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 . . . “