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.