Let’s be honest about this: the world has been coming apart at the seams, and we’ve been far too complacent about it. Sure, many of us are well aware of the apocalyptic risks of climate change, the social/environmental ravages of perpetual warfare, and the harsh realities of the rise of global corporate fascism. The era in which we live is defined by an incessant news cycle that chronicles the “end of days” trope in real time. And yet, despite occasional outbreaks of resistance, we’ve mostly been content to watch it play out through the lens of detached denial.
While we may laugh at climate change deniers — including the slate of potential incoming congressional chairs who will be tasked with overseeing this issue — we might also recognize a grain of personal truth in these jocular reflections. How many of us really have taken all the steps at our disposal to forestall the drivers of climate change, from zeroing our carbon emissions to refraining from the consumption of products responsible for deforestation and mounting waste? Who among us has truly stood resolute against the war machine at every turn, from open and organized tax resistance to educating tirelessly against the fallacies of recruitment? And who has completely disavowed any connection whatsoever with the corporate conglomerate that impose their will on the world?
This isn’t an indictment, but more so a statement about the nature of the challenge before us. The array of nonviolent tactics for change at our disposal is vast and always growing, as Gene Sharp has documented. But there is a deeper problem at hand that works against the accrual of these tactics into an effective overall strategy, namely our incontrovertible reliance upon the very forces that we are seeking to alter or abolish. We might attend a protest but eat fast food on the way home. Perhaps we’ve changed our light bulbs yet still utilize fossil fuel electricity. Maybe we work with anti-war groups even as we fund war through multiple means. And so on.
We are all so thoroughly implicated in the patterns and practices of conflict and degradation that it is by now nearly impossible to extricate oneself altogether. Our utter dependency on the very system that we aim to alter necessarily imposes limits on how far we might be willing to go in order to dismantle the machinery of destruction. Metaphorically, we can liken our situation to that of being on a rapidly sinking ship and having to somehow construct a new ship out of the old materials without drowning in the process. And to make matters worse, it further appears that we are constrained to use the “master’s tools” in this already long-shot rebuilding process.
This isn’t intended to be a fatalistic statement. People before us have anticipated the end of the world and have found ways to stave it off. Yet we must acknowledge that our times are decidedly different: irreversible climatic thresholds are being crossed, essential resources including water and soil are being ruthlessly depleted, violence is systemic and endemic, and the carrying capacity of the planet is being pushed to the brink. All of this has happened in such short order that our moral imaginations have not been given sufficient time to catch up, as Martin Luther King, Jr. has cogently observed:
When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast with a scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.
Nearly half a century later, we now find ourselves caught in a scenario in which the problems before us are increasing exponentially, and thus could potentially trigger a downward-spiral runaway effect from which no recourse to technological fixes will save us. Indeed, as King suggests, our impoverished spirits exist in inverse proportion to the increasing technological interpenetration of every aspect of our lives, and the gap between them widens over time. Just as with the use of violence as the dominant “solution” to social problems such as terrorism and crime, likewise do we manifest this “gambler’s fallacy” in our insistence that “doubling down” on current strategies will somehow avert total bankruptcy.
And yet, in this do we find ourselves with a unique opportunity to forge peace from war, abundance from scarcity, and ultimately survival from extinction: just as the repetition of flawed strategies spirals negatively, so too can constructive strategies mutually reinforce one another in a genuine “positive feedback loop.” Further, we can celebrate the emerging notion that the challenges before us are not amenable to piecemeal, band-aid solutions, meaning that if we avoid self-imposed extinction it will mean that we have truly, finally, gotten our living right. Here then is a hopeful prospect: our success will be measured in the very existence of future generations, who will find themselves (if at all) in a world that is socially just and environmentally sustainable. There is no other outcome to be found beyond the creation of a fully nonviolent world, since our failure to do so will render all other matters moot.
I have two young children, and in writing this I hope to convey the sense of urgency that will be necessary in order for them to have a future on this planet. Movements for change up to now have been successful primarily in incrementally slowing the gears of destruction — which doesn’t sound like much except that it has given us this narrow window of opportunity in which to act. If we squander this opportunity, the fault lies in ourselves; if we embrace it, the benefit will accrue to our progeny, and our forebears will be eternally thankful, as John F. Kennedy articulated before the United Nations in 1961:
But however close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss, let no man of peace and freedom despair. For he does not stand alone. If we all can persevere, if we can in every land and office look beyond our own shores and ambitions, then surely the age will dawn in which the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. Ladies and gentlemen of this Assembly, the decision is ours. Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose, or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can — and save it we must — and then shall we earn the eternal thanks of mankind and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.
Despite a tendency to moralize in my musings, this isn’t a how-to guide and I’m not going to be prescriptive here. You already know what needs to be done, and as diligent practitioners of nonviolence you are steeped in how to do it. What I want to get across today is the sense of urgency of the task, the finality of our failure, and the magnitude of our success. The essence of nonviolence is rooted in an abiding respect for all life and a deep appreciation of the inherent interconnectedness of materiality. In this sense, nonviolence is an expression of mutual interdependence and profound gratitude for the miracle of existence. As oppressed peoples and besieged habitats in the present welcome our solidarity and compassion, so too does the future anticipate our awakening and stand ready to offer its thanks.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).
This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence.