Agreeing on Existential Threats

One of humanity’s greatest assets as a species is our flexibility. We can live in a range of environments, and adjust to new social realities, diets, technologies, ideas, languages, etc. Our kids live in a world where communication across the globe is instantaneous, something that our ancestors would never have thought imaginable. Yet it’s completely normal for this generation. We adjust.

Still, nothing is cost-free. One drawback of our incredible plasticity and ability to hold a multitude of beliefs is an inherent risk for conflict. I say “avocado.” You say “mango.” People disagree on just about everything. What should we have for dinner? Are other people fully human? How should taxes be spent? Should baby boys wear pink? Are Nazis bad? Are there hats?

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Imagining a Worthy Goal

“All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

– Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities” (1983: 6)

 

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot” (1994)

 

Yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were heart-breaking. They didn’t come out of nowhere, but they felt like an exclamation point on a period marked by increasing social division. Like most Americans, I find the views expressed by the so-called alt right to be abhorrent. As a child, I thought that progress was inexorable, that my generation was more inclusive than those before, and that my kids’ generation would be even more inclusive than mine. That’s not how things go, I suppose, at least not without lots of bumps in the road.

Taking a very long-term view of the future, I’m still optimistic. I can’t help but feel that future generations will mock our ignorance, and that the communities they imagine will be based on accumulated wisdom. What’s the alternative? To be perpetually bogged down in counter-productive, short-sighted conflicts and social divisions? Maybe. Maybe the immediate incentives to gain an advantage by oppressing or stepping on top of others is too tempting. Maybe not. Maybe people can recognize that non-zero-sum relationships based that are mutually beneficial (win-win) are more enduring than ones that rely on a win-lose model (zero-sum) which only create long-term resentments.

What is a long-term worthy goal for humanity? I can imagine a few goals, and yours may differ from mine. But nowhere on my list is a narrow-minded, parochial desire to prop up one group of people above all others. Such a goal is a failure of imagination.

“A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”

— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell

earth rise

“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)

 

Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing. 

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Shifting perspectives. Source.

In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:

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A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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“Men Without Souls”

From “The Stunning” in 1993, this song was about “the spate of paramilitary punishment shootings and beatings in the north of Ireland throughout the Troubles.”

 

I’m tired of all that
I’m tired of all that
I’m tired of the talks
About talks about talks
While the guns have their say

I’m sick to the teeth
Yeah i’m sick to the teeth
Some men are so ill
They can butcher and kill
For what they believe

I cried when i read
There’s a boy nearly dead
They shot him with holes
And then broke a few bones
Aren’t you tough men?

Do you dream in your sleep?
Do you dream in your sleep?
You left him half dead
And you went home to bed
Your wife brushed your coat
And she made you some toast
Can you hear him moan?

Men without souls
Men without souls
The whole world is filled with them
Dragging their filth with them
Madmen will kill for them
And their mothers still feel for them
Men without souls

 

 

Amy Goodman on “the beginning of peace”

“We need a media that allows people to speak for themselves. There is nothing more powerful than hearing a Palestinian child, or an Israeli grandmother, a Native elder from Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, or an uncle in Afghanistan. When you hear someone speaking from their own experience, it changes you. I didn’t say you will agree with it. How often do we even agree with our family members? But you begin to understand where they’re coming from. That understanding is the beginning of peace. I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on earth. Instead, all too often it’s wielded as a weapon of war.”

“I love war.”

One of these things is not like the others.

  • “War is organised murder, and nothing else.” (Harry Patch, WW1 veteran)
  • “I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Aug 1936)

  • “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that any one who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” (Winston Churchill, 1930)

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