The vision and possible shape of a world beyond war has modified since the lessening of superpower tensions between the United States and the now long-departed U.S.S.R. In the late 1980s, hopes for a peaceful world primarily involved the successful abolition of nuclear weapons. As Jonathan Schell has written, while inadvertent nuclear war is more probable than ever before, nuclear abolition begins to look relatively easy in the context of emerging global environmental challenges. Nuclear weapons themselves have become one more of our many ecological problems: even a small regional nuclear exchange could fatally affect agricultural production worldwide over decades, cancelling out the security benefits for any nation of possessing these weapons.
Glaciers melt and mean temperatures rise year by year. At what point do officials distracted by mutual nuclear threats start to take in the bigger picture—that the real “existential threat” to their security might be, say, the unleashing of an irreversible cycle in the thawing of methane gas presently frozen within the Arctic tundra, gas that could dangerously accelerate global warming trends? The issues that the planet faces in the second decade of the 21st century, a population that has overshot available resources, fast-rising CO2 levels, the exhaustion of marine life or the pollution of oceans, can be resolved neither by war nor by the deterrent effect of massive arsenals of weaponry—though failure to address such challenges proactively could well lead to unimaginable violence. Time and again experts have testified how much more efficient it would be to prevent wars by directly addressing human needs. Vastly less money is required to preventatively solve worldwide population growth and medical care and equitable distribution of food than the present unsustainable cost of extended wars of uncertain outcome.
Giving up war at this moment in history resembles an addict giving up his addiction, only to find he must face not only life without the crutch of drink or drugs, but also address the underlying life-challenges the drink or drugs allowed him to avoid. It involves a painful awakening from a trance, a giving up of resistance to reality as we come to see where and who we really are.
How bizarre that the most powerful nation on earth applies roughly 1800 different bureaucratic organizations to the admittedly serious problem of terrorism, yet it is not politically viable for the presumptive nominee of one of the two major parties to entertain the possibility that global climate change may be affected by human behavior. Even the incumbent is not leading aggressively on the issue. Meanwhile the United States military itself remains the single greatest source of environmental pollution on the planet, let alone the single greatest drain of monetary resources.
Simplistic, deeply distracting “either/or” thinking renders much our political discourse silly and unreal: to be Christian or Jewish is to be closed to possible good ideas coming out of Islam; to be Democratic is to be closed to possible good ideas coming from Republicans, to be culturally liberal is to be closed to possible good ideas coming from cultural conservatives. The reality of our interdependence suggests instead that people on both sides of any supposed polarity, Arab or Jew, atheist or believer, gay or straight, conservative or progressive, needs to accept that the “other” may have something invaluable to offer as we all try to prevent our collapse as a species. In the energy we expend defining what we are against, we resemble all too closely the extremists we revile.
But even if we think of ourselves as progressive and open, we are mired involuntarily in an against paradigm. Those in the “developed” world who assume we live quite modestly still find ourselves among a 1% who are fortunate to have access to resources much less available to the other 99%. If everyone on earth used the same amount of energy and resources I use, it would take X number of planets to sustain us all, and we only have one. Because there are too many of me, the way I live, in spite of my good intentions, my token gestures, my recycling, my refusal to use weed-killer, the sheer size of my ecological footprint keeps me stubbornly against the health and sustainability of the whole. I need help and maybe I can help you.
The so-called “advanced” countries can no longer function as “technocratic colonialists” who assume that “our” oil is under the sand of peoples undergoing development in their own unique way—especially if we want terrorism to end.
Life beyond war, so far from looking like a peaceable kingdom, will require the strengthening of global institutions based upon the reality of interdependence and the potential intensification of conflict over limited resources. This challenge will stretch our creativity and good will to the same limit that war has stretched our destructive powers and capacity to dehumanize adversaries.
In so many ways and places, the needful work has already begun, taking form in the millions of bottom-up organizations that are trying sustainable ways of farming, banking, or manufacturing processes that enhance rather than degrade the finite commons. But it is hard to avoid the sense that both leaders and citizens are still in denial about the kinds of transnational institutions and enforcements we will have to create in the next few decades in order to survive.
As long as we continue to participate by default in a Hobbesian war of each against all, as long as we, not only we in the U.S. but we in China and Russia and France and elsewhere refuse to surrender some of our national sovereignty, exceptionalism and entitlement, the total system will continue to degrade. What international body could possibly enforce mandates to mitigate global warming until we have massively internalized a new kind of consent to work together across cultural and economic boundaries for the good of the whole? Trying first to do no harm, we will have to assess our effect upon global systems of incommensurable complexity.
The vast majority of people on the planet are just trying to get through each day in one piece. But for anyone who is in a position of leadership, anyone who has the luxury of time and resources to be an agent of change, one of the most valuable things we can do is to encourage a searching dialogue, especially with people who hold views different from our own, about the utterly changed meaning of self-interest. Such initiatives as the Arab push for reform or the Occupy movement will ultimately fall short unless they are able to address structural change in the light of the new paradigm of interdependence. Perhaps some of the solutions will come from the worldwide military-industrial complex itself, as it begins to apprehend the many dimensions of security that lie beyond war.