Peace in a Time of Hatred: how humanity can evolve when the going gets tough

2nd Annual Bristol Peace Lecture

Dr Scilla Elworthy


I shall touch on the following:

  1. Our screens and inboxes are awash with misery and violence
  2.  However, if we look down instead of up, at the grassroots things are rather different – the power of locally-led initiatives, social entrepreneurs, millennials….
  3.  It is time for the leap in consciousness Einstein foresaw
  4.  What is this leap?
  5.  Who has made this leap?
  6.  How do we make this leap?
  7.  Current examples of peace in a time of hatred

Our screens and inboxes are awash with misery and violence

I’m not going to bombard you with statistics, but tell 3 true stories – one about brutality, one about nature, one about weapons.


Dr Mohamed Tennari from Syria reports: “I helped to establish the field hospital in Sarmin, Idlib four years ago. We are currently using the fourth building to house the field hospital - the first two were flattened to the ground. Hospitals are targeted by the government in Syria, and our field hospital has been hit by bombs and missiles 17 times.

On Monday 16 March, two more barrel bombs had been dropped on the neighbourhood and more people spilled into the hospital. I saw my friend Waref Taleb, who ran an electronics repair shop in town, and recently helped to fix my phone. He, his wife, his mother, and his three young children - all under the age of three - were suffering from severe lack of oxygen and chemical exposure. In the most severe cases of chlorine exposure, your lungs fill with fluid and you suffocate. Waref’s mother was already dead when she arrived. We worked quickly to treat three-year-old Aisha, two-year-old Sara, and one-year-old Mohammad, giving them oxygen and injecting them with Atropine. Mohammad was foaming at the mouth. We were forced to treat Sara and Aisha on the body of their dead grandmother. As quickly as we worked, we could not save them. In a short period of time, Waref and his wife’s symptoms progressed rapidly, and they too died.”

This story reached me via The Syria Campaign,[1] of which I’m an adviser.

[1] James Sadri - The Syria Campaign <>


Next, nature

Since 1900, the percentage of the world’s overexploited or fully exploited or oceans has risen from less than 10 percent to 87 percent. “Fully exploited” means there are no fish left in the sea. Ivan MacFadyen has twice raced a yacht from Melbourne to Japan. The first time, ten years ago, his isolation was relieved by regular sightings of turtles, dolphins, and flurries of feeding birds. “But this time, for 3,000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen,” he says. What modern mariners do notice plenty of, however, is floating plastic debris. That—along with overfishing, of course—explains the scarcity of maritime creatures. Albatrosses, for example, mistake plastic debris for food and give it to their young. “Chicks starve with full bellies, and when their bodies rot away, they leave tragic piles of bottle tops, pens, cigarette lighters and plastic fragments to bleach in the sun.”[1]

[1] Newcastle Herald Weekender, October 18 2013.


Next, nuclear weapons

The Conservatives say they will cut 12 billion pounds from the welfare system if they get elected on May 7th. We learn from an Oxford university research paper that this will push the number of people using food banks up to over two million. At the same time the UK government is spending one hundred billion pounds on renewing our arsenal of nuclear weapons that military leaders consider useless as weapons and which religious leaders consider obscene and immoral.

Both Conservative and Labour are promising to ‘keep our country safe’ by deploying the most dangerous Armageddon weapons the world has ever known; weapons capable of wiping out all life on the planet. There are currently 17,000 nuclear weapons in existence. At least 1000 of them are kept on hair-trigger alert ready to be launched in an instant; as we know from all our work at the ORG, this can happen by accident, misunderstanding or malicious intent

Neither our governments, the United Nations, nor NATO, nor the leadership of established religions have been able to do anything about any of the above. Their only response is more weaponry.


  However, if we look down instead of up, at the grassroots things are rather different

Screenshot 2015-05-20 00.51.15.png

Peace building. Please note the remarkable growth in the number of local people tackling armed violence. In 1999, before we established Peace Direct, we researched the number of grassroots peace initiatives in the world—places where local people are risking their own lives to stop war—we were able to identify about 250 viable initiatives in hot conflict areas worldwide.

Now, that number is five times as many. This is because local people, who know best what needs to be done to prevent and resolve conflict in their own areas, are becoming empowered by better communications, some media coverage and some access to funding.[1]



Social entrepreneurs. There’s a growing passion out there to do this work— two thousand applicants for a yearlong course at the Do School in Hamburg,[1]

Germany. The alumni of previous courses are back home, cascading the skills they learned. In 2013, over 5,200 young change makers applied for a Do School fellowship. Do School fellows worked on their start-ups in over fifty countries, spending a total of over thirty thousand hours working on innovative ventures to solve local problems in their communities, touching the lives of over one hundred thousand people. In response to demand, there are hundreds of such courses becoming available now around the world.

Besides all the technical skills they needed—to do their research, build a website, raise start-up funds—they learned the inner skills that are vital in really transforming the world: skills to build trust in their teams,mto resolve conflict quickly and effectively, to speak truth to power. Self-awareness at the individual level is what can enable each person to wake up and do what’s needed to ensure a future for us on this planet—to change the world from the bottom up. And that’s what they learned in this course.


Screenshot 2015-05-20 00.55.55.png

Millennials. People born between the years 1980 – 2000 will by 2020 form 50% of the global workforce and will be the largest consumer class. An overwhelming number of Millennials worldwide consider as their No.1 priorities: Environmental Protection, addressing Climate Change, Resource Scarcity and Biodiversity loss.

Attracting and keeping Millennials gives many CEOs sleepless nights – why? -because an overwhelming 75% believe that businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping to improve society. Millennials say:

We are inheriting an economic value system where we value a dead fish more than an alive one, a dead tree over a forest, sick people over healthy ones, war and threats of war over peace, a system where we privatize profits and socialize losses.”

They say they want the work they do to have meaning, purpose and values they can believe in.

All these groups, and millions more we can describe, have woken up. They have become aware of the state of the planet, discovered inner resources and strength to take action on issues they care about, and found meaning and purpose by doing so. In short, they have developed their consciousness.

So, with these two very different forces at work – top down, an inability to address the misery and violence in on our planet, and bottom up, green shoots are coming up through the concrete..

It is time for a critical mass of humanity to make the leap in consciousness Einstein foresaw when he said: “no problem can be solved from the consciousness that created it.”



What is this leap?

Edgar Mitchell was a pragmatic young US Navy captain who flew as lunar module pilot on Apollo 14; he was the sixth person to walk on the moon. On the return trip, as he watched the earth float freely in the vastness of space, he realized that the story of the world and humanity as told by science was incomplete and likely flawed. “I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.”1 What new story is Mitchell talking about? What are human beings capable of becoming?

I’m neither a philosopher nor an expert on consciousness, so I will try to keep things as clear and simple as possible, offering from my experience, my studies, and from working with leaders around the world some indications of what this leap in consciousness might be.

As far as I can see, this is not a shift in consciousness; this is not something incremental. This is a great leap into a fundamentally different way of perceiving ourselves and the world we inhabit. It will alter everything, and I believe its time has come.

At this point I should also make clear that what I’m talking about has nothing to do with religion. This leap in consciousness is spiritual as well as practical, emanating from a deep desire in human beings for meaning in life and for a profound connection with a greater intelligence, whatever name we may give it.

My experience tells me that there are many aspects to this leap in consciousness and that there are four essential elements: perspective, interconnectedness, blazing intelligence, and balance between the masculine and the feminine.


Perspective. For the first time, we have a bird’s eye view of the human race. We can see where we live and whom we live among, and we can begin to see what effect our actions have on our home. We are the first species on this earth to be aware that we can destroy not only ourselves but also our habitat by the decisions we make. This alone is a huge wake-up call to consciousness, to the miraculous universe we’re part of, and to the responsibility that brings. It is vastly accelerated by the internet, which now means that the majority of the earth’s human population can find out, in seconds, what’s happening anywhere—and what’s happening to our planet as a whole.



Unless we have gone numb and want only to turn a blind eye to what’s happening to the earth, we cannot avoid the reality that we are affecting our own evolution with everything we do. We have learned, for example, that the gases produced by refrigerators destroy the ozone layer; the thinning of the ozone layer, in turn, permits harmful ultraviolet rays to reach our bodies.

This kind of awareness may be jarring and demanding, but it’s real. And it’s exciting. It is the most unusual opportunity to move toward what some people call “unity consciousness”—a direct, intuitive awareness of the oneness of reality. With this realization comes—inescapably— the knowledge that whatever we think, however we react, and whatever we do has an immediate and positive or negative effect on others. This affects not only those close to us but also those far away whom we have never met.


Blazing Intelligence

One day not so long ago I suddenly saw the amazing feat that is a tree. In this case, it was a towering oak tree near where I live; it was in April. It dawned on me that this massive edifice, which has been standing there for at least two hundred winters, was conveying liquids and nourishment vertically upward through solid wood. In a few weeks, this rich moisture was going to produce tiny leaves from the buds I could already see swelling. In autumn there would be acorns falling to the ground, each one carrying a four-hundred year blueprint plan of its own.

I stood there stunned.

As I look around me now, there are literally thousands of such organisms and plants and animals and insects, all going through the most intricate cycles, without any instruction from anyone. I saw the exquisite perfection of a butterfly’s wing and realized that however hard we humans try, we can’t produce that level of live beauty. When my daughter became the mother of twins, I stared in awe at these beautiful beings who—at the moment of taking their first breath—possessed functioning internal organs that would last them for perhaps a hundred years, who had genes reaching back over millions of years, who had nervous systems and endocrine glands and hormones perfectly designed to function smoothly with no instruction from a human or a computer.


Balance between the masculine and the feminine

For three thousand years—at least—power and decision making worldwide has been in the hands of men. While this has brought us obvious advances in science and great discoveries in many fields, it has also led to an imbalance, a distorted way of doing things that excludes or marginalizes essential aspects of human intelligence.

When I was researching a book on power and sex in 1995,[1] I found that nearly all recorded thinking on power and the use of power has been androcentric—that is, done by men and based on male values. The male norm and the human norm, even today, tend to be thought of as identical.

Nations operate according to distorted male notions of power, and that is the way they assume others will respond. There is a whole set of preconceptions underlying this way of thinking, including the conviction that humans are inherently aggressive, inveterately competitive, and socially separate and independent, and that they have no need to be responsible in a collective manner.

This has led to a dangerous imbalance between the masculine and feminine - or what I would prefer to call the Yin and Yang - in most of us today, regardless of gender. It is prevalent almost everywhere in the world. For example, we see women in the City of London and on Wall Street dressing exactly like men (except for the high heels) and competing to outperform men in focus, logic, ruthlessness, and achievement.

What has become devalued in this way of living are essential elements of being human:

  • the skill of listening
  • the ability to nurture and to include
  • the choice to exercise “power with” rather than “power over”
  • the attention to intuition and the creative imagination that makes for great art and invention
  • the ability to stand in the shoes of another person
  • respect for the cycles of our bodies and the earth
  • the compassion and stamina to look after those who are weak or in need
  • reverence for the sacredness of creation and of our bodies.

 It goes without saying that women are as capable of having stronger Yang than Yin qualities, and that men are capable of having stronger Yin than Yang qualities. The Chinese Taoist tradition of describing these qualities without reference to gender is the most helpful I have so far come across.

[1] Power and Sex, Scilla Elworthy, (Element Books 1996).


Who has made this leap in consciousness?

Great leaders like Tutu, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, but also hundreds of thousands of people you might never have heard of, like the two women from Manchester who have taken over our village shop and re-vitalised the whole community with their compassion, understanding and limitless warmth. I profile 10 such people in my book and show what this leap in consciousness enables people to do.


How do we make this leap?

Well, each person has their own path, but generally it’s a question of Waking up to Who We Really Are. This may include:[1]

  •  Listening to Self to Gain Integrity, Authenticity, and Personal Truth
  • Developing a Practice of Reflection to Become Observer of the Mind
  • Dealing with Difficult Feelings
  • Increasing Well-Being and Energy
  • Using Conflict as Opportunity
  • Learning how to Do Nothing
  •  Allowing Imagination and Creativity to Flourish
  •  Going into the Shadow and the Energy That Comes from It
  • Learning How to Serve, Moving from “Me” to “We
  • Discovering the Beloved, Becoming Able to Ask “What Can I Give
  • Becoming a Sacred Activist
  • Finding out What You Really Want to Do.

[1] See Pioneering the Possible: awakened leadership for a world that works, chaper 7 for more details.


Current examples of peace in a time of hatred:

On 23rd April 2015, the  UN Security Council held a Ministerial Debate on:

“The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace”

Scott Atran, author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, told them that the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. “Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from age-old traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe.”

“Unless we understand these powerful cultural forces, we will fail to address the threat. When, as now, the focus is on military solutions and police interdiction, matters have already gone way too far. If that focus remains, we lose the coming generation.”

So what might be done?

1. Offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship. 

 “When I hear another tired appeal to “moderate Islam,” usually from much older folk, I ask: Are you kidding? Don’t any of you have teenage children? When did “moderate” anything have wide appeal for youth yearning for adventure, glory, and significance?

Research also shows that the greatest predictor of willingness to sacrifice is joining comrades in a sacred cause, which gives them a sense of special destiny and the will to fight. That is what enables initially low-power insurgent and revolutionary groups to resist and often prevail against materially more powerful foes who depend armies and police that rely mainly on pay and promotion rather than heartfelt duty to defend the nation. 

 2. Offer youth the chance to create their own local initiatives.

Social science research shows that local initiatives, begun with small-scale involvement, are better than national and large-scale programs in reducing violence. It doesn’t matter which government agencies you want to help facilitate this. Let youth engage youth in the search for meaningful ways to make sense of the issues on their personal agenda, whether that be about oppression and political marginalization, lack of economic opportunity, the trauma of exposure to violence, or problems of identity and social exclusion. And most of all support personal engagement, through mutual support and community-based mentors – because it is almost always a particular personal circumstance, shared with friends, that radical extremism probes for, draws out, and tries to universalize into moral outrage and violent action. 

Then, Scott Atran described to the UNSC a young woman I had told him about – at just 16 Gulalai Ismail, and her sister Saba, set up the Seeds of Peace network with a group of school friends to change the lives of young women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, NW Pakistan. They began by focusing on women’s place in society, and as their membership has grown, they are now training young activists to become local peace builders, challenging violence and extremism. They trained 25 young people in each of the last two years to join together to promote tolerance, non-violence and peace. The initiative is proving so popular that last year they had over 150 applicants.

The 50 trained young volunteers are now, in turn, reaching out to people in their communities who are vulnerable to radicalization. They hold study circles and one-to-one meetings with these people to develop and promote ideas for a peaceful future. Still in its early stages, the program will reach almost 1,500 young people in the next three years, growing a movement of activists against religious and political extremism. The results are a lot more remarkable, but Gulalai Ismail will not claim them publicly.

Imagine a global archipelago of such peace builders: if you can find concrete ways to help and empower them without trying too hard to control, they could well win the future.

It turns out that Gulalai herself was in the audience at the UN HQ that day!


Dr Scilla Elworthy, 3x nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Oxford Research Group. She founded Peace Direct in 2002 to support local peace-builders in conflict areas. Awarded the Niwano Peace Prize in 2003, and advised Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson in setting up ‘The Elders’. She co-founded Rising Women Rising World in 2013; her latest book is Pioneering the Possible: awakened leadership for a world that works and her TED talk on non violence has been viewed by over one million people.