Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gaza in the Light of the Stars

There is a solution to the difficult problem of war, but it is evolutionary. That feels bizarre to us humans, uncongenially abstract. No, we cannot grow new brains and hearts. But we can evolve how we think—and feel. We can become more responsive to what reality keeps screaming at us at the top of its lungs: a global population of seven billion and rising, along with nuclear weapons, asserts a grand limit, where the destructive potential of our sheer numbers and our weapons is bigger than the delicate natural systems that support life. Meanwhile we go on applying the hammer of war to ancient grudges that war itself will never solve, instead of expanding the spaces where it feels safe to engage each other from the heart.

When we boil them down, the great religions all offer variations of the same message: do unto others as we would want others to do to us. Don’t use violence to resolve conflict. Learn to want what we have not have what we want. Be as good as our word, real, honest, truthful. Be present, for this moment is our taste of eternity. Be inclusive, even to the point of including the perspective of our supposed adversary, for he is genetically identical to us. Be cooperative—especially with “strangers,” because strangers are potential friends. Act as if we share responsibility for the good of the whole, because we do.

This implies both a humbling and an expansion which has seemed, up to now, impossibly difficult: the realization that being a good person involves something more fundamental and “less than” being a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Democrat, a Republican, a Shia, a Sunni. Those identifications can be supportive of our goodness, but often put us in violently dysfunctional conflict with others. So we need to know that we emerge from a common context that transcends those labels. We are the outcome of 13.85 billion years of evolution. We are just like everyone else—and we are a preciously unique expression of all that process. Our true identity is both less than the thought-forms of nationalism/religion/race/class and much more than those seemingly crucial but ultimately petty attributes.

In the great journey of human cultural development, there are some hints that we already get this: the native American understanding of how we are part of the great web of life; the Arab tradition of hospitality to strangers; the pan-religious perspective of the contemplative tradition that run through all religions; the insights of poets that tell us that if we could fully understand our enemy he would no longer be our enemy; even the clarifying rigor of the modern scientific method.

All of these glorious cultural achievements point toward a potential greater glory: the end of war on this tiny planet. They help us to see reality more clearly and act upon that clarity for good of the whole. Many call this reality God, but it doesn’t matter what we label it. Life on earth is a vital, moving, ever-changing process to which we must learn to adapt and evolve, by seeing what all humans have in common: the same naked birth and death; the same hopes for each other and our children; the same suffering and the same compassion that suffering calls forth from doctors and nurses and teachers and public servants.

Does this mean that we cannot practice the rituals of our religions, rituals which give the stages of our lives order and meaning, the rhythm of initiation and work and rest and meditation? Does it mean that we are looking at a future in which there will be no more nations or religions or even separate races as we know them?

No. If all sects and rituals were magically swept away, we would renew them as a comfort against the terrifying chaos of life. And there will always be differences among us, more conflict than ever, which will require the administration of boundaries and the exercise of compromise. But the conditions of life today, where all our most important problems transcend religious and national borders—climate change, feeding billions of people, finding clean water, preserving the health of the oceans and rain forests—suggest that while we may go on thinking of ourselves as Israeli, a Palestinian Gazan, Socialist, Brazilian, our primary identification must be as responsible citizens of one small planet.  This amounts to no less than a deep evolutionary shift. Already it is bringing about new political structures, such as revised constitutions that give rights not only to people but also to natural systems like rivers.

The Gazans and Israelis enduring another futile round of eye-for-an-eye thinking are understandably disinclined to look upward and feel their connection to the creativity of the spiraling galaxies out of which they emerged; they are desperately focused upon day by day survival. So it is up to us living in greater security to promote—and model—the planetary expansion of identity that will make their agony obsolete.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Let's Make a Deal

My dreams are invaded these days by the spectre of methane frozen under arctic ice bubbling up as the ice above it melts, setting up a potentially irreversible cycle: more methane, more climate change, yet more methane, yet more climate change. A group of us here in our little coastal Maine town are so disgusted with congressional gridlock and so eager to do something that we have formed a cooperative to help our fellow citizens transition off fossil fuels in their homes. Co-op members walk their talk; outside each meeting it’s a veritable pride of Priuses.

For a couple of decades back in the 1980s, I was haunted by a different flavor of catastrophe: I might hear a real jet roaring overhead but believe in my dreams that I was hearing a fleet of Soviet missiles arcing toward our major cities.

But there are many reasons why global climate change and nuclear weapons are really one issue: They both require a level of international cooperation based on transnational shared self-interest. Even a small nuclear war could cause even more rapid descent into climate chaos. Leaders of great powers have the opportunity to see that, especially because genuine security depends upon resolving the climate challenge, maybe there is a grand bargain to be made to cut international spending for nuclear weapons systems where everybody can win big.

Even if a nuclear exchange somehow remained below the threshold necessary to cause a nuclear winter, far from resolving whatever conflict engendered it, it would only create conditions thousands of times worse than when any given war began. The weapons, no matter who owns them, are strategically useless. Don’t take my word; ask Henry Kissinger, who spends his declining years advocating steps toward abolition. Yes, there is the nuclear terror issue, but the solution to that is to have less weapons and components floating around. Moreover, all the nuclear weapons in the world won’t deter an extremist.

Meanwhile the United States is a case study in the tail of out-of-control defense spending wagging the dog of policy. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Navy plan to build 12 new Ohio class submarines, six-hundred-foot behemoths of mass destruction. Professor Lawrence Wittner reports that to build deploy and maintain this fleet, scheduled to be phased in by 2031 and to operate until 2070, would cost about 350 billion in today’s dollars—an amount so great that the Navy worries about how it will squeeze other shipbuilding priorities, and the Congress has begun to think about how to fund it outside the parameters of the regular budget. Of course the U.S. is not alone in its insanity: six other nuclear powers seem to be in the process of expanding or renewing their own submarine hardware.

350 billion dollars would buy an awful lot of solar panels, windmills, fusion research, and desalinization plants for the water-starved in our own country and abroad. It seems remarkable that no leader has initiated some kind of international conference to address our horrendous misplacement of resources. Imagine the heads of the nuclear powers realizing that they could divert those hundreds of billions of dollars/yen/rubles/Euros presently designated for ultimately useless weapons into projects that would contribute to some genuine increase in peoples’ health, like cleaning up the air in Peking or Moscow. Treaties are especially feasible because our technical capabilities can bypass trust and go right to verification. Nothing would increase global security more than authentic, substantive mitigation of climate chaos, with the dividend of mitigating fears of nuclear apocalypse at the same time.