The Main Event
President Obama’s speech at the U.N. showed that he knows how to keep his eye on a number of different balls at once. But climate instability is ball number one, the main event, compared to which all other security challenges, whether economic, military, or political, are all sideshows.
It is naturally difficult for us to grasp that life on Earth has endured five previous mass extinctions, and we ourselves are pretty clearly the major cause of a sixth. Our human presence on the planet is bringing the 65-million-year-long Cenozoic era, the era that saw the rise of mammalian life, to a close. The overwhelming evolutionary success—success so far—of one particular mammal, homo sapiens, will now determine the ultimate fate of all the other life forms sharing “our” space.
Even some national governments have accepted this picture of our fate. Ecuador now has a constitution that gives rights not just to people but to rivers and forests—rights to exist.
From a systems perspective, the terrorists and the worldwide military-industrial complex need each other. Each makes no sense, has no motive for existence, without an enemy to focus on. In the context of what we are really facing, wars are a huge distraction, adversaries aimlessly circling each other in the midst of a larger reality they choose to ignore. Each can destroy on a grand scale, but they can do nothing to slow the disintegration of coral reefs or the yearly extinction of thousands of species.
As the Cenozoic fades, it will take with it certain concepts and institutions that once seemed permanent. One of these concepts is the very idea of “enemy,” with all the institutions and tools of force that follow invevitably from the concept. When our biggest challenges threaten the planet as a whole and can only be solved by the planet as a whole, national rivalries become part of the sideshow. Mr. Ahmadinejad may deny the holocaust as part of his campaign against Israel, but he cannot deny the melting of Arctic ice or the release of methane from thawing tundra. As a post-Cenozoic Earth takes shape, evolution itself is going to favor unprecedented modes of human local/global cooperation. Posing enemies is utterly irrelevant to that emergence. Building relationships based on common survival goals is utterly essential to it.
Now even the Pentagon is looking into the future and assessing the security implications of climate change, including scarcity of fresh water or arable land. If want real global security, where do we focus our resources? Will more ballistic missiles and tanks hold back the rising of the oceans? Will more aircraft carriers help us transition out of the fossil-fuel era—or would it make more sense to spend the same money on wind generators in the Midwest? If we directly address the main event of climate instability, we will not only prevent future wars that don’t have to happen, but we will do it at a fraction of the cost of actually fighting the wars.
Cenozoic means “new life.” Our species, homo sapiens, “wise human,” is one of the most recent forms of that new life, appearing only an instant ago within the vast reach of geological time. The beginning of the Cenozoic era saw the extinction of the dinosaurs. If we can learn to become as wise as we say we are, there is the possibility we can help create a different world—we could call it Cenozoic 2.0.
Winslow Myers serves on the Board of Beyond War and is the author of the recently published book, “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.”
88 Day St. #3
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-1113