Sunday, November 13, 2011

Our Monster

In the Republican presidential debate on November 12 focusing upon issues of foreign policy, former senator Santorum, speaking of Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear capability, said “we should be working with Israel right now to do what they did in Syria, what they did in Iraq, which is to take out that nuclear capability before the next explosion we hear in Iran is a nuclear one, and then the world changes.”

With all respect, Mr. Santorum, the world has changed. We are 66 years beyond the moment when nuclear weapons were first used—by the United States—to kill actual people, and 49 years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the planet came unacceptably close to thermonuclear annihilation.

A mutual nuclear paroxysm between Iran and Israel would be a repeat of the holocaust of World War Two, this time in minutes rather than years, incinerating not only the Jewish state but also millions of Iranian men, women and children. More pre-emption might delay that unthinkable possibility, but it will also only intensify the hate and fear that could make holocaust 2.0 inevitable further down the time-stream.

Unless the family of nations changes its approach, somewhere, sometime, there will be a terrible error, or accident, or a slide down the slippery slope into nuclear war. One recalls the gripping climactic scene in “Bridge Over the River Kwai” where British prisoners of war complete the great bridge, only to watch British commandos blow it up. Looking on, the camp medical officer cries out “Madness! Madness!”

In 1979, the father of the “Muslim bomb,” the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, gave the German magazine Der Spiegel one of the saddest and most revealing interviews ever published. In it he questioned “the bloody, holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British. These bastards are God-appointed guardians of the world, to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads and have the God-given authority of carrying out explosions every month. But if we start a modest programme, we are the Satans, the devils . . .”

Whether or not Khan had a point, he was so lost in his enraged response to what he saw as colonial condescension that it never occurred to him to look objectively at the utility of nuclear weapons and the impossibility of victory in a nuclear war. Instead, his sense of having been patronized intensified his tragic desire to produce a weapon as a source of national pride. Meanwhile both the nuclear nations and the wannabees maintain the illusion, confirmed by the selective behavior of the superpowers, that possessing nukes will keep them from being overthrown like Khaddafi, and assume that gradual proliferation worldwide contains no downside. Madness!

In the Republican debate, Representative Bachmann and former senator Santorum affirmed their support of foreign aid for Pakistan, saying it must remain an ally because it has nuclear weapons. So policy debate ties itself in knots: Iran must be pre-emptively bombed to prevent its becoming nuclear, and nuclear Pakistan, whose intelligence service aids groups who are killing American soldiers just beyond their borders, must continue to receive billions of our aid dollars because it is nuclear.

It is long past the time when we, the “we” of any particular nation, need to set aside the illusion that because we are the good guys, we have the right to our nuclear weapons, and “they” (who also may be convinced they are the good guys), must be prevented from getting them.

This does not mean that the international community should give up unflagging efforts to prevent more nations, let alone non-state entities, from possessing nuclear materials and weapons. What we need to do now is include ourselves as example setters and renounce our exceptionality. Instead the United States (along with other nuclear nations) is allocating vast sums to renewing and diversifying its nuclear arsenal.

Realizing at last with such luminaries as former Secretary of State Schultz that these weapons have zero strategic value to any nation, all nuclear states should join negotiations toward zero in numbers.

The monster in our midst, before it is a deployed weapon capable of reducing a modern city to ash in seconds, is a scientific principle which cannot be unthought. It is with this little planet forever from now on, an extraordinary achievement which challenges our species to come up with an understanding of our interdependence that is equal to its destructiveness. If it does that, perhaps it will have served a genuinely useful purpose.

It is not an Iranian monster or a North Korean monster or an Al Quaeda monster that can be conquered by clever and ruthless pre-emption. It is a monster created by human minds, and only human minds will conquer it—together. It is our monster.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Social Psychosis and Collective Sanity

Winslow Myers

We know from the sad experience of Nazi Germany or Khmer Rouge Cambodia that it is possible for whole nations to become mentally ill, with horrendous consequences. At the time, however, the Nazis or the Khmers had no idea that they were deeply out of touch with the reality that all people are equally worthy of respect and care.

The population of the earth recently surpassed 7 billion. As we move further into the condition of global villagehood, it becomes more important than ever to assess our shared mental health. Collectively we can less and less afford the distortions that afflict the psyches of individual persons, such as denial, regression into infantile rage, fantasy ideation, or blind projection outward onto “enemies” of our unresolved inner tensions. Everyone is aware of the potential horror, for example, of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of someone not in the clearest of minds.

The social psychosis of denial is one of the greatest of our temptations. As I write I’m sitting outdoors on my back porch in Boston. It is November 8. The “expected” temperature for an average day at this time of year might be around 40. Today it is 70. News stories in the last week have once again sounded the alarm of the amounts of CO2 going into the atmosphere being much greater than previously estimated. The displacement of millions of people by climate instability has the potential to be the primary cause of future conflict.

No upstanding citizen from whatever country will find it congenial to be lumped together with the coldly murderous Nazis or the ruthless Khmer Rouge—or even with the notion of the “good German” who professed not to know what was happening to the Jews around him. It is painful enough merely to think of ourselves as people who, because we did not do enough, accelerated untenable conditions with which our children and grandchildren will have to cope down the time-stream. No previous generation has had to make prospective judgments about what they needed to change or sacrifice to ensure the distant future for the entire human species.

Few of our national figures are leading on such issues. Instead, the value-ideal of consumerist economic prosperity built upon models of endless growth continues to dominate the marketplace of ideas and determine the criteria for political success.

This growth model has a momentum of its own, not necessarily connected to our best interests. Take nuclear weapons. Almost 60 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States is still planning to spend 700 billion dollars on new and upgraded nuclear arms, including building 12 new ballistic missile submarines. But the U.S. is not alone. Russia, China, India, Israel, France and Pakistan are all setting aside vast sums for nuclear missile delivery systems of various sizes. Each nation rationalizes its actions on the basis of what its supposed rivals are doing. The net result will not be the intended increase in security, but a gross diminishment of collective security potentially ending in disaster.

If this is not a form of social madness, of collective insanity, what is? If the weapons are ever used there will be no victory, and the money spent on these useless weapons becomes unavailable for meeting challenges like global climate change. Perhaps most importantly of all, there are new models and processes that humans can use to diminish the original tensions that motivate the proliferation of such weapons. We know more than ever about how to overcome the fear within our own psyches that drives the engine of international hostility. At the same time there are enormous new opportunities for people to meet either virtually or face-to-face and learn how much they have in common—in short, to change from imaging others as enemies to interacting as friends, because survival and the greater good demands it.

The hope of reconciliation has its roots deep in a past that we tend to forget. Few among us recall the Kellogg-Briand pact outlawing war. Written by the great diplomat and poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960, St. John Perse, enthusiastically endorsed by hundreds of thousands of citizen-activists around the world, the pact was signed in 1928 by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Weimar Germany, and many other nations. It is still the law of the land in the U.S. today—clearly honored more in the breach than the observance. It may be as Keats asserted, that poets really are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The fate of peace lies more now with ordinary people than with the Gandhis and Nobel Prize winners. Carol Daniel Kasbari is an activist-citizen in the Middle East—a Palestinian scholar, writer, wife, and mother. This accomplished facilitator of change suggests a number of actions to help end potential or actual war: Cross borders to successfully engage perceived adversaries in authentic, face-to-face, ongoing dialogue; tell your story to the world. Invite news professionals to document what you experience and what progress you create with others; Expand the circle to include vastly more interested citizens and, yes, also the skeptics and the unconvinced—all the voices; Strengthen your own support system at home by involving people who matter most to you, so they also experience how easily the ice of alienation can be broken.

Both the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement are at least potentially geared in the direction of this understanding of interdependence and relationship. There are thousands of non-governmental organizations that are working to build friendships and break down barriers of alienation and misunderstanding. These too could benefit from an infusion of funds presently delegated to the insanely wasteful upgrading of nuclear weapons systems. If we are going to have a growth model, let it be growth in breaking down artificial barriers of tribe, race and religion, growth in the deep realization that all seven billion of us are in this together. That way lies collective sanity.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Moving Beyond War in the Middle East—and Everywhere

The seemingly intractable discord between Israel and Palestine not only continues to cause enormous suffering and anxiety, but also to reverberate around the planet as a kind of symbol of all our conflicts in what we might call the post-nuclear age.

The mid-20th century superpowers were forced to admit, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, that war at the nuclear level was self-defeating, a victory only for war itself, not for the participants.

Isn’t that ultimately true for all wars, large or small? Yet the world, including the superpowers, continues to divide along the Israeli-Palestinian fault-line, almost as if one had to have an adversary to be clear in one’s identity.

The conflict has functioned as an iconic symbol of general feelings of fear or powerlessness or injustice, let alone claims to the same territory, that give rise to the best or the worst in us as we humans try to resolve our endless differences.

It is symbolic in a darker and more specific sense for the Arab world, where—even as the Arab Spring flourishes—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has encouraged anti-Semitic stereotypes and still energizes the hatred of extremist groups like Al Quaeda.

Not all conflicts involve sides with equally legitimate aspirations. Few would recognize the legitimacy of drug cartels to dominate and corrupt the governments of whole nations like Mexico or Afghanistan.

And in the United States, there is a growing recognition that some financial institutions have profited obscenely by betting against markets and throwing millions into poverty, avoiding criminal prosecution through their power over elected officials. Even now a new “Arab Spring”-like protest against insufficiently regulated corporate power is growing in many cities across the United States.

It is the rough equality of the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ and the Israelis’ demands for security and land that makes that conflict particularly difficult. The Jewish people have a history that has earned them the right to a certain realistic paranoia about adversaries. The Palestinians are legitimately concerned by the expansionist impulse of Jewish settlers who create more “facts on the ground” as each year passes without resolution.

The issue has tied the United States government in ethical knots as it tries to maintain its traditional support for Israel while not condoning Jewish expansion into territory that might lie within a future Palestinian state.

President Obama, caught in a difficult political position, nevertheless said one true thing in his latest appearance before the United Nations: “Each side has legitimate aspirations—and that’s part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes.”

This rough equality is why, in spite of the contortions candidates for high office in the U.S. must undergo to stay in the good graces of a powerful Israeli lobbying effort, and also in spite of the fact that Hamas still refuses to accept Israeli’s right to exist, President Obama had it right when he said that each side must learn to see with each others’ eyes.

Seeing with each other’s eyes must begin with self-examination, because the conflict also represents the universal human propensity to externalize what some Islamic scholars have called the Greater Jihad, our struggle with ourselves and our own shadow-side, into a Lesser Jihad, a zero-sum game in which we simplify “enemies” into stereotypes who are different from us and wish us ill. This is happening not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also Pashtuns and Tajiks, Shias and Sunnis—and let’s not forget Democrats and Republicans.

The insight, or inter-sight, of empathy is not a political act in the usual way we think of politics as competitive jockeying for power. It is something that takes place on a deeper level, within and between individual people. It requires the sharing of separate stories that take their place in the common story of what everyone wants for their children—a world without genocidal weapons, drug violence, militarism, or financial institutions that have forgotten their obligation to the common good.

Empathy as a principle can seep into politics as a refusal to take sides, a refusal to define ourselves negatively in terms of whom we fear and hate, an embrace of global citizenship that looks for what is best for the whole.

The world we want for our children, for all children, cannot and will not be a world without conflict. But we can build a world where, from the time they are very young, children grow up understanding that conflict and difference are not negative, but an opportunity for examining ourselves in the spirit of Greater Jihad, for learning the skills of everyday peacebuilding, and for moving toward creative resolution of conflict on the basis of common aspirations.

The ultimate implications of the Arab Spring for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are still unclear. The paradigm of violence, “an eye for an eye,” still holds our world in the balance, but as citizens both in the Middle East and our own country turn increasingly to non-violent assembly and protest, we are witnessing the possibility of something new that is both political and beyond politics—a movement into the mainstream of Gandhian tactics of non-violence and creative initiative. May everything we think and do further this new spirit of true reciprocity, the dawning realization that we are all in this together.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Who Are We? Where Are We? Where Are We Going?

One way to say where we are is that the human population has become so pervasive on the Earth that it is rapidly shutting down the viability of the living systems that support us. Species are going extinct at ever more rapid rates. Because of the effects of our human presence, the Earth is coming to the end of a 65 million year explosion of life and diversity, the era geologists call the Cenozoic, an era that began with the demise of the dinosaurs. That is very hard for us to get our minds around, distracted as we are by other issues in the foreground of our attention—terrorism, presidential politics, the growing divide between rich and poor.

Religious and cultural sectarianism, immediate political advantage, and narrow, short-term economic self-interest drive almost all present human planning and decision-making, rather than objective consideration of what is best for the health of the total system of which we are only a part. Here and there lie pockets of new thinking, such as provisions in the constitutions of some South American countries giving rights to natural systems like rivers and animals, or successful sustainable energy systems being operated in Scandinavian nations. But the governing paradigm remains unchanged.

The most pervasive value-example is our global fixation upon quantitative economic growth. The finest political and economic minds around the world define increased growth as the royal road to genuine prosperity. At the same time, everyone knows that untrammeled quantitative growth has extraordinarily destructive ecological outcomes, such as ocean-changing oil spills, soil exhaustion, drought, flooding, the melting of the polar ice caps. All of these are even now negatively affecting the lives not only of millions of humans, but also of other parts of the living system upon which humans depend.

It is extremely difficult for our species to grasp that we are not dominant over the total life-support systems of the earth. We have had to absorb previous shocks to our notions of dominance, such as that the earth is not the center of the universe or even the solar system, or that we are the descendents of ape-like creatures, or that we are motivated by unconscious drives—scientific disillusionments to our puffed-up sense of ourselves brought to us by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud respectively.

Contrary to the divine promises found in the book of Genesis, we are not the stewards of creation. Our present behavior indicates at best very ineffective attempts at stewardship. We are not somehow “above” nature. We came from it and are totally subject to its laws and limits. Nonetheless our success as a human species has a clear implication: there are now so many of us that the decisions we are making are determining the fate of the whole earth and everything on it. It is impossible to imagine a more challenging responsibility than that.

To survive and flourish, the human species needs a compelling, unifying context in which to nest our various challenges. As we understand the depth of how much we, we who are fiercely fighting each other over ultimately illusory differences, have in common, we move forward with more creativity and more compassion.

What does contemporary science contribute to this need for context? One amazing and fundamental fact is the precision of the expansion rate of the universe itself. Astrophysicists tell us that if this rate had varied a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent in either direction, we would not be here. Just a hair slower, and creation would have drawn back in upon itself. A hair faster, and there would have been dispersal into an undifferentiated gray fog, no bursting forth of galaxies and stars—and planets, life, consciousness, love, music and art.

What might be some implications of this precision? It gives the lie to facile notions of the randomness of creation when one realizes that everything that exists is directly and causally emergent from that precision. It can change how we see things. The good (what leads to the survival and flourishing of the total system and all life-forms), the true (our scientific understanding of what actually is, from which we derive our ethical convictions), and the beautiful (intervals in music; alluring proportions in natural and human-made forms; allurement itself) all arise from this precision; how could they not?

It brought everything forth in magnificent complexity. To open to this single scientific fact is to breathe the atmosphere of its optimism, to participate in its ultimate hopefulness; how could we not?

And on all levels, macro and micro, as the great cosmologist Thomas Berry wrote, three laws operate: differentiation, autonomy, and communion.

Things and beings differentiate into more and more diversity and complexity. We see this in the diversity of life forms on our planet that have evolved in millions of years of experimentation— microbes, dragonflies, lobsters, orchids.

And then on every level, autonomy is a pervasive, fundamental principle. Acorns grow reliably into oaks. Neutrons have a distinct identity as neutrons and behave reliably as such. Elements like carbon and hydrogen can be counted upon to follow invariable laws.

Thirdly, all things and beings from atoms to galaxies are in communion with each other. Neutrons interact with other particles. Oak trees must commune with water and sun to grow tall. Humans cannot exist without relationships, first of all the mother-child interaction. We exist in a community of beings in which communion is continuous, unbroken, on every level from atoms to galaxies.

Berry saw these laws as an ethical foundation and guide for our behavior: what encourages further differentiation, autonomy, and communion is good. What truncates these three is evil.

What does this mean in practical terms of what people call “the real world,” the world that we digest through the corporate media: the “lead story” on the television news; the large headline in the newspaper? Clearly politicians haven’t yet tried to get elected by establishing the practical relevance of the story of the unfolding universe—so it is up to voters to try to help seed such ideas into the mainstream political dialogue.

It is humbling to our materialist values, but once understood and accepted, this fundamental change of paradigm from illusions of dominance to membership within a diverse community of whales and hawks and bees, can work in favor of our survival: our values will adjust to the need for our human presence to cease to become a drag on the total system. We will ask what is the position of the candidates for high office, not only in our own country but also around the world, on this crucial issue of interdependence, at the same time we are newly examining our own behavior. We will look for ways we can contribute to the health of the system rather than assuming that we can flourish by dominating, consuming, and devastating it.

Why couldn’t this include creating a Marshall Plan for the earth to stabilize its population? So many other issues “nest” within the population growth issue, including the nature of future conflicts and the assurance of sustainable food, water and energy sources for all. Somewhere nine or ten layers of “nesting” down, we find the political conflicts that presently dominate our media—issues like the debt ceiling, or where to try alleged terrorists.

But even our huge population challenge, at the same time a sign of our success and a present danger, nests within the ultimate success of the unfolding universe-process, a process that connects back seamlessly to the primal seed out of which came all that is—with such a perfect assurance of unfolding, creative possibilities. It tells us that we humans have infinitely more in common than we have differences to separate us. It submerges all the diversity of our religious convictions in a fresh and unifying sense of what is truly sacred—what is worthy of our most persistent efforts of care and preservation. And it tells us we possess the inherent capacity to meet all our challenges, no matter how great.

The astrophysicist Brian Swimme and the eco-philosopher Mary Evelyn Tucker have recently completed a landmark book and film, “Journey of the Universe,” that explores these questions, issues and hopes with a satisfying simplicity and depth. Read the book, and look for showings of the film on PBS. It will change you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A New Great Awakening?

The brilliance of the television series “Mad Men” lies in the crackerjack acting and writing, but even more profoundly in the way the series dramatizes the difficult paradigm shift of American women from gross subjugation to rough equality. In an early episode, protagonist Don Draper reluctantly allows his wife to consult a (male) psychiatrist, then calls the doctor, who casually violates confidentiality. The series displays, while not excusing, how men growing up in the 1950s and 60s often haplessly misunderstood or deliberately ignored the emerging desire of women for authentic autonomy.

This begs two questions: what blindnesses operating in the present cultural moment might be illuminated by talented scriptwriters as they look back from the perspective of 2040? And second, what is the vision that orients us as we work to ensure that there will be a future to look back from in 2040?

Just as the achievement of gender equality has affected politics but is bigger than politics, so also our cultural evolution involves much more than politics. As the new organization Awakening the Dreamer asserts, we, we the planet, need a new dream based in values that a deeper than global market economics.

It is a further symptom of our need for a new dream that as the run-up to the next presidential election gets under way, the candidates seem to operate in a weird bubble of denial. This is the moment when candidates are spending less time in Washington and more time listening to ordinary citizens. The questions we ask can be powerful agents of a new awakening:

•How can our government incentivize and hasten transition to clean and sustainable forms of energy generation?

•What principles need to orient the reform of our tax code toward simplicity, transparency and fairness?

•What can be done to reverse the troubling trend of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer?

•Why are we still in Afghanistan?

•What is the rationale behind the building of yet more nuclear weapons?

•How can we render the U.S. defense budget process more accountable?

•Is human activity intensifying global climate change? If so, what do we need to do?

Ensuring the future requires the fundamental shift in thinking: from “I am separate” to “We are interconnected.” —a paradigm shift:

•from measuring our economic success quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

•from turning reflexively toward war to moving aggressively to prevent war.

•from grotesquely large military budgets to humanitarian aid that directly meets human needs.

•from candidates who deny global warming to candidates who advocate for an urgent reorientation of priorities on the level of a planetary Marshall Plan.

A new organization called Awakening the Dreamer, offers citizens a half-day seminar that wakes people up to the real challenges we face—along with the real possibility of meeting them. As organizations like ours collaborate more effectively, we have the opportunity to influence and even help to enlarge the scope of political discourse. Because the decisions taken in the next three years are critical, Awakening the Dreamer is part of a huge coalition of organizations called FourYearsGo. Please check out their site

This kind of awakening will happen as more of us get involved, pushing and questioning and becoming an activating, creative force that everyday people, as well as leaders, can hear and heed. We can become agents of a deeper cultural shift that is affecting change in many human realms—politics, technological innovation, education, commerce, communications. As that comes to pass, we can imagine a TV series that again looks back through the decades and dramatizes the gradual end of our delusions. It might make us wince at the “windy militant trash” (Auden) of present political discourse just as we wince at the dated chauvinism of “Mad Men,” but we would surely be celebrating how far we had come.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


In the 1980s, to help awaken people to the danger of thermonuclear holocaust, the organization I volunteer for, Beyond War, used what is now a scientifically discredited metaphor: if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would immediately leap out, but if you put the same frog in a pot of cold water and gradually heated it, it would sit passively in the pot and slowly boil to death—the point being that if citizens continued to sleep and nations to drift, we would all get overtaken by nuclear war.

Unfortunately a metaphor can remain apt even if its literal source is untrue. This came involuntarily to mind as we sweated through the latest heat wave in our third floor walkup in Boston. We’re right under the roof of the building; meaningful survival is not possible without at least one room with AC into which to retreat. Yet there’s something about air conditioning that comes around to bite us in the butt. We are cooling ourselves against the very same hot air that our ACs are expelling, while the power to run these machines is generated by climate change-inducing fossil fuels. Taking the dogs out for their midday walk and feeling them pull toward shady spots, I put my palm on the asphalt pavement and understood their concern. It burned.

This particular wave of mercury-busting high temperatures has been paralleled by the rising tension in Washington over whether to raise the debt ceiling. Is there is a connection between our unsustainable debt and the almost unendurable heat that grips much of the nation in its molten fist?

It is getting awfully difficult to pretend that global warming isn’t intensified, if not caused, by human activity. There are still too many who would stridently deny it, but whether the skeptics like it or not, fundamental economic assumptions may be melting away in these waves of heat. I fail to understand the oddly pinched version of self-interest that apparently motivates some of our wealthier citizens. As they corrode the strength of the middle and working classes by exercising ever-greater lobbying power over all three branches of government to keep their own tax burden light, are they not killing the very markets that are the ultimate source of their wealth? In their rejection of public servants of integrity like Elizabeth Warren, are they not spurning the very transparency and perceived fairness which ultimately allows the system work to their own, and everyone else’s, benefit?

Where in the heated discussion about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling is a comprehensive view of where we are headed, comprehensive enough to include our own effect on the biosphere upon which we, wealthy and poor alike, depend for life? The Treasury may print more dollar bills, but the ceiling of the debt due to Nature is as unyielding as the steel in our ever-higher skyscrapers.

Just as capitalism only works if it includes some kind of fairness compact between producers and consumers, there is need for a new societal compact that takes into account our radical interdependency with larger systems. Our leaders ought to be debating how to change the tax code not only to make it simpler and fairer, but also to massively incentivize energy conservation and sustainable alternative sources of power. We are presented with the opportunity to measure economic growth by quality of life over quantity of goods. But this requires the kind of far-sighted creative thinking that kills not just two but ten birds with one stone. For example, the biggest polluter and user of fossil fuels on the planet is the U.S. military. Meanwhile the Pentagon is preparing to fight wars over scarce resources, while that very scarcity is worsened by—hello—pollution and the use of fossil fuels.

Escaping from Boston to Cape Cod to beat the heat, we found ourselves at a bazaar where native arts and crafts from around the world were being sold under the sponsorship of a worthy organization called Cultural Survival. As they shopped blithely among brightly patterned clothing, rugs and jewelry made by threatened indigenous peoples, what were the well-fed natives of the Cape thinking about the survival of their own culture?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

It is difficult but not impossible to imagine what it must be like to be in your position. There is that sense that all our modern presidents become enclosed in a bubble, and the powers who are in there with you always—the banks, the multi-nationals, the aircraft and missile companies, the generals— have their separate agendas. You do not have hundreds of people beating down your door to lobby for all citizens as a mass, let alone for issues of planetary significance.

Instead, as president of all the people, you are tasked to lobby yourself on behalf of us all. Many are faulting you for letting that elusive goal go by the board too often. Still, there are hints that you have not forgotten who put you where you are, such as your advocacy—for a time—of a grounded public servant like Elizabeth Warren.

The ruthless law of American presidential politics is that you could not get where you are in any other way than by drawing upon the allegiance of both “ordinary” working people and the special interests that your team had to consciously cultivate.

But this planetary moment in history itself is a kind of bubble that surrounds all seven billion of us. American special interests focus upon the relentless competition with Chinese special interests, in Russian special interests, let alone the extremists in Yemen and the Pakistani borderlands, as we try to build security and keep the fossil fuels flowing. Again, no one gets to succeed in this Great Game who does not pay close attention to the moves of the other players.

But is there a Greater Game transcending that planet-wide bubble of international strategy? And if so, who are the players and what is the grand strategy? Who is the Churchill of that Game, the one who sees the 21st century equivalent of Hitler looming, and cries out in the wilderness?

The late ecological philosopher Thomas Berry was one such voice. He said our planetary situation could be summed up thus: “The glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth; the desolation of the Earth has become the destiny of the human.”

He argued that in our own moment, a 65 million year phase of evolutionary development was closing down—the phase in which the mammals, including ourselves, came into their diverse magnificence.
Inside the bubble of strategic international competition, the military forces of the United States are the single greatest user of fossil fuels and the single greatest polluter. Outside that bubble, whales cry out in agony as our Supreme Court rules in favor of submarine sonar communications that explode whale eardrums. The whales are only one such harbinger.

Mr. President, a paradigm shift has occurred. Paradigm shifts usually happen in human minds, but this one happened to reality itself over the past half century. It is total. It is unavoidable, no matter how many layers of bubble separate us from what Jonathan Schell called “the return of the real”—referring to your inauguration after the lies and illusions of the Bush years.

Three of the clearest indications of this shift from “we are separate” to “we’re all in this together” are the gradual growth in the number of nuclear nations, the ever-greater indications of climate change caused by human activity, and world population growth.

Nations like India and Pakistan engage in a game of nuclear chicken with no good potential outcome—as if the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had never happened. You have committed to the vision of the abolition of nuclear weapons, and yet still at Los Alamos the warheads multiply, rationalized as safer, more compact, more reliable. But these new weapons are just as obsolete as the huge existing stockpiles. The conduct of thousands of years of war between tribes and nations has come up against a fateful—what philosophers call a performative—contradiction: the impossibility of victory in total war.

The connection between the climate change issue and the nuclear weapons issue is direct: detonation of even a tiny percentage of the world’s arsenals could cause agriculture worldwide to become ineffective for a decade—in effect a death sentence for the species. The climate issue and the war-in-general issue also connect directly, in that military strategists predict that future conflicts will involve competition for ever-scarcer resources like drinkable water and arable land.

And any thinking person accepts the reality that population growth has surpassed the carrying capacity of the planet.

The question is to what extent do the implications pierce back through the various bubble-membranes separating you and me from the real—including the ego-bubble that we each carry around to keep from falling into paralysis and despair?

The paradigm shift in reality, forcing our fundamental interdependence upon us and inviting us to shift our actions into line with it, changes everything—economics, energy policy, national security strategy, the need to strengthen international institutions. We need a new dream.

This is where we need to hear your voice in all its firm and hopeful clarity. Speak for us all with the prophetic candor with which Churchill spoke to the allies in the thirties. Look outward through all the translucent bubbles to the real, and call us to authentic change. I can hear you now: “Look . . . “

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

Nothing could be more painful than having reality call into question the fundamental values, which, consciously or subliminally, have guided our entire lives. Just to spell out, for clarity, the exact words in our Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . .”

For millions of us fortunate enough to be citizens of the United States, these are not temporary or situational truths. They articulate our deepest hopes and dreams. They are assumed to hold true for all time. They are values worth fighting and dying to preserve at home and even worth imposing, at whatever enormous expense, upon others abroad.

Meanwhile the extraordinary changes of the last half century—along with similar trends predicted for the next half century—have presented not just the people of the U.S., but everyone on the planet, with incontrovertible facts that may require a fundamental revision—not just a change of words, but a re-visioning—of our deepest values, our most cherished myths of national legitimacy. This will be difficult, challenging—and unavoidable.

People need foundational truths and structures to orient their lives. But what has happened in our own moment of historical time is an unfolding of events that have shaken us to our foundations without yet resulting in sufficient alternate responses. Two related mega-events, the invention of nuclear weapons and the effects of global climate instability, make the case.

Once two superpowers in global conflict possessed nuclear weapons, a near-apocalyptic confrontation like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 became inevitable. Nations like India and Pakistan engage today in a similar kind of game of chicken with no possible good outcome. Fifty years after the Cuban crisis the world still drifts in a kind of trance. The conduct of thousands of years of war between endless numbers of tribes and nations has come up against a fateful contradiction: the impossibility of victory. Life and liberty themselves are now held hostage to an omnicidal destructive power, a power put in place by well-intentioned people to achieve security and extend equal opportunity.

Over the same time period that there has been a gradual increase in the number of nuclear-armed countries from one to nine, there has been a concurrent gradual increase in weather instability almost certainly caused by human activity, especially the activity of the “advanced” industrial nations—nations which themselves are increasing in number as very large countries like India, China or Brazil move rapidly into full-blown industrialism.

The pursuit of happiness as we have defined it contains the same built-in contradictions as nuclear weapons: we can’t get there from here. The deepest underpinnings of our cultural values are collapsing beneath us. “Free-market” capitalism, the apparent source of so much that is good, offers the pursuit of happiness made visible, even smellable—as in the smell of a new car. But if all 7 billion of us on the planet achieve the happiness of inhaling that sweet chemical odor, further climate effects will doom us all. 

In the recently published “The Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” journalist Christian Parenti explores the negative effects of climate instability upon diverse regions of Africa, Asia and South America. Dams built to generate clean power and give new hope and prosperity to places like Kyrgyzstan are becoming useless as changing weather patterns reduce raging rivers into beds of cracked mud. In Afghanistan, farmers turn to growing poppies rather than wheat not only because they make more money, but also because poppy cultivation requires only a sixth of the water needed to grow wheat. And that one-sixth amount of water is the most the farmers are going to get as Himalayan glaciers gradually evaporate.

Climate effects are already determining military strategies on the part of industrial nations that divide the world further into haves and have-nots, in order that the haves can continue their pursuit of a material dream that has begin to generate nightmares for others. But there is only one atmosphere, one ocean, one interconnected life-system. As we sow abroad, we shall reap at home. Because home is the whole planet, not the “homeland,” “homeland security” is a futile objective.

The “advanced” nations need a new dream, one that goes beyond our fixed notions of equality and inalienable rights to the (material) pursuit of happiness. The writers of the Declaration, when they wrote the fateful words “all men are created equal,” had in mind only white, property-owning males—not slaves, not women, not gays. As we know, the meaning of equality generated ever-changing, ever-expanding ripples that are still felt around the globe in such places as Tahrir Square in Egypt or Hama in Syria.

Now the meaning has expanded still further in the rewritten constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, where citizens and governments have agreed that inalienable rights must even extend to the living system of animals and plants upon which humans depend for life.

Happiness and how best to pursue it has caused much head scratching as the human story unfolded. In the industrial era, it took the form of trying to become secure and prosperous with world-dominating weapons and world-dominating markets for shiny material goods. The values of that era are now on trial as millions awaken from the consumerist trance and commit to more viable models of equality and happiness that work for everyone. Just as the meaning of “All men are created equal” has expanded and deepened, so will the possibilities of “the pursuit of happiness.”

All this will seem crushingly obvious to some, while to others, it may seem patently overstated—or just too frightening to contemplate. In the constructive clash of differing views, new conceptions of happiness can percolate up among us. One thing seems sure, as the Dylan song “High Water” puts it: I just can’t be happy, love, unless you’re happy too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

String Theory

Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

—John F. Kennedy, U.N. Speech, 1961

In1984, when I started volunteering for the organization Beyond War, it was not so difficult to gather an audience in a living room and have a dialogue about the obsolescence of war.

The horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had not yet faded.

Short-range tactical nuclear weapons were proliferating on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Most citizens were willing to entertain the notion that not only could no one win a full-scale nuclear war, but there were three lesser levels of war that humans had to prevent: even a limited nuclear war could bring on “nuclear winter.” A conventional war could bring in the nuclear powers. Even small “local” conflicts could escalate into general conventional war and then upward to the nuclear level. War, all war, was a potential extinction machine. It still is.

To everyone’s immense surprise, the Soviet empire imploded five years later. When it did dissolve, thousands of peace activists assumed their job was done, and looked forward to the “peace dividend” sure to ensue.

In 2011, the number of nuclear countries has risen to nine. Pakistan and India repeat the folly of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Will Pakistan remain stable enough to keep its warheads from falling into the wrong hands? Will the generals in charge of them now, both in Pakistan and in India, act with restraint? Jonathan Schell asserts that the potential of a nuclear weapon being used against people is greater than it has been at any time since 1945. The thread holding up Kennedy’s Sword of Damocles has further attenuated.

Yawns of indifference. Nuclear war, accidental or deliberate, just isn’t a front burner issue for people. Whatever grabs our attention today seems far more indefinite than what grabbed us in 1984, while the demands for that attention are a hundred times more diverse. We are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as Eliot wrote sixty years before the advent of e-mail.

When we do look up from our laptops and IPhones, we cannot avoid the interconnection of all our major challenges. Pull on any string in the gigantic ball of issues, and the unraveling reveals how densely tangled each issue is with all the others. The ingredients of nuclear weapons derive from the operation of nuclear power plants. These plants are themselves potential terrorist targets. At the same time they hold out hope for reliable non-CO2-emitting energy, when natural disasters or human errors do not overwhelm their safeguards.

The growing population of the earth demands a higher standard of living, even if providing it will overshoot—has already overshot—the carrying capacity of the planet. Meanwhile the United States military, the presumed guardian of the vaunted U.S. standard of living, is the biggest user of unrenewable fossil fuels on earth. One economic fact stands out: our military budget contains a great many more zeros in it than the total amount it would take to resolve the very challenges that will almost inevitably be the causes of future wars: the global provision of safe drinking water, birth control, medical care, nourishing food, education.

Why are our representatives unable to act upon such urgent yet beneficial measures of prevention? We need look no further than the behavior of the U.S. congress during the recent speech by the head of a foreign government.

Yanked by invisible strings, the entire joint session rose twenty-seven times to applaud unanimously. Was the speech really that eloquent? The point is not the power of the Israel lobby, but a more general one: the insidious pressure of the herd instinct. The puppetry comes from our dislike of making an independent assessment of reality and responding autonomously. Instead we look left and right for cues, fearful of being perceived as disloyal.

But we the people still hold the string that can lead us out of our labyrinth. One model is Tahrir Square in Egypt, where the peaceful involvement of hundreds of thousands forced positive structural change in a matter of weeks. Until Americans start flexing the unused muscle of citizen activism, the nuclear sword, the climate change sword, the global starvation sword and all the other swords will go on hanging above us by the thinnest of threads.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Revenge is Obsolete

Winslow Myers

Our euphoric national mood in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden may make for a reluctance to look once again, or perhaps for the first time, at his demands. There has been almost nothing in the mainstream press that examines his motivations for terrorism.

We prefer a bogeyman of pure evil, because this does not require the kind of introspection suggested by the Society of Friends: what is it in my own inner condition, or that of my country, that might play a part in leading to a phenomenon like Osama?

In an extensive 2002 letter to the American people printed in the British publication the Observer, Osama laid out his specific justifications for horrific violence against innocents.

He began by citing passages from the Koran that give permission to Islamists to fight “disbelievers.” Immediately this sets up a pathological context, because it contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: he proclaims Islam as a universal religion, but his vision is radically exclusivist. His illusion is that a universal God is on the side of pure Islam against impure or non-Islamists.

But similar rationalizations for counter-violence undergird U.S. actions, often based in a Christianity, which, like Osama’s warped version of Islam, all too casually discards Jesus’ radical non-violence.

Jesus, whom Islam accepts as an authentic prophet, took great pains to avoid “us and them” thinking in his parables and teachings. He said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that you cannot separate the wheat from the tares (weeds). In other words, be very cautious about making fallible human judgments about who around you is good and who is evil. Instead of blaming others, look at yourself first.

Osama goes on in his letter to say that he and his colleagues are fighting the U.S. because the U.S. is attacking them, specifically by supporting Israel against Palestine. He is explicit in his hatred of Jews: to him the creation of Israel is a crime, and he implies no willingness to accept a more inclusive, multi-cultural vision of the region’s future.

And he calls for revenge. The world has partaken liberally of this great universal response to conflict and violence. Our decision to assassinate him was not an act of restorative justice. Letting him live would not have brought back to life those who perished on 9/11. It was an act of retributive, consciously decided, cold-minded revenge. In the intent eyes of our heads of government as they followed the actions of the Navy Seals, eyes that included a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was possible to see the blindness of an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind.

What a pity that we must look beyond the mainstream for models of authentic maturity—to those who lost relatives on 9/11 and yet refuse to continue the cycle and want instead to expend their energy building something new. To the Palestinian doctor Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, who lost three daughters to an Israeli shell, and has dedicated his life not to revenge but to reconciliation.

Our planetary misery and fear will never be decreased by revenge. Revenge is built into the very deterrence which rationalizes the possession of massive nuclear arsenals. On that level of potential destruction we experience the mother of all performative contradictions: a revenge-cycle that could kill us all, as it very nearly did in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and could again if, say, India and Pakistan were to fall into the omnicidal trap of a full nuclear exchange, plunging the world into nuclear winter.

Not all of Osama’s justifications for violence were based in irrational fantasies of the revenge of “us” upon “them.” He raised valid issues, like our military bases girding the world, or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq as the result of our sanctions, or our double standards about whom we allow to have nuclear weapons and whom we do not—issues that have also been raised by patriotic and loyal Americans in and out of government.

Yes, we may have gained a superficial kind of closure by killing Osama. But we lost the opportunity to put him on trial, which could have been the beginning of a deeper dialogue about the futility of revenge on all sides, and a much greater step toward reducing terrorism than assassination—let alone trillion-dollar wars of revenge.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rumi's Field

Winslow Myers

“Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Keeping the biggest possible picture in mind, paradoxically, may give us the best lens through which to focus clearly upon the messy details of our lives at every level—internationally, nationally, locally, even personally.

How big a picture? Try: the whole earth and everything and everyone on it, through hundreds of millions of years of time.

What can this abstract immensity have to do with our own lives? More than we think, because we really are a product of the changes the earth has undergone over eons, and we are totally subject to the rules that dictated those changes. By rules we mean big processes, ones we are still trying to fully understand. Processes like evolution itself.

When a gigantic asteroid hit the earth in the Yucatan area 65 million years ago, the planetary changes that resulted were enough to wipe out the dinosaurs. New forms of life, ones that eventually evolved into our mammalian ancestors, were able to flourish in the post-asteroid conditions. The dinosaurs were swept aside forever. Organisms that do not adapt to the environment around them cannot survive. The environment determines the required change—no exceptions.

Now it is human planning and foresight that will determine the fate of all the other species on earth. The true economy is not connected to the health of the stock market, but to the health of the living system as a whole. Our brains are simply not wired to think and plan within this great context. Instead, we have constructed artificial contexts that we can get our minds around more easily: the morning headlines in the newspaper, the nightly news on TV, the latest stories on our Ipad, the quarterly profit-and-loss sheet—even all our diverse religious and cultural adherences.

The separating borders of nations themselves are artificial contexts that we hope will come “between too much and me”(Robert Frost), while at the same time we know very well that all our biggest challenges do not respect borders. The earth shakes, and the jet stream carries radiation across oceans with the speed of a tsunami.

As this is being written in March of 2011, the headlines are preoccupied with two issues of daunting moral complexity: autocratic suppression of non-violent revolution in the Middle East, and the Japanese effort to regain control of their devastated nuclear plants.

The airways are buzzing with discussion about the pros and cons of the intervention to help the Libyan rebels, and at the same time with the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Has the United States overextended itself? Is NATO in danger of getting bogged down in a civil war? Was it morally supportable to let Ghaddafy massacre his own people? Can nuclear energy ever be made safe? Have we no choice but to turn to it, because the risks of global climate change are even greater?

In the larger picture, we have gone in 60 years from one nation with nuclear weapons to nine nations. That means nine complex command and control systems with fallible human beings managing them, with all the potential for mistakes, misinterpretations, or accidents. If our technology, no matter how innovative, does not work in harmony with the larger systems that gave us life, we may all find ourselves in the kind of trouble visited upon Hiroshima in 1945.

The first nuclear powered electricity was generated in Idaho in 1951. Now there are 442 plants worldwide, again with fallible humans supposedly in total control. If our technology, no matter how innovative, does not work in harmony with the systems that gave us life, we may all find ourselves in the kind of trouble visited upon Japan in 2011.

That is our present “environment.” Can it help us to situate that environment in Rumi’s field, out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing? The first thing this does is take us out of the realm of feeling righteous, right, morally pure, full of indignation and blame. In a state of mind that is inclusive of all, rather than our habitual mental condition of “us-and-them,” we can acknowledge our profound moral and physical interdependence as users of energy, creators of waste, payers of taxes, weighers of risk. We can turn toward each other humbly and “meet”—have an authentic, inclusive, responsible, open encounter. We can seek big-picture truth together, acknowledging our fallibility, our subjectivity, our default setting of short-term self-interest—and our common survival goals.

The U.N. sanctioned intervention in Libya certainly looks like a major step in the right direction compared to the unilateral U.S. intervention in Iraq. But its tragic violence is still symptomatic of a world where humans are very quick to turn to war and weapons as a “solution.” It is part of a dying paradigm, one that is not working in the many other civil wars around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq—and the Congo. In fact all war has become civil war, fueled by an avalanche of weapons sales, never really resolving anything. What might replace it? Perhaps it is the spirit we saw in Tahrir Square, a demand for accountability that includes self-accountability: the great authority of the refusal of violence, a far more exacting discipline than the waging of war. Those courageous Egyptian citizens spoke for more than themselves when they peacefully demanded a freeing-up of their political system.

Our existing energy systems are also part of a dying paradigm, a kind of civil war with the earth. It may be that humans can design a fail-safe nuclear power plant, even figure out what to do with the wastes. So far we haven’t come close. But with the biggest context in mind, we can meet together “out beyond” and focus upon our energy challenge the great lens of our earth’s story over millions of years. Maybe we will create some entirely new form of energy that is unambiguously life enhancing. Perhaps we will learn a new non-violence toward the planet that has given us so much, just as those in Tahrir Square modeled the treatment of others as they themselves wished to be treated. I’ll meet you there.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Unconquerable Authority

The Unconquerable Authority

Winslow Myers

Muhammar Khaddafy’s brutal reaction to the aspirations of his own people has become a textbook case in the futility of opposing the citizens from whose consent a leader’s political authority derives, however illegitimately. Instead, his stubborness has led to absurd violence, even civil war.

We can still hope that the Khaddafy case will he an exception in the region generally. The non-violent invincibility of people power, the argument of Jonathan Schell’s underrated masterpiece of political philosophy, The Unconquerable World, may be coming true before our eyes again as it did in the Philippines in 1986 and Czechoslovakia in 1989. We do not yet know which model will dominate in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the violence of state power, or the non-violence of citizens seeking their rights and discredited leaders abdicating peacefully. Citizen invincibility may not prevail without additional tragic sacrifice to the callous will of dictators. But in the end it will prevail.

Meanwhile we Americans need to acknowledge our own role in the stagnation and double standards pervading desert autocracies. Our subtle oppression has been as abundant as the oil underneath those sands that we covet and even assume is rightfully ours, obtainable by any means necessary. As we condemn Khaddafy’s brutality, let’s not forget our own over-reliance on military “solutions”—rationalized by our own desperate conviction that we can only fight fire with fire, only prevail with raw power, with drones over Pakistan or million-dollar-a-year soldiers attempting to kill people and win their hearts and minds at the same time. On a small planet, all war is civil war.

The subversive and hopeful message of Egypt’s Tahrir Square is that change does not have to come by violence, just as the message from Tripoli—or Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq—is that violence only cycles into worse violence. If unarmed citizens in Tahrir Square can create positive change, why can’t the most powerful democracy on earth choose to bring about change not with military violence, but with magnanimous humanitarian aid and adherence to international laws and institutions?

From what source does civil authority ultimately flow, if not from the consent of the governed to join together non-violently to meet common needs? Isn't this an expression of the golden rule—with variants found in most of the world's philosophies and belief systems?

We have already come close, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, to the polar opposite of this universal rule: if you try to destroy me totally, I will destroy you totally, and if we really let fly with everything we have, we will all be dead ten times over.

Enough Egyptian citizens understood that as they wished to be done to, so should they do. In this they demonstrated that the Ghandis and Kings of this world are not some idealistic exception. The strategies of non-violent change have become just as realistic and practical as the notion that dictators can deny their citizens’ aspirations by brute force has become unrealistic and impractical—just as building schools for girls in Afghanistan is not only a more realistic way to increase U.S. security than 800 foreign bases; without so many bases we could afford to pay our own teachers and civil servants in Wisconsin and elsewhere a living wage.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable,” asserted President Kennedy in a resonant aphorism. This applies universally, to protestors and the governments trying to appease or oppose them, to near-failed states and to great powers. Non-violent alternatives are available to all governments as well as all protestors. Autocrats can capitulate peacefully and fly into exile, and free and fair elections can, with forbearance and hard work, fill the power vacuum. The mother of all might-have-beens comes to mind—what is happening now in the region could eventually have happened in Iraq without disastrous U.S. meddling.

After 9/11, stereotypes of a mysterious, unknowable ‘other,’ an other who hates us for our freedoms, quickly took over. The “enemy image” gripping the collective American psyche morphed from Soviet communists who (almost) made peaceful revolution impossible in Eastern Europe, into suicidal Islamic martyrs who tried and failed to make violent revolution inevitable.

Now these Arab and Persian and Sunni and Shia and Coptic Christian ‘others’ not only have faces and names, they are martyring themselves for the same liberties we ourselves hold dear. On a planet so small that that the news flashes instantly from Wisconsin to Bahrain, Tripoli to Jerusalem, isn’t it time we gave up enemy-images altogether? We are one human family. In the spirit of Tahrir Square, isn’t it time to reject the illusory authority of violence and embrace the unconquerable authority of non-violence?