Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why Peace?

There are many armed conflicts raging all over the planet in the beginning of the twenty-first century.  The war in Iraq that has considerably diminished in intensity and the War in Afghanistan are the results of superpower (United States) intervention supposedly acting in its national interest.  Many of these are civil wars like the ongoing conflicts in Columbia, Sudan and Libya.  In the latter example, the military wing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has become involved with an obvious stake in the outcome.  Others represent territorial conflicts like the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir and the long standing conflict between the Palestinians of Arab descent and the Israeli occupation.  There is obviously a strong religious component to these clashes as well.  Other confrontations are fueled by powerful religious and ethnic differences as exemplified by Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s due in large part to the enmity between Muslims and Christians.  Of course, the horrific and tragic genocide that took place in Rwanda in ***** prompted by ethnic and socio-economic differences between tribes cannot be overlooked.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the various trouble spots that exist in the precarious world of humans.  Overshadowing all these calamitous events is the inexorable deterioration of the global environment that is often exacerbated by human conflict and the chaos it ordinarily engenders.

On examining the ferocity of warfare, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the human species has not learned very much over its protracted history.  The history of Europe from the Ancient Roman and Greek civilizations to the present, as an example, is replete with carnage that is the inevitable outcome of wars. 

Within the individual human psyche there exists a constant tension between the force and power of the emotions driven by the passions embodied in territory, tribe and nation and that of reason.  The more reactive and violence-prone emotions stem in large part from the evolution of the species in an environment that was essentially hostile and in which the forces of nature that impacted human experience were not understood and the causes of calamities were attributed to the gods, malevolent spirits or an enemy. 

In the beginnings of the human kind, ignorance was prevalent and fear and suspicion dominated and shaped human behavior.  Although the advancement of science and technology has shed light upon many aspects of the human experience that were once shrouded in mystery, the inherent tendency to strike out violently against that which is feared and poorly understood remains to haunt human societies.  In addition, in the so-called developed world there is tendency on the part of a strong segment of the general population to hold science and scientific knowledge in suspicion.  What is particularly unique about humanity in the twenty-first century is the inescapable reality that the application of overwhelming force against a perceived enemy is no longer a viable solution especially considering the destructiveness of modern weaponry.

Over the thousands of years of human civilization, great empires have risen and eventually fallen.  The cycle of empire building and dissolution has generally followed the same inexorable path. The beginning stage is represented by the rise of a local community of common origin followed by a gradual accretion of power, usually by force. Success at this initial stage leads to a steady rise in military strength and technological capability that overshadows all adversaries.  As power becomes increasingly concentrated into an overweening empire, there is a tendency to overextend the sphere of control and influence.  This expansion ultimately leads to an exhaustion of resources both material and human.  Finally, the empire contracts and ultimately dissolves.  The entire process might take place over a thousand years as exemplified by the Roman Empire or a few hundred years as demonstrated by the British Empire.

In all of human history, cycles of expansion and warfare were tolerable given the low density of human populations on the planet and the relatively benign effects of the primitive weaponry on the global environment.  This model of human behavior where economic, political and social differences and rivalries are settled through violent means is no longer tenable in the modern era. 

The essentially tribal nature of human interactions has evolved over the generations into competing national sovereignties.  The idea that each nation state is a power unto itself is no longer compatible with the rapidly evolving global character of human endeavor.  There is currently too much at stake in maintaining the status quo, especially in regards to the survival of the species.  The development of technological weaponry, especially nuclear and chemical weapons, has created a situation in which warfare necessarily leads to horrific consequences both locally for the populations involved and globally due to the environmental effects as witnessed in the nuclear attacks against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs in Cambodia, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the use of Depleted Uranium (DU)  hardened ordnance in Iraq.

The daunting issues that face humanity are no longer local but rather global in nature.   The remarkable savagery of the First and Second World Wars of the Twentieth Century awakened the idea of a world organization as a forum for international communication so as to foster dialog between nations and forestall the possibility of future wars of such magnitude.  The first experiment in a world organization as a vehicle for adjudicating international disputes was the League of Nations that was created in the aftermath of World War I.  This met with limited success and was eventually disbanded.  Subsequently the United Nations was created at the end of World War II.  The United Nations is still extant but remains hostage to the dominance of the powerful industrial nations that constitute the Security Council.

The will to empire is still very much with us.  Apparently, no significant lessons have been learned from the horrid mistakes of the past.  The undeniable need for true international cooperation as a means to effectively circumvent a catastrophic future that now seems so inevitable is still not recognized.  Many nations remain fixated on the ferocious competition for dominance and supremacy at the expense of those sovereignties that are weaker and more fragile.  This competition has usually been over the resources required to fuel and sustain national economies.  The need for additional natural resources such as land for expansion of national populations or energy and mineral resources has often been the focus of competition.  As needed resources such as oil or water become scarce, the competition will, by necessity, grow more fierce and explosive.

This particular mindset has become problematic; the species is in desperate need of a completely new paradigm.  The new model must be based, by necessity, on a spirit of cooperation, compassion, generosity and a willingness to reach meaningful compromise to avert disaster.  The chasm that currently exists between the so-called "haves" and "have-nots" both within and between sovereign states is helping to sustain the extreme level of violence that continues to plague humanity.  Fundamental issues of social and economic justice need to be uppermost on the agenda.  Such a focus would require a serious implementation of the role of social responsibility and conscience in the behavior of governments.  The idea of belonging wholly to one nation must be superseded by the idea of being a member of the world community.  This, of course, represents a momentous leap in understanding, tolerance, compassion, and, most importantly, requires an obligation to act in the best interests of all humanity.

To continue down the current path in which domestic and international behavior is dictated by a passion born of fear and ignorance is to take a journey leading into a horrific future.  This is not the only possible destiny of the human species.  There are other more benign and desirable alternatives.  There is a way out of the madness.  Humans are quite capable of using reasoned and mindful intelligence to direct and guide their behavior and plan for a future in which all of humanity can share in the benefits of collective action for the good of all people.  To do this, however, old patterns of behavior and thinking need to be discarded and replaced by a new understanding that envisions all of us as being of equal worth and recognizes that we wholly depend upon a fragile planet with limited resources.  Beneficial change demands that fear and ignorance be replaced by compassion, understanding and a determination to work for true social justice and freedom.  These goals cannot be achieved by an imposition of a particular set of values by brute force or economic coercion.  Imperialism represents a viewpoint that depends upon a world out of balance and it is an idea that is no longer tenable.  The urge towards empire is not yet dead, but is has become completely ineffectual and counterproductive.

I believe I can say with some assurance that all people desire a world for their descendents in which peace is a reality and a future in which the planet retains its natural beauty and the majesty of all of life.  To achieve this result, a great deal of work is required.  This is a completely different kind of work, since it requires profound self examination and a will towards significant change.  The question remains as to whether the species has the wherewithal to take on this challenge.  I hope for the sake of future generations that this is so.   


The first images of the planet taken from space clearly demonstrated that for all human beings and for all of life, for that matter, the earth is our only home.  This conception has, in my judgment, become such an integral part of human consciousness that the current and obvious threat posed by climate change, that is a direct outcome of human activity, may offer some impetus for change.  The time may be right to open more effective channels of communication between nations with the focus on the development of sustainable economies that would help insure a livable planet for future generations of not only the human species but all the magnificent creatures that constitute the living world.  Simply moving through life with self-interest as the guiding principle is not enough to forestall a major calamity that only concerted human action can avert.

There seems to be a paradoxical aspect of human nature that may help explain the penchant for aggression and violence. On the one hand, humans as members of a family, group, tribe or nation, are able to work harmoniously with cooperative effort towards goals that benefit everyone. This collective behavior operates effectively; unless, severe catastrophic conditions such as profound environmental calamities, famine, epidemics, etc disrupt this cohesiveness, or an individual is plagued with mental illness. I believe that this capacity for concerted endeavor is wired into the human brain as a result of millions of years of social and biological evolution.

Juxtaposed to this natural propensity for harmonious behavior is the equally potent fear and mistrust of those outside the community whether it is family, group, tribe or nation. Fear can trigger the body, directed by various chemical signals from the brain, to react with the classic "flight or fright" response. The urgency of such a reaction, precludes rational thought or reasoned consideration; it is a purely survival mechanism. This propensity is also wired within the fabric of the human brain.

As individuals, we are often confronted by choices that may illicit responses dictated by either of these pathways. I view this as a life long struggle between the voice of intellect and reason and that of the emotions. It is both these aspects that define us as humans; we cannot extricate them from our being - that would be a useless endeavor bound to fail.

The path that a society chooses in confronting possible collective conflict or crisis, i.e. the path of reason or that of the emotions, depends largely upon education. If the culture at large condones and encourages violence as a legitimate response to threat and punishment as the primary means to promulgate justice, then individuals within that culture will adopt these methodologies. The violence used does not necessarily have to be physical in nature; it can also be economically or culturally based. However, if the intellect and reason are the attributes that are encouraged and nurtured, then an entirely different set of outcomes are possible.

Although human civilization has tended in the past to succumb to the reactive pathway as dictated by hostility, suspicion and fear, this does not preclude alternative outcomes in the future. The utopian ideal for human societies is not outside the grasp of human history. We need, as a species, to reeducate ourselves and transform our view of self and other.

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