Archive for January, 2020

On How Not to Protest (again)

January 19, 2020

Recently, Karen and I were waiting for a tram in Bourke Street to take us to a vegan pizzeria in Melbourne I’d heard good things about.

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Before the tram was able to come, hundreds of climate change protesters emerged. It was an unseasonably cold, wet day, as the picture suggests.

Now, as someone who in late 2019 attended a climate rally and a protest against oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight, I’m broadly supportive of such public protests and marches.

However, there were a few problems with this one…

It seemed to Karen and I that the protesters were mostly preaching to the converted.

It took place in a street in which trams run. Trams. Not cars. Public transport.

Sure, not very efficient public transport given Victoria’s current reliance on coal for power (perhaps that was at least part of their point).

Why not march up a street where cars ran instead? They, at least, could have taken a different route. There was a police presence since this was a planned event, unlike another recent protest in Melbourne.

Yes, I know that disruption was probably part of the aim.

But the truth is that you don’t have to be completely disruptive to get attention like a two year old having a hissy fit.

Another problem was they appeared to circle around multiple times…

After the boredom set in, Karen and I got to wondering what a poll would show about just how seriously participants in the protest were about finding solutions to climate change.

Which of these people, we wondered, use vehicles (theirs or others) in a responsible way in order to minimise emissions?

Which of these people were vegan or at least made some significant attempt to reduce the consumption of animal products, given that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for a similar quantity of emissions as the whole of the transport sector.

Which of these people regularly waste food?

Which of them recycle? And so on…

Yet another problem was that at one point, the chants changed from being climate related to:

Always was, always will be, aboriginal Land

I encountered the same thing during the 2019 oil and gas exploration protest in Adelaide.

Now, no matter how sympathetic you are to the plight of aboriginal people in Australia (and there is good reason to be), how much you support the notion of land rights, or how positively you view the aboriginal people as good stewards of the Land, this is a problematic statement.

For one thing, it is astonishingly anthropocentric, the very thing that has gotten us into so much trouble with climate change.

For another, it’s a claim that can only have any validity for the last 60,000 years or thereabouts. Before that brief geological time span, the land “belonged” to other species.

Such a view may not be politically popular these days, especially with Australia/Invasion Day on January 26, but it has the distinct advantage of being true.

Of course, none of this excuses the terrible things done to the aboriginal people by our white settler ancestors and it is important to separate the massacres of two centuries ago from the broader historical place of homo sapiens, and the future of our species.

I’ve written more on this theme elsewhere. As I said there:

I’ve always found the Cosmic Calendar quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!

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Getting back to the chant… It was out of place in the context of this protest.

If you’re going to have a protest about climate change, stick to the point!

Don’t dilute the message!

Also, ensure that you are really making an attempt to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

We eventually got to that vegan pizzeria, but it was far enough that we caught a cab.

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I hate catching a cab if I don’t have to!

So, thanks for that (not).

On Being Special

January 19, 2020
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source: Josh Willink (pixels.com)

I’ve had some conversations in recent times that have ended in disagreement over the question of whether members of homo sapiens are more important or special than members of other animal species.

But what do we mean by special?

Relationships with other beings, human or non-human, make the participants special to one another.

Particular things about us make us special, e.g. tool use, intelligence, culture.

The holy books of some religions and other ideological traditions often claim that humans are special, perhaps even chosen in some way.

It’s important to distinguish between these different types of special-ness.

The first type is subjective and derives from a shared history, an emotional bond. For some people, the death of an animal can be as devastating as the loss of a relative or human friend to someone else. There’s no right or wrong in that. It just is.

The second type can be tested; other species use tools, have high intelligence and some may even have their own kind of culture (e.g. humpback whales).

Although a person of faith is unlikely to agree with this, the third type must be supported by evidence, and since, as Carl Sagan reminds us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this is a difficult requirement to meet.

Humans are meaning creators. Relationships are central to being human and meaning is often created in relationship with others; not always, but very often; some do choose to find meaning in solitude.

My father’s health was in decline late last year and more rapidly before my eyes in the first week of 2020. However, his death on January 7 2020 has not changed my view of the special-ness of homo sapiens relative to other species.

Dad was special to me because he was, well, my father. We had an emotional connection, a shared biological and social history, a relationship spanning more than 5 decades. I am in the process of mourning his loss. This does not necessarily imply that we or members of homo sapiens in general are special in any other sense.

We are free to choose who to become. If we are special in any sense, it is due to the responsibility we have to accept the human condition and to leave the world better than we found it, irrespective of the fact that we will not be around to see our legacy.

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)

A Eulogy (for Dad)

January 19, 2020

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I gave a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral six days ago. Before the transcript of the eulogy below, I want to make some preliminary background remarks.

My father, Kelvin Benn, was born on May 14 1931 and died on January 7 2020 after recurrent bouts of pneumonia. He had emphysema and a rare blood cancer that a small fraction of patients with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma present with.

After the usual indignities of being a hospital patient, falls in and out of hospital, being on oxygen, and having intra-venous antibiotics a couple of times, Dad began eating less and became increasingly unwilling to take medications. The intention was still to try to get him well enough to be able to leave hospital and go into a nursing home. The reality is that he had lost the will to live by late 2019 and certainly by early 2020.

I spent time with Dad in hospital from January 1 to January 6. We said our goodbyes. I felt there was a good chance I would never see him again. I returned home, uncertain of his future, intending to return again soon. My wife, kids and I had a few days planned in Melbourne from January 8. I thought that if Dad’s condition deteriorated I would at least be able to get back to him (in Tasmania) at short notice. He died late in the afternoon of January 7…

My mother died in 2002 after failed heart valve replacement surgery. Dad married again in 2006. Dawn (dad’s wife) gave a eulogy followed in turn by my sister Julie and I. In the last part of the eulogy, Julie and I took turns reading short extracts from a few of my father’s short funeral sermons that resonated with both of us.

What comes through from these extracts is a focus on relationships, a requirement for personal responsibility, freedom and the necessity of choice, a consideration of the consequences of our actions, and a mandate to do good whenever possible. This resonated with my sister and I and aligns with my own philosophical position, derived from existentialism and consequentialist ethics.

It also gives me some hope for the future of our species that an atheist and a Christian can agree on so much.

What follows is the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral on January 13 at Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston. My theme was commonality, something we desperately need to focus more on if we are collectively to survive the decades to come.


It’s easy to focus on the differences between people. Dad and I were different in many ways. But we also had a lot in common.

We were both in The St John Ambulance Brigade from an early age, attending sporting and other community events as first aiders, and both becoming cadet sergeants.

Along with the anchor tattoo, Dad also had the S-J-A-B tattoo to prove it!

We both studied at theological college, and enjoyed having philosophical discussions.

We both took our work seriously.

Further to Julie’s comments, Dad often used to say that rights come with responsibilities. As a teenager, mostly I would just internally groan at that…

However, I’ve found myself increasingly saying this sort of thing in recent years to my kids and others, along with: “That music is too loud!”

Then one day, I realised that I had become my father. 🙂

Something I also remember as a young teenager was that if I was ever rude to my mother, out would come the belt!

Of course, those occurrences were few and far between! 😉

Dad’s work as a Uniting Church minister kept him well occupied and, as Julie noted, when he wasn’t out preaching or providing pastoral care, he was often up working late in his office, especially on Saturdays, preparing the sermon for the following day.

Even after retirement, Dawn can probably relate to Dad not straying far from the office for long periods!

Some of my favourite memories of Dad are from beach holidays in the seventies, the two of us body surfing or snorkelling.

As Julie also noted, holidays like those at Port Hughes were good times too, even if my first jetty catch was a puffer fish!

Another fond memory is from 1998, when Dad and I stayed up until the wee hours in Mallala watching a meteor shower as the Earth ploughed through the debris left by a comet.

Dad had a good sense of humour.

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In an email to me in 2016 he said:

“I have a few things I want to share with my GP …  Will let you know if he thinks I may not live to be 100 after all!!”

When he was in hospital recently, a measure of his wellness was the frequency of his witty remarks.

Dad gave a Probus club talk in 2015 titled “Strange Things that Happen at Funerals”. In one anecdote from that talk he says:

One day the undertaker picked me up to conduct a funeral for a man he knew, so I asked him to tell me something about him. “What was he like,” I asked. His answer stunned me: “This is the first decent thing he has done in his life,” I was told. “What about his family,” I asked. “They are all the same”, he replied. So, I thought I had better used the old, sterner burial service. Afterwards the family came up to me and said, “Lovely service, Father.” It just goes to show that you can never tell how people are going to react.

Like many fathers and sons, Dad and I had our disagreements and at times we hurt each other with words.

However, in a 2015 email exchange, in which we had disagreed on matters of belief, he said:

“Unless we are willing to be open to change, our thinking can only become stagnant. The older we get the more we realise how little we really know…or we have wasted a life. It has been a great blessing that we have always been able to be open and honest with one another.”

I’m sure there are times we could have been even more honest and open, but the point is to intend to do better.

I don’t think it would be a misrepresentation to say that Dad emphasised the social justice and pastoral care aspects of his faith.

He genuinely cared about people. The idea that “God is Love” became more important to Dad as time passed.

Julie’s daughter, Kate, recently found some of the funeral sermons Dad wrote. It seems appropriate to finish by reading some excerpts that resonated with both of us. At a time when so much of the world is divided, Dad’s words seem especially relevant.

“In our troubled world today we are witnessing what happens when over zealous people force their misguided views on others… We need to be aware of each other’s differences so that we will not make the fatal mistake of believing that we are right and God is on our side.

We come into this world and pass through it, leaving it either a happier & better place or a sadder & sorrier place. The choice is ours and so are the consequences of our choice.

Nobody else can live our life for us and nobody else can be held responsible for the way we live it. Freedom to choose & responsibility for actions are the two sides of the same coin.

Life is all about relationships and building relationships makes demands on us. Good relationships are costly. We are all far from perfect but we should always be striving to be better than we are.

As we think about somebody else’s death we cannot help thinking about our own life, and our accountability…to help people to become more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more honest, more understanding and more tolerant, more in tune with… one another.”

Thank you Dad for your life of service to others.