With serendipitous timing, as a big march for the climate, and various related events, are planned on and around the International Day of Peace, Randall Amster has just published an important book called Peace Ecology.
This book bridges divides that very much need to be bridged between peace activism and peace academia, and between peace advocacy and environmentalism. This is, in fact, a peace book for deep environmentalists and an environmental book for deep peace advocates.
Typically, I think, peace activists appear to the peace academic as a bit uninformed, ahistorical, reactive, and negative in the sense of being “against something rather than for something.”
Peace academics, I’m afraid, often appear to the peace activist as uninterested in ending wars, uncurious about the evils of wars, unimpressed by the military industrial complex as a cause of wars, and altogether too concerned with the personal virtues of people who are in no way responsible for the scourge of war. It is the rare political studies academic who occasionally can be spotted opposing war or documenting the superiority of nonviolent struggle, whereas the peace studies scholars are essentially advocates of environmentalism and democracy who — unlike other environmentalists and democrats — happen to recognize the ginormous roadblock that militarism presents for their agenda. Or so it appears to the activist, who searches in vain for any large academic contingent giving war and war propaganda the full critique they so richly deserve.
The environmentalist, meanwhile, as represented by the larger environmentalist groups and their spokespeople, appears to the peace activist as a dupe or a war-monger, someone who wants to save the earth while cheering on the institution that constitutes its single biggest destroyer.
The peace activist, when spotted by the otherwise occupied environmentalist, must appear something of a fool, a traitor, or a Vladimir-Putin-lover.
Amster is an academic for peace and the environment with a strong inclination toward activism. Parts of his book could have been written by an environmentalist enamored with war, but most of it could not have been. What Amster is after is a worldview within which we avert the dangers of both war and environmental destruction, including by recognizing their interaction.
War advocates would tell those developing organic communal gardens and gift economies and natural sanctuaries, and other projects that Amster writes about, that “our brave troops” are providing the safe space in which to pursue such luxuries. Amster would, I think, tell the war advocates that their project is in fact rapidly reducing that space, that these “luxury” efforts are in fact necessary for survival, and that understanding them requires a state of mind that also condemns war as an unmitigated disaster.
“This may seem idealistic,” Amster writes of the prospect of a society dedicated to peace, “but consider that it is no more so than continuing on our present course and hoping for a happy ending.”
Amster notes that the New York Times considers it “accepted wisdom” that advocates of protecting the climate must promote the idea that climate change threatens “national security.” The idea is that climate-induced disasters and shortages produce wars. While Amster doesn’t say so, this is a view that has been expressed by Bill McKibben, prominent organizer of the upcoming march. If his organization, 350.org, would object each time President Obama sends another 350 troops to Iraq, it would begin taking on the biggest consumer of oil we have: the military. Such an act would be unprecedented for any large U.S. environmental organization.
Of course, in reality disasters lead to wars only when a society chooses to address them with wars, and resource abundance has led to wars as often as scarcity. Sustainability and egalitarianism, Amster argues, can encourage stability, whereas unsustainable exploitation and inequality mean instability and potentially war. Should we work to limit the level of climate change or to limit its suffering by adapting to it? Amster points out that the same practices can often do both. One that can’t, however, is war which exacerbates the problem while in fact failing to adapt to it.
Ian Morris recently published a remarkably stupid book arguing for the merits of war. In it he claimed Thomas Hobbes as a hero of peace who understood the path to peace to lie through imperialist wars and governmental monopoly on violence. Amster provides a healthy rebuttal, pointing out that in fact “civilized” governments oversee very violent societies that have normalized brutal competition by imagining it as inevitable and blinding themselves to the merits of other cultures. Amster leads us to reject Hobbes’ most basic assumptions.
Amster does the same for Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. If actual human beings were mathematical game pieces driven purely by sociopathic greed and calculation, population growth and prosperity must lead to tragedy. But as human beings exhibit generosity and friendship as often as limitless greed and selfishness, it turns out not to be the existence of open commons that leads to tragedy but the privatization and enclosure of the commons — or, rather, the abandonment of the life of the commons, that leads inexorably to crisis.
What have we got left that could be treated as commons? Amster suggests air, water, parks, sidewalks, libraries, airwaves, the internet, biodiversity, transportation, Antarctica, open-source software, outer space, and much else. And he provides examples of people behaving accordingly.
Do people developing healthy ways of living necessarily learn that bombing is not a useful response to a throat-slitting by ISIS? Possibly not. But there’s another way to see the connection. Control of fossil fuels is a major motivation for wars, and wars are a major consumer of fossil fuels. In fact it was the desire to fuel the British navy that first created the Western obsession with Middle Eastern oil. But a society dedicated to peace would not have sought to fuel a navy or to fight wars in order to fuel a navy. A society dedicated to peace would be developing green energy and green lifestyles.
An environmental movement that wanted millions of dedicated participants would want a society committed to peace. A side benefit would be the freeing up of $2 trillion a year globally, $1 trillion in the United States, that had been used for war preparation but now could be used to quickly end all the pretense that green energy cannot work wonders.
If you live in an area not massively illuminated at night, you can — simply by walking around after dark — get a sense of the human built environment utterly transformed by nature. Darkness coats everything. And in the part of the world I live in, the sound of insects completely dominates the darkness.
If you live in an area that has proved less desirable for non-“tragic” exploitation than it used to be, you can get a sense of what the non-human world will do to human creations if humanity takes its leave. Streets and buildings will vanish as surely as the dinosaurs. Only nuclear waste will eventually remain as evidence of our species’ existence.
Unless we change.
“Save the environment” might not be our best motto, Amster suggests. More to the point might be “Save the humans.”