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.