“The great work of our times is moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence. It’s that simple.”
Our Moment in Time
Because of the global nature of the challenges facing the human species, this is an extraordinary time to be a citizen of the earth. Ancient religious traditions and modern science agree: we are one planet, one living system, and one human family. The perils of our situation are both forcing and inviting us to wake up to the practical implications of this deep truth of our oneness.
Everywhere in the diversity of world cultures, from our most intimately personal relationships outward to the local, the national and the global, we find self-assumed, yet obsolete, barriers of separation. Humans have been deeply conditioned to divide into competitive groups: Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, young and old, Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, Chinese and American, environmentalists and advocates of unrestricted economic growth. This tendency toward “tribalism” has functioned as a normative way to experience identity and belonging. Our industrial way of life has raised a further obsolete barrier of separation between us and the natural world that sustains us. We assumed that our world was an inexhaustible supply of inert “stuff” over which we had been given dominion. But one glance at the daily news confirms that these various illusions of separateness prevent us from achieving sustainability, social justice, and fulfillment.
War is the illusion of separation carried to its furthest extreme. In war we define ourselves more in terms of whom we are against than in terms of those with whom we have so much in common. We even deny aspects of ourselves that we find it hard to accept, and project those same denied attributes onto the “other,” the adversary. ”Their” nuclear weapons are evidence of malevolent intent, but our own are benign, purely for defense. In a world that desperately needs to redirect resources away from militarism and toward meeting environmental challenges, failure to understand projection and enemy-imaging will be fatal.
A contemporary example of enemy-imaging is the volatile relationship between the United States and Iran, which got off to a poor start in the 1950s when the CIA overthrew an elected leader in favor of the Shah. In 2012 the American government made plans to bomb Iran, a country of 80 million people. But back in 2009 American media carried admiring stories of the brave citizens of Iran as they protested a corrupt national election. The aspirations of the Iranian people neither to be bombed nor ruled unjustly did not change. The only change was the temporary realization on the part of U.S. citizens that the Iranian people were not enemies worthy of annihilation, but lovers of democracy like ourselves.
International relations are too often based in competition rather than cooperation. Americans preoccupy with how to compete with the growing economic might of China, forgetting that if China and America do not cooperate to find sustainable sources of energy and continue to rely on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels, the effects of climate instability may become irreversible. Preoccupied with “winning,” all parties are blindsided by the gradual melting of the polar ice caps or the massive buildup of ocean garbage. Because there are so many people on the planet and so much competition for short-term gain, there will be more conflict, and more difficult decisions to make together about how to foster the natural systems that sustain us.
Our children and grandchildren will not flourish if we empty our oceans of fish and coral reefs, exhaust the soil that nourishes plant life, lay waste the great forests that form the “lungs” of the planet, or infuse with toxic chemicals the very DNA that replicates the structures of life. Nor would there be a meaningful future should we unleash the destructive power of the weapons that humans have invented. Even a “regional” nuclear war would be a worldwide environmental catastrophe.
A New Resource
At the very moment when we need authoritative guidance to address what seems like an overwhelming set of crises, science has given us a new map of reality that provides an inexhaustible resource: the 14-billion-year unfolding story out of which we came. Matter emerged from apparent nothingness; life emerged from the apparent inertness of matter; human self-awareness, wonder, compassion, and capacity for choice emerged from apparently instinctual life.
Because everything that is or could possibly be originated from the universe, it is the ultimate source of the wisdom we require in order to go forward. Within its overarching story nest all the religious, cultural, racial, economic, and political stories by which diverse human “tribes” achieve solace and meaning. As we look back at the phases in the formation of stars, galaxies, our own sun, and the earth, the universe story confirms we are part of a process of evolutionary becoming through all time. It reminds us that even in our individual lives we are always evolving, from child to adult, from ignorance to knowledge, from isolation into community. Our collective political life continues to evolve beyond the absolute rule of kings and dictators toward participatory democracy. And we are evolving beyond ignoring the fragility of our life-support system and toward awareness of our interdependence with it.
Our “perfect storm” of challenges is, paradoxically, the outcome of a success story based upon a simple evolutionary principle that cannot be ignored if we wish to survive. Four billion years ago, somehow, life emerged. Literally the descendants of stardust, primitive life forms grew in complexity and diversity. As they spread over the seas, the land, and the air, one overriding principle remained silently at work:
The future belongs to species that adapt to a constantly changing ecological landscape, and that landscape dictates the nature of the change required. Species that can respond to changes in the environment survive. Those that cannot adapt do not survive. The dinosaur perfectly exemplifies this principle of survival. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years. But when the environment changed in some fundamental way, probably the result of the impact of a huge meteor in the Yucatan, most dinosaur species died out. This gave other creatures with the ability to adapt the opportunity to flourish, and we, the builders of malls and highways, are their descendents.
The universe story reminds us that we are only one of many life forms in a great community of beings that share the earth together, all dependent upon each other for the vibrancy of their collective existence. At the same time, by virtue of brain-power and sheer numbers, humans have become the dominant species on earth—and so we cannot avoid the awesome realization that human understanding, intention, and decision will determine the continued health of our planet.
The human family, seven billion and growing, can no longer afford war, either with each other or with the living system that sustains us. Moving beyond war has become a practical issue of survival, and no longer an idealistic dream. We already know a lot about how to build a world that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. Now we must reach deep within ourselves for the courage and will to realize these goals.
The Great Work
International institutions with the authority to enforce the changes that we know we must impose upon ourselves are presently fragile and subject to the competitive interests of hundreds of separate nation-states. Therefore the greatest lever of positive change will be the realization, individual by individual, institution by institution, of the reality of interdependence. This change of paradigm will have to occur bottom up, by building agreements among large groups of ordinary citizens.
How can I, one person among seven billion, play a positive role? There is no way not to make a difference. I am here, like everyone else, using resources, experiencing concern and conflict, and longing for survival, fulfillment and meaning. What kind of difference do I want to make?
The most powerful way to make a difference is to acknowledge and practice the profound personal implications that follow from thinking of myself not as apart, but as interdependent with everyone and everything. These implications can be stated as core practices for building the skills that will help us toward meaningful survival:
•I resolve conflict. I do not use violence.
•I reach out to adversaries in a spirit of good will.
•I work together with others to build an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just world—a world beyond war.
Resolution of conflict becomes easier if we train ourselves to acknowledge the “shadow” of our projections, and thus to perceive that all other humans are fundamentally like us. From the perspective of the earth seen from space and through eons of time, there are no “we” and “they.” All war is civil war. Blame and preoccupation with what seems to separate your interests from mine are obsolete. There is only “us,” facing our common sustainability challenges. The means we choose to meet these challenges will determine the ends.
Allowing these implications to work in our own lives, not in terms of instant perfection but as a process, requires both an immediate commitment and a lifetime journey. The power for positive change always has its source in individuals who are connected to universal principles and who work with others to build agreements that form the glue of a viable world culture.
How Change Happens
Social scientists have explored how new ideas, first seen as too radical for acceptance by large numbers of people, move gradually through society and finally become the norm. Whether we look back at the ending of slavery, the achievement of the vote for women, the acceptance of hybrid cars, or any other innovation, the process is consistent. At first only a few heroic visionaries see the value of the innovation. The power of the idea attracts a larger group sociologists call “opinion leaders,” people who are respected in a given community. Once opinion leaders take on the innovation, it has a greater chance of spreading further into the mainstream.
There are two enormously encouraging moments in this process. The first is when a mere 5% of a population has accepted an innovation. The idea begins to have staying power. It becomes a permanent part of the cultural conversation. The second moment is when the idea has gained acceptance with 20%, only one-fifth of the population. At that point the innovation becomes unstoppable and will inevitably gain mainstream acceptance. Only 20% of American colonists took on the risky task of birthing a new country autonomously beyond the reach of European institutions. But that one-fifth was enough. The numbers of people who began to demonstrate for change in the Middle East over the past few years was far less even than 5%, but they succeeded in changing expectations in that part of the world forever.
Understanding this push toward 5% and eventually 20% tells us not only that change is possible, but also where we can work for change most effectively. Looking around us, we can assess who in our natural affinity groups might be open for dialogue. Whether we are students, teachers, business people, clergy, or service workers, we operate within a circle of opportunity. We can then begin to reach out beyond those familiar boundaries, just as hundreds of thousands of groups concerned with intercultural reconciliation are doing, to build agreement about our fundamental interdependence.
The human capacity to self-destruct, either suddenly by nuclear war or more gradually by the degradation of living systems, constitutes a change in our situation that requires an evolutionary leap in the way we think. Never before have we been handed an ultimatum of this magnitude. On the positive side, never before have we been handed an opportunity of this magnitude. At almost the same time that scientists and engineers have given us nuclear weapons or energy systems that cause unacceptable increases in carbon dioxide, they also provided us with the means to eliminate hunger and overpopulation, or to derive clean energy from the wind and the sun. They gave us inexpensive mass communication like the Internet that can reach into every corner of the globe to share diverse insights into our common fate. They gave us satellites and seismic detectors that can verify compliance with test-ban treaties; they gave us insights into the mischievous workings of our own psyches; and they gave us the ability to travel around the world and meet with one another on a person-to-person basis.
What would an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just world look like? A strengthened United Nations would rapidly deploy peacekeeping troops before a conflict turned violent. The grotesque amount of resources presently spent on weapons would be redirected to feed the hungry, overcome disease, and restore the ailing biosystems of the planet. The love and compassion that the major religions have urged upon us for thousands of years , distilled in the variations of the Golden Rule, would become prevailing values. Conflict resolution would be taught in schools as a matter of course. Our religious, educational, commercial, and political institutions would reflect our identification with the whole planet and all humanity rather than a limited identification with a national or religious or economic “us.” This would not mean that we would have to give up our existing religious or political or cultural convictions, only that we place them within the context of what is best for the global community.
The United States has a crucial role to play in this change of paradigm. Our identity and national purpose has emphasized military dominance. We have become enmeshed in wars of uncertain purpose that have not served our security interests well. Instead, we need to lead by example: becoming a society that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. Such a society would not be a target for terrorism.
The hope lies with you and me—and the meaningful work we all must share. We will not all respond in the same way, but if each of us, consistent with our talents and our energy, does something, together we can build a sustainable, fulfilling, and just world—a world where all can live beyond war.
“We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”