglas, Canberra Regional Meeting
We live in challenging times. The global population of humans has stretched the planetary systems that make human life possible beyond their sustainable capacity. And as yet, there is no international plan to avert a catastrophic human future. Scientific predictions about the effects of greenhouse gases on our climate are now seen as having erred on the conservative side. Extreme weather events, ocean warming, sea level rise and loss of arable lands are occurring at an alarming rate, and still the prospects for a global agreement about curtailment of greenhouse emissions in this critical year of 2015 seem as far away as ever. Our own Australian government remains in denial.
Returning planetary systems to a sustainable state demands a transformative change in the way humans live, move and have their being. Without it, human tenure of the planet will end.
How then should we behave? And from where do we derive our ethical framework? I think that the Charter for Compassion is a pretty good place to begin. Theologian and former nun, Karen Armstrong used her 2008 prize for the best TED talk that year to bring together representatives of many religious faiths and draw up a charter, which is now beginning to impact on thinking around the world. The words of the Charter are presented in full here.
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion – to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate – to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures – to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity – to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarised world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
Compassion for all other humans is necessary but by itself it will not be sufficient. Compassionate treatment of other species and the planet itself will be essential for human rescue. The breadth and extent of the compassion imperative was made explicit in the “Transform Australia Manifesto” that was drafted by a group of Australian activists in 2011: It outlined a vision for a transformed Australia where:
• The well-being of all humans and the health of the planet are synonymous
• We accept that nature is our provider and we are its stewards
• We acknowledge that our economy, ecology and ecosystem are intra-dependent
• A sustainable future for our descendants exists.
The task of living on a finite planet demands a quantum shift in human behaviour from competition and exploitation towards nurture, caring, compassion and collaboration.
Neuroscientists are now working with psychologists to understand how interventions can be developed to enhance compassionate behaviors. Paul Gilbert, a British psychologist. says that humans have evolved three distinct systems that collectively determine our behavior:
• A system that focuses on survival and self-protection – “Threat”;
• A system that helps us with doing and achieving – “Drive” and
• A system that focuses on contentment and feeling safe – “Soothing/Affiliation”.
Separate parts of the nervous system mediate these different responses. Gilbert says we can activate the soothing/affiliation response deliberately by practising compassion and devising new methods to move the cultural emphasis from “threat” and “drive” to “soothing, contentment and improved connections with others”. The main thrust of what he describes as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is to promote in stressed individuals the capacity for self-compassion and self-kindness. Therapy for individuals includes practices and exercises that help to develop compassionate attention, compassionate thinking, compassionate behaviour and compassionate feelings.
Modern everyday life repeatedly activates our “threat” and “drive” systems. Competition is the name of the game. The system rewards winners and penalizes those who lose. An ethic of collaboration, compassion and caring is marginalized and is generally seen as less important in our culture than getting to the top of the competitive tree.
We have permitted the principles of market fundamentalism and competition to rule our world. Reasserting the primacy of empathy, caring, nurture, cooperation and collaboration is a vital part of the transformation that we must make in human culture everywhere. We need to assert that the economy is not an end in itself, but an instrument for helping to deliver a better life for all. I think we need to develop new social structures and processes that will activate both our individual and communal soothing and affiliation systems.
How to do this? The movement associated with the Charter for Compassion is building a worldwide network of Compassionate Communities. Its sponsors envisage a richly diverse “network of networks,” – people from every sector—business, healthcare, education, government, faith and interfaith, peace and non-violence, the arts, and those working to preserve the environment—who will bring compassion to everything they do, and who will take responsibility for igniting the compassion of the general community to care for each other and for the well-being of all members of the community from birth through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood to old age and death.
To date 235 cities and communities around the world have committed to this ethos (including Sydney and Melbourne.) In 2010, The Australian Parliament was the first Parliament in the world to recognise the charter and its importance. Yet successive governments since then have certainly not implemented the principles of the charter in their policies on asylum seekers and foreign aid.
Karen Armstrong, asked recently for her definition of a compassionate city, replied,
A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city! A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry. Uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive. Uncomfortable, when any group anywhere in the world is marginalised or oppressed. Uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbours as we would wish to be treated.”
I think Australian Friends could play a very important role in holding our parliamentarians and city fathers accountable to the principles to which they have given their theoretical assent. This could start by delegations offering to work with politicians to explore the breadth of empathetic policy and ensuring that the charter is widely known and understood across the Australian community.
Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas is a retired public health academic, a Director of Australia21 and co-editor of a volume of 39 essays by notable Australians on “Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?” available at www.australia21.org.au .