Why Join PEPeace • 16 April 2014 • James C. van Pelt
I need to tell you about PEP’s unique role as a peace group: which is to respond progressively to current events, but also to look beyond the next protest march, the next demonstration, to understand and anticipate events beyond the threats to peace and environment and socioeconomic justice that we hear about month after month.
PEP traditionally has been involved in the pressing struggles of the day along with other peace groups, and that is still true. A dozen years ago PEP coordinated the Peace Train that transported thousands of Connecticut citizens to New York City, to join the great protest of the millions against the impending invasion of Iraq. In just the past year PEP helped organize the train to the great Climate March in New York City organized by Bill McKibben, who received his Gandhi Peace Award two years ago in New Haven. PEP also actively co-sponsored eight different peace-related events this year. Over the years PEPeace has supported peace educators with many millions of articles sent via postal mail, and in the Internet age we do the same thing via our daily and weekly PeaceNews service. We have fielded citizen diplomacy delegations to build person-to-person ties with our supposed enemies. And of course we have awarded the Gandhi Peace Award since 1960.
Perhaps PEP’s most unique contribution over nearly two-thirds of a century years has been to encourage people to take a longer view, and to build relationships and develop ideas whose fruition may be years or decades away.
A Gandhi Peace Award Laureate named Martin Luther King, Jr. said this almost exactly fifty years ago: “We find now that the forces of darkness are much more active, zealous, conscientious, and determined than the forces of light.” A half-century later, we can see the mobilization of those forces more clearly than ever before. How do we inspire the forces of light?
Among all the animals, human beings are unique in their ability to conceive of who and what we are. But there’s an insanity embedded in that, which has produced the unsustainable civilization that is coming to its culmination. We conceive that we are the crown of creation, the final triumph of evolution to whom all other species were merely the dispensable prelude. We are the triumphal species. We are the champions of the world! Yet at the very same time we see ourselves as the curse and cancer of life, bringing ruin and ushering life rapidly toward its doom. This time is unique in history in having brought us to the ability to choose which of those two identities will prevail.
There’s a famous phrase in the Bible: “For God so loved the world”. The only way out is for millions of individuals to love the world so much, to love this planet and all the beings who share it, human and otherwise, so much, that they find the will to make moral decisions to give up what cannot be sustained anyway and to reconfigure their personal lives to contribute to the collective good.
What is the human purpose? Humans love and depend on nature. Humanity’s core values are fairness and compassion. The abilities of which human beings are most proud are to create and appreciate what is beautiful and true, and to invent, plan, manage, and anticipate needs, dangers, and opportunities. Humans require a higher cause to inspire them to transcend addiction to diversions and wasteful conflict, especially war. The present global civilization has no such higher cause. Nor is it sustainable in the long run, and hardly in the short run.
When all of these facts are combined, a single conclusion emerges: that the logical and necessary task of humanity is to manage and conduct, as an orchestra is conducted, the entire planetary system, including human civilization but also the natural world and its climate, and even the space surrounding the planet, from which cosmic threats inevitably plunge into the Earth, and to do so for the benefit of all life—not as humanity the dominant species at the top of the mythical food chain, having vanquished all other species, but as the intelligence of all life. Just as each person has an intelligent aspect, humanity is that aspect for the whole planet: the component of life endowed with the capability and thus the responsibility to seek the survival and flourishing of all of life, It is for us to grasp and embrace that purpose, the very reason humanity has evolved. Life’s purpose is to live, and humanity’s purpose is to ensure the success of life’s purpose, while appreciating and savoring the experience of being alive and loving the life of this world.
Many of us progressives are motivated by a well-justified feelings of anger at how cruelly, how violently, how wastefully and greedily the powerful take advantage of their positions. But looking beyond that anger, to paraphrase Che Guevara, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the true revolutionary” whether the political or social or environmental revolutionary, “is motivated by great feelings of love.” Humanity can only judge its worth accurately by taking into account the effects of human civilization on every person, every sentient being of every species and on all life conceived as one great living planet.
Sixty years ago a Yale professor of very modest means named Jerome Davis foresaw, as few others did, the impending rise of the nuclear threat that would imperil world civilization to a degree beyond anything before from human minds and hands had ever done. His efforts led to the organization that has distribution of over ten million peace articles, fielded of thousands of citizen diplomats determined to give the so-called enemy a human face, and honored peace heroes such as Medea Benjamin whose contributions to building the foundation of a sustainable world peace deserved both recognition and emulation.
Now we are in a new century, and the immediate sense of nuclear peril has receded from the foreground—although the nuclear peril itself has not. At this unique time in history, having an organization that can taking the long view is essential, because the global civilization of which we are a part is facing an unprecedented crucible: the unavoidable necessity to make a transition to an entirely different socioeconomic system and an entirely new culture, simply because the current system is unsustainable. Again: the current system is unsustainable. Think just what “unsustainable” really means:—that things cannot long continue as they are. that which is unsustainable must collapse, or be transformed.
The danger of nuclear annihilation that Jerome Davis anticipated and faced down via PEPeace was the greatest danger ever confronted by humanity. The efforts of millions of peace movement activists were directed at one thing: to keep a very few leaders from pressing the button.
As Bill McKibben has pointed out, the challenge that now faces the world is, if possible, even greater—possibly the loss of most forms of life on Earth as a result of climate change, which itself is the natural and inevitable outgrowth of the way civilization has been conducted for many centuries. What makes that challenge all the greater is that catastrophe can be headed off only by motivating billions of people to turn their backs on the system that has become unsustainable, and to adopt new systems that combine the sustainable character of traditional societies with present-day advances in social and medical and technological advances.
No one yet knows just how to do this. But we do know three things. We know that a vast transition must be made expeditiously if the biosphere is to escape apocalyptic cataclysm spiked by a fight to the death for what crumbs remain.
We know that those who control and profit by the present unsustainable system will fight without mercy to preserve their privileged positions on the bridge of the sinking ship. And we know that to overcome that suicidal resistance will require alliances of movements and causes unlike anything the world has ever seen.
And as you will see as the evening progresses, tonight is all about alliances.
All of us have seen that the environmental movement gains its power by combining good science with deep moral sensitivity. Accordingly I want to quote to you some scientific facts of which you may not be fully aware even though they are among most important facts that exist.
In the four billion years that life has existed on the planet we call ours, there have been six mass extinctions—planetwide events in which the ecology collapses and nearly all species die out within a geologically short period of time. Four have been caused by huge astronomical and geophysical events, such as when the asteroid hit that led to the end of the reign of the dinosaurs.
But the first mass extinction was caused by the changing dynamics of life itself. Before that mass extinction, anaerobic life forms compatible with Earth’s atmosphere of methane prevailed over the whole planet. Then aeorobic life forms appeared and the atmosphere was converted into the oxygen-carbon-nitrogen air we now breathe, killing off nearly all of the anaerobic forms.
But this is not just a science lesson. The point is this: we are on the verge of the same sort of mass extinction, when it is the dynamics of life itself rather than other natural causes that threaten to precipitate the collapse of the very basis of life on Earth.
We’re seeing the signs of that already. We’ve all heard about the iconic species coming under the threat of extinction: the African elephant, the mountain gorilla, the wright whale, even the honeybee.
In the modern era every century has had its transformations: from the rise of colonial exploitation to the fall of monarchies and aristocracies to the effacing of empires and social systems. In 16th Century America, in Eastern Europe during World War II, and In countless other times and places, whole civilizations have ceased to exist, as a routine feature of history—sometimes overnight, with little or no warning—the very threat we lived with every single day for the forty years of the Cold War. The transition In the century just past brought great socioeconomic progress, including the collapse of aristocracy and overt imperialism, the de-legitimizing of racism and sexism, and technological advances that improved the lives of those who have had access to their fruits. That progress came at the cost of two devastating wars, a worldwide economic depression, four decades of sustained nuclear terror, and the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocents.
The transformation in store for our century could well be the greatest yet—the culmination of five thousand years of progress and expansion, because the dangers that compel that transformation—the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the depletion of critical resources, the exhaustion of antibiotics, the decimation of the biosphere, the exploding human populations that displace the other species, and above all the massive disruption of the planet’s climate and the decimation of its biosphere—all those dangers stem directly from the basic operations of the existing system. The parts that were separate are converging faster and faster in the process called globalization, yielding great benefits and a cultural blooming the likes of which humanity has never seen. Yet at the same time the perils associated with each component of that convergence are also converging into a single mega-threat that does not yet even have a name, much less a handle. As a consequence of the snowballing advances of technology, the global system grows exponentially more intricate, complex, and integrated, making it increasingly subject to cascading collapse from the effects of that nameless monstrosity. Yet in the midst of that great planetary convergence, for good or ill, even the social activists among us are isolated one from the other, each stuck in the silo of this or that movement or cause.
Our century faces the greatest threat humanity is ever faced. It is greater than any single peril taken by itself—greater even than environmental devastation, greater than nuclear war, greater even climate disruption—because it is all those things, and more, converging into a single mega-threat the likes of which life as we know it has never seen.
What is happening right now is something that has not happened on Earth for billions of years: the precipitation of a planetary mass extinction brought on by the dynamics of life itself. Billions of years ago our planet was populated by life forms that breathed methane. When those anaerobic life forms were replaced by oxygen-breathing forms, the atmospheric change to oxygen poisoned nearly every living being and caused nearly every species then living to go extinct. Since then there have been four other mass extinctions, caused by geological or astronomical events, or a combination of both.
Now, billions of years later, the forces of evolution have produced living beings with the intelligence to seek the satisfaction of their desires, their craving to transcend the limits of mortality by means of technology and the limitless exploitation of the resources of this planet, regardless of the consequences for the other life forms that share it. As a result, the intelligence of those beings—human beings—the intelligence of life itself—is precipitating the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s long history. Not just iconic species such as elephants and pandas and wright whales are under the gun, but so many other, to us lesser species that many are gone before we even have time to discover and name them.
There is a saying from World War II by the German pastor Martin Niemöller that goes something like this: First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
Now it is we who might say, “I heard that the insect species were beginning to die off, and I did nothing because for me insects have no use. The plants could not be pollinated, so the birds and fish could not be fed, and the grazing mammals went hungry, and I did nothing because for me there was still food on the grocery store shelves. The mammals and even the primates began to disappear, hunted to extinction and denied their habitats, and I did nothing because for me there were still the zoos and pet stores. Then the nations went to war over dwindling resources and millions of humans died of conflict and hunger and disease, but I did nothing because for me it was all on the news, and who has the time? Then one day there was no food in the stores, no power in my house, no gas in my car, no order in my streets, and I did nothing because it was too late for any of us.”
That is the poetic scenario of a mass extinction, which eats away at the biosphere and at our capacities to respond, adapt, and recover, until there is nothing left for any of us.
This is all foreseeable. But it’s almost as if people don’t want to see it. We talk about and organize for the struggles of this year, next year, the next few years like passengers on the Titanic looking out from the stern at turbulence below as we debate how the people in steerage should be treated. Meanwhile the iceberg looms ahead.
PEP was founded to look forward from the bow of civilization, to see beyond the immediate news stories to anticipate both the dangers and the opportunities ahead. And what we see is this: a sustainable world civilization will require a thoroughly transformed socioeconomic system and even an upgraded definition of what it means to be human.
Here is just one example:
At present technology is replacing more and more human jobs. The only way to create new jobs in this system is through “growth”. When growth slows, recession and depression and ruin follow. The system must grow to maintain itself, as a shark must swim to breath. But “growth” means expanding the economy and speeding up the cycle of extracting resources, producing goods, consuming them, and discarding the remains—the very cycle that makes the global system unsustainable.
Consider how the issues of peace and the environment are converging along with everything else. Unsustainable energy needs heighten the competition for resources and for control of the system. Environmentalists in the U.S. find themselves in a struggle against great industrial and political powers over resource extraction techniques that threaten to despoil entire watersheds and release megatons of greenhouse gases in exchange for a few more years of cheap energy and high profits. The U.S. armed forces encircle China, and China responds militarily to maintain its export-import channels. The navies of Russia and the U.S. are now positioning themselves to fight over the resources being uncovered by the melting icecaps in the Arctic Circle. India and its neighbors prepare to battle over water supplies that cannot meet the demands of exploding urban populations—as several American states and Mexico are already doing in court. The ruling faction in Israel continues to dispossess Palestinians by depriving them of their water and their agricultural lands. And how much of what has happened in the Middle East in the past decades has been about jockeying for the fossil fuels there—and how did our fuel get under their sand?
Looking beyond the human world, the unrestrained expansion of civilization is precipitating a planetary mass extinction —the sixth since life appeared on Earth four billion years ago, and the second to be caused by life itself turning toxic to itself—with no certainty about what the consequences could be to humanity and to life entire.
The chilling fact is that NO ONE really knows how to transform a global civilization to make it sustainable without endangering every social advance achieved by the sacrifices of previous generations. To me, thinking about that and doing something about it is the 21st Century version of what PEP Founder Jerome Davis did in the early 1950s when he anticipated the dangers of the Cold War and found constructive ways to help head off those dangers.
And like Jerome Davis, we find reason for hope. In our time we can find hope in the dawning of great light amidst the darkness. One shining example is the coming together of many different causes, movements, and kinds of people who are the ones who “get it”—because either people get it, or they don’t get it yet, or maybe they’ll never let themselves never get it because they can’t stand the thought of changing their personal lifestyles and social positions. If you do get it you understand that a fundamental transition of the entire civilization toward sustainability is essential, not someday but starting now.
dramatic democratizing of information and with it the rising ethic of transparency in government and the economy, as exemplified by Democracy Now and Between the Lines, and by peace heroes such as Amy Goodman who are relentless in the pursuit and dispensation of truth even at great risk to their personal safety. That truth is what will guide us toward a social, economic, and cultural transition without our descending into world war or catastrophe.
As last year’s Occupy movements and the reactions to the campaigns of 350.org have demonstrated, even beginning that global transition requires struggle and sacrifice beyond what humane values should tolerate. But for progressive movements to look beyond important and immediate concerns like student loan reform and tax reform and the next election, there must be some consensus of what a transformed world would be like, how we get there, and how to get past the obstacles posed by the powers who benefit from the current unsustainable system. One thing we do know: that success and survival will depend on an unprecedented convergence of the movements for international peace, socioeconomic justice, and environmental harmony. The international Transition Movement is beginning that work, and PEP needs to be a vital part of it.
We can be proud that PEP’s work in the 20th Century contributed to making nuclear war less acceptable, less possible, by helping to give the enemy a human face, and by distributing truth the old fashioned way—in mountains of postal mail. Now our challenge is to master the new tools of instant worldwide communications to motivate widespread understanding of where the current system is taking us all and where we need to go instead, and how to get there together, peacefully, in a new commonwealth of all the species who share Earth with us.
We humans are beings who can conceive of who and what we are, but there’s an insanity embedded in that. We conceive that we are the crown of creation, the final triumph of evolution to whom all other species were merely the dispensable evolutionary prelude. We are the champions of the world! Yet at the very same time we recognize in ourselves the curse and cancer of life, bringing ruin and ushering life toward its doom. This time is unique in history in having provided us the ability to choose which of those two identities will prevail.
What is the purpose of all of our caffeine-fueled busy-ness? Beyond mere comfort and diversion, what is the calling of humanity—the caring intelligence of Earth’s tender, miraculous life, shining amidst the vast, cold cosmos?
PEP’s part of that calling is to get people asking what a new world could be like and how to achieve it, and we need to anticipate the terrible consequences of inaction and defeat. We need to bring those Big Questions looming in the background out into the foreground, to get people to consider the answers put forward by the wisest among us from the present day and the wisest voices from long past. And part of that is to consider what we would be willing to sacrifice, what sort of limits we are willing to accept, in exchange for an enduring peace based on a planetary order that can sustain more of society than just the one percent, and more of life than just one dominant species in the process of outsmarting itself.
As our mission statement concludes:
From such realizations comes a vision of the future we seek: a civilization of diverse and equal peoples, freed from oppression and war, living purposeful lives guided by conscience and compassion, in harmony with their environment and each other. That vision invites us combine resources, perspectives, and talents in a hope-filled endeavor to redeem our communities, our world, and ourselves. That vision portends the promise of humanity’s destiny: to serve all life as the humble steward of this fragile garden Earth.
PEP’s middle name is “Enduring”—sustainable. Inspired by those who precede us in the struggle, we are called to bequeath to future generations a sustainable commonwealth hospitable to all beings who share Earth’s lands, waters, and skies. If you are moved to heed that call, you are invited to join today in promoting an enduring peace.