The hopeful energy that resulted in the election of President Obama has run smack into the depressing reality of the largest military budget ever submitted in the history of the planet. But effective strategizing for peace can only emerge from an accurate perception of where we are. The cosmologist Brian Swimme talks about our time as marking the close of the Cenozoic era, a 65-million-year period that the present comprehensive global crisis is shutting down.
While it may be impossible to walk around “thinking Cenozoically and acting locally,” the Cenozoic context confirms that humans are one species, sharing one story, interconnected in countless ways to each other and to our life-support system. So the first principle in rethinking peace activities would be interdependence: we are one on this planet. Everyone involved in peacework knows this principle, but its deeper implications have hardly begun to sink in.
An obvious implication is the connection between issues that we often keep in separate compartments – like war, the environment, the economy and health. Our government budgets war separately, making it harder to see the obvious economic relationship with the other three. We need to clarify the connections between these four overarching issues and find ways to talk about them as one.
A second implication is that polarization has become obsolete. From the gridlock in Washington, to conservative talk radio, to the oppositional mind-set between “the West” and radical Islam, to Israel and Palestine, to the UN, to the peace movement itself, where progressives line up against conservatives as if the two “sides” had no common challenges and interests, polarization pervades. The root cause of this paralysis can be summed up as “us and them” thinking. Whoever “we” are, we feel helplessness, fear and outrage about all the terrible things “they” are saying and doing. We define ourselves by what we are against. This is built into us by our anthropological history: early humans defined themselves by tribal in-groups and out-groups.
The best response is simply to admit that in an age of climate instability and nuclear weapons, there are no out-groups. As a Peace Corps volunteer once said, “the Earth is a sphere, and a sphere has only one side. We are all on the same side.” Any political difference between interest-groups is completely transcended by the post-Cenozoic crisis as a whole. The problems are interactive, not hierarchical: population growth (maybe first among equals), the need for adequate food and water, soil attenuation, ocean pollution and the threatened fish supply, the mass extinction of species or the melting of Arctic ice. These are crises that can only be solved by cooperation on a whole new level, creating virtuous circles as opposed to the present vicious circles. As we saw in Copenhagen, this is a new and difficult task for our species. On the other hand, enlightened self-interest can be reframed from the bottom up. We are free, like millions around the world, to take local initiatives for the health of the global commons. Every locally-installed windmill or solar panel reduces dependence upon oil, which lessens the tensions between oil producers and consumers, in turn ratcheting down the need for military solutions.
This suggests a third radical implication of oneness, which is that no longer can ends justify means. The means are the ends in the making. Again, the profundity of this implication has not sunk in. Because we each contribute to the comprehensive global crisis simply by being alive, the concept of an “enemy” takes on a different coloration. All war has become civil war. We certainly cannot resolve our differences by using nuclear weapons, which could bring about the end of everyone. Neither can we torture nor bomb our way past terrorism. However seemingly justified, endless war only produces another generation of angry, helpless extremists who see no alternative other than suicidal reaction.
A fourth implication is the recognition that the anger and helplessness that we see in our adversaries can also be found in ourselves. If we can see the universality of such feelings, it helps us avoid a cycle of fear and violence, a polarized echo-chamber in which we find enemies everywhere, either those around us with whom we disagree or those in faraway lands who seem to wish us ill. The antidote to polarization is dialogue – between conservative and progressive, Arab and Jew, Christian and Muslim – an exchange of stories meant to build a shared vision of a world that can work for everyone.
A fifth implication would be outgrowing the notion that peacebuilding is unrealistic. This premise often covertly inhabits the heart of even the most optimistic activist: because the pervasiveness of war-thinking seems overwhelming, peacebuilders are hopeless dreamers. Turn that around. To assume that bottomless military spending, as opposed to meeting human needs directly, will lead to a safer world is the real off-the-wall idealism. Creating a world beyond war is realistic, because the alternative is unthinkable. It is conservative in the true meaning of the word.
Resetting the peacebuilding button is a daily process, because it begins with me – with my ability to be aware of my own fear, helplessness or anger and still listen deeply to others who may think differently from me. It is supremely challenging to face the end of the Cenozoic, but the recognition of such challenges has always energized human creativity. The realization that we really are all in this together has the potential to enlarge the circle and energize the renewal of the peace movement worldwide.