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These fifty years (1967-2017)

By Noel Preston - posted Wednesday, 9 August 2017


Fifty years ago, in 1967, the seeds of the turbulent sixties were coming to fruition. Multi-factors triggered these social changes: the gross mistake of military incursion in Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the civil rights struggle in the USA or the major shifts in academic debates which even made respectable the idea that "God Is Dead". Late in 1967 on December 3, an amazing medical landmark was reached – the first human heart transplant was performed by the South African surgeon, Dr Christiaan Barnard. It was around the same time that Australia's Prime Minister, Harold Holt, disappeared in the surf at Portsea, Victoria. As citizens we followed the grisly search on our black and white TVs. Earlier in the year a more grotesque demise was the hanging of Ronald Ryan in the dawn of February 3 at Melbourne's Pentridge Gaol. Thankfully, Ryan's execution was the last such capital punishment in Australia. There are other milestones from 1967: for instance, the Seekers were Australians of the Year and Gough Whitlam became Leader of the Federal Labour Party. Most momentous of anniversaries in Australia was the overwhelming vote of Australians on May 27, 1967, which opened the way for a constitutional change, resulting finally in the inclusion of First Australians in the population count and granting the Commonwealth power to legislate on behalf of indigenous Australians.

Another anniversary of major historical significance to the Western World is marked for All Saints' Day in 2017. Then, it will be 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, initiating a Reformation which, following the Renaissance, transformed Western culture and the shape of Christendom. Luther's action and subsequent events crossed a threshold toward the movement historians now call modernity. It was a protest congruent with the mood of rising nationalism and the emerging philosophical emphasis on the rights of the individual. Some might argue in this "semi-millenium" that 2017 should be celebrated as the death of Protestantism. Others might prefer to understand the present era as a departure point for the Christian churches of Protestantism to be revived beyond the recognition of founders, Luther, Calvin, Knox and Wesley. From my perspective, I am convinced that I have lived through the death of the Protestant movement which can be traced back to Luther's actions and the revolt against Rome which spread across northern Europe. In multicultural societies like Australia, those who represent religion, as well as those who wish to find an authentic spirituality, must now make their way in a society dominated by secularism and post-modern cultural manifestations where science and its technological offspring shape the way we live and, to a great extent, what we believe.

Personally, if I pause to consider my peers and colleagues of 1967 I have no doubt that, by and large, they have rejected the worldview which defined their identity half a century ago. As to myself, I have changed and reshaped the vows I made in 1967: on January 12, 1967 I took marriage vows with Pat, the mother and grandmother of our children and grand-children; on October 16 in the same year I took vows of ordination as a Methodist clergyman. Now, I am neither married to Pat nor am I a Methodist minister. There have been highs and lows these past fifty years. There are regrets and there have been mistakes. Still, fifty years on I am comfortable in my skin, grateful for so much and, overall, I have a strong sense of integrity as I look back. There have been many shared joys in these five decades, from the birth of children, to Queensland finally winning the Sheffield Shield Cricket competition or the end of the Joh era in Queensland politics and more.

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GLOBAL CHANGES

Many collective human achievements over these fifty years vie for the award of the most significant change for planet earth and the human species within it. A leading contender must be the discoveries of medical science. Advances in aviation and information technology must also rank. The quantum leap we have made in communications in the present digital age is awesome. Along with this, in many nations the increase in educational standards and knowledge generally is the other major and long lasting good.

My choice is otherwise, though it may not be embraced by the majority. Our greatest achievement in recent decades, is the realisation – partial though it is - of our human responsibility to care for all life on the planet and indeed for the biosphere itself. The progress of homo sapiens must only be assessed in relation to the welfare of all life on our home, the planet Earth. We now know all life is interconnected. We also know we are the planet altering species. This awareness, in all its ramifications, is potentially the most significant change of recent times. Anthropocentrism is under challenge.

Yet the story of the past fifty years and more is that humanity has contributed to a drastic decline in bio-diversity on Earth. We know also that we are threatening our own survival by contributing to changes in the air we breathe and the water which sustains us in so many ways. We have also unearthed the science which not only reminds us of the fragility of life but also, through technology, opens the way for us to adapt to, and mitigate, the threats which confront life.More than this, we are also the species which has evolved to the point where we can consciously practise unconditional love, compassion and justice. We have demonstrated that such virtues and behaviours are possible, despite plenty of evidence of our lack in altruism,

Yes. Self interest and injustice are omnipresent. Genocide, biocide, wars and slavery are still practised. Yet the irony is that these fifty years have also been marked by exemplars of moral leadership. We have lived alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Aung Sun Soo Kyi, Nelson Mandela and champions of ecology such as Rachel Carson and Thomas Berry. It is also a fact that in the past fifty years we have crafted normative prescriptions which can be used to evaluate our behaviour morally. I refer to statements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Earth Charter and also to the global governance mechanisms which have been created internationally. The obvious retort is that these inspiring manifestos are acknowledged much more in the breach than in practical response to them. We continue to find ways to subvert or corrupt the institutions, such as the United Nations and its agencies, which may enhance the community of life. Globalisation is indeed a schizoid reality. It opens possibilities for relating across historic boundaries but it is also attached to an economic system which deifies greed and selfish acquisition.

The stakes are getting higher and higher. The challenge is we have much work to do if we are to make Earth a home and our life together one of eco-justice. The alternative is that the planet will do the work at great cost to our species.

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A major change factor in recent decades is the growth of human population with its deleterious effects. Poverty, hunger, child mortality, and urbanization have resulted, along with the huge movement of peoples, usually because of crises. As a result, in 2017 we have millions more refugees in the world than was the case in 1967. Moreover, the human ecological footprint with its inevitable harm to the natural environment has grown by 70%. This measure is disproportionally higher in affluent countries. In fact the figure for developing countries shows growth of only 7% over fifty years. Global population figures point to concerning consequences: in 1967 the world's population was calculated at 3,461,343,172; by March 17 2017 the number recorded is 7,515,284,153. And yet, just as in 1967, today there are religious groups and some governments who deny women medical control over their reproductive processes.

So, the movement toward a consensus on a global ethic remains urgent , unfinished business.

As an Australian I am conscious of the shifts and achievements in Australian society over the past 50 years.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Prestonís recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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