Nuclear Violence is Why We Are Living in the Anthropocene Age

15 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The short essay below is my contribution to the latest thematic Forum of the Great Transition Initiative. It responds to a beautifully crafted paper by the Founder of GTI under the auspices of the Tellus Institute, Paul Raskin. Paul’s initial paper and a series of fascinating responses can be found at  https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/interrogating-the-anthropocene. GTI has developed a powerful and sophisticated global network for dialogue about achieving a visionary future despite the dark clouds that now fill the sky.]

GTI FORUM 
Violence: Another Existential Crisis 

Contribution to GTI Forum Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

Richard Falk February 2021 

As I grasp the essence of the consensus emerging from this discussion of Paul Raskin’s eloquent essay, it is an acceptance of the Anthropocene as a dire warning that the human species is headed for disaster, if not extinction, if its ecological footprint is not greatly reduced in the relatively near future. The GTI perspective adds the indispensable insight that social evolution has many pathways to the future that can be instructively framed as a dramatic narrative enacted as a struggle between forces sustaining the destructive perishing patterns of the currently dominant modernist variants of civilization and those intent on achieving a variety of alternative civilizational constellations that incorporate what Paul calls for at the end of his conjectures: “expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship.” It is fair to assume that these enlargements move civilizational vectors toward greater appreciations of species destiny along with possibilities of nurturing satisfaction with the experience of human community on a global scale. Such futures imply living with a new contentment based on underlying commonalities while at the same time valuing gender, societal, ethnic, and generational differences and overcoming past abuses.

I regard the GTI community as an ideational vanguard that is carrying forward the work of restorative vision with respect to the organically connected ecological and societal challenges. The hopeful ontological premise is the existence of reservoirs of species potential to turn the negative impacts of human geological agency, which mostly explains the designation of our time as the Anthropocene, into positive forms of social behavior that incorporate ecological and humanistic ethics in ways capable of actualizing variants of the GTI project.

There is also the baffling question of transcendence, which opens the portals of freedom and discovery by uniquely privileging and burdening the human species with freedom, and hence with responsibility to do the right thing. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see properly, and when we do, we have the freedom and responsibility to struggle for a better, and perhaps radically different, future. In this spirit, should the primary endeavor be to redesign capitalist dynamics to avoid destructive ecological effects and mitigate alienating and exploitative impacts on social relations, or should our ways of producing, consuming, and living be reframed to conform more closely to imaginaries of human flourishing? Due to the limited time to avoid irreversible or catastrophic damage, should GTI efforts prioritize “buying time” by settling for modest adjustments, assuming more fundamental change can emerge over longer periods? There exists a “Hegelian Trap” whereby an envisaged future gets confused with an attainable future. The teaching of the Anthropocene is that major ecological adjustments must be made soon—with the crucial sociological feedback being that the looming tragedy is not attributable to the human condition, but rather reflects a civilizational turn, sometimes associated with the turn from hunter-gathering civilizational ascendancy to agriculture and specialization, and reaching its climax by way of “modernity” as emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Against this background, I find it useful to highlight the role of war, violence, and identity as carried to clarifying extremes by the United States. The US is the world’s leading source of arms sales, maintains black sites in foreign countries used to torture terrorist suspects, manages one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, possesses the world’s only constitutionally grounded gun culture, and yet is less secure than ever before in its history. And to underscore this disturbing pattern, the most revered advocate of nonviolent struggle in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

My sense of the socioeconomic side of predatory capitalism and ecological denialism is this pervasive delusion that weaponry and violence bring “security” to individuals, neighbors, and countries. Even the alarm bells set off by the use of atomic bombs in 1945 did not overcome the deeply entrenched roots of militarism at all levels of social interaction from gun culture to nuclear arsenals. With the passage of time, the possession of nuclear weapons was normalized for the states that prevailed in World War II, and global policy focused on keeping the weaponry away from other states by establishing an anti-proliferation regime, a system of nuclear apartheid that reflects the latest phase of geopolitical primacy as the fallacious basis of stability in world affairs. There are two points interwoven here: the pervasiveness of violence in human experience and the degree to which a nuclear war could parallel eco-catastrophe, threatening the Gaia Equilibrium that led stratigraphers to pronounce our geological age as the Anthropocene.

When we consider the sorts of human futures that would transcend the maladies of the present historical circumstances, we cannot get very far without a radical turn against individual and collective forms of violence and warfare. It is relevant to take note of the degree to which violence in every shape and form infuses even entertainment in many civilizational spaces, including even most indigenous communities. China is far from nonviolent, yet its remarkable surge, overcoming the extreme poverty of at least 300,000,000 million Chinese, as well as its expansionist vision of the vast Belt and Road Initiative seems a better platform from which to hope for benign civilizational transcendence.

As earlier observed, there are also obstacles associated with the civilizational modalities that presently control the basic categories of time and space. There is a mismatch between the time horizons of ecological, economic, and security challenges and electoral cycles of accountability. Political, corporate, and financial leaders are viewed by their short-term performance records, and thus tend to under-react to medium- and longer-term threats. In relation to space, the vast differences in wealth and capabilities among states and regions produces inequalities perceived as unjust, and need to be defended and justified by ideologies that fragment of human identity and community. In terms of world order, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and until that ratio can be inverted, Paul Raskin’s imperative of expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship will fall mostly on deaf ears. We live in a world in which the part is valued more than the whole, and such a political order might have persisted in a pre-Anthropocene worldview, but is now in deep jeopardy.

GTI FORUM 
Violence: Another Existential Crisis 

Contribution to GTI Forum Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

 

As I grasp the essence of the consensus emerging from this discussion of Paul Raskin’s eloquent essay, it is an acceptance of the Anthropocene as a dire warning that the human species is headed for disaster, if not extinction, if its ecological footprint is not greatly reduced in the relatively near future. The GTI perspective adds the indispensable insight that social evolution has many pathways to the future that can be instructively framed as a dramatic narrative enacted as a struggle between forces sustaining the destructive perishing patterns of the currently dominant modernist variants of civilization and those intent on achieving a variety of alternative civilizational constellations that incorporate what Paul calls for at the end of his conjectures: “expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship.” It is fair to assume that these enlargements move civilizational vectors toward greater appreciations of species destiny along with possibilities of nurturing satisfaction with the experience of human community on a global scale. Such futures imply living with a new contentment based on underlying commonalities while at the same time valuing gender, societal, ethnic, and generational differences and overcoming past abuses.

I regard the GTI community as an ideational vanguard that is carrying forward the work of restorative vision with respect to the organically connected ecological and societal challenges. The hopeful ontological premise is the existence of reservoirs of species potential to turn the negative impacts of human geological agency, which mostly explains the designation of our time as the Anthropocene, into positive forms of social behavior that incorporate ecological and humanistic ethics in ways capable of actualizing variants of the GTI project.

There is also the baffling question of transcendence, which opens the portals of freedom and discovery by uniquely privileging and burdening the human species with freedom, and hence with responsibility to do the right thing. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see properly, and when we do, we have the freedom and responsibility to struggle for a better, and perhaps radically different, future. In this spirit, should the primary endeavor be to redesign capitalist dynamics to avoid destructive ecological effects and mitigate alienating and exploitative impacts on social relations, or should our ways of producing, consuming, and living be reframed to conform more closely to imaginaries of human flourishing? Due to the limited time to avoid irreversible or catastrophic damage, should GTI efforts prioritize “buying time” by settling for modest adjustments, assuming more fundamental change can emerge over longer periods? There exists a “Hegelian Trap” whereby an envisaged future gets confused with an attainable future. The teaching of the Anthropocene is that major ecological adjustments must be made soon—with the crucial sociological feedback being that the looming tragedy is not attributable to the human condition, but rather reflects a civilizational turn, sometimes associated with the turn from hunter-gathering civilizational ascendancy to agriculture and specialization, and reaching its climax by way of “modernity” as emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Against this background, I find it useful to highlight the role of war, violence, and identity as carried to clarifying extremes by the United States. The US is the world’s leading source of arms sales, maintains black sites in foreign countries used to torture terrorist suspects, manages one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, possesses the world’s only constitutionally grounded gun culture, and yet is less secure than ever before in its history. And to underscore this disturbing pattern, the most revered advocate of nonviolent struggle in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

My sense of the socioeconomic side of predatory capitalism and ecological denialism is this pervasive delusion that weaponry and violence bring “security” to individuals, neighbors, and countries. Even the alarm bells set off by the use of atomic bombs in 1945 did not overcome the deeply entrenched roots of militarism at all levels of social interaction from gun culture to nuclear arsenals. With the passage of time, the possession of nuclear weapons was normalized for the states that prevailed in World War II, and global policy focused on keeping the weaponry away from other states by establishing an anti-proliferation regime, a system of nuclear apartheid that reflects the latest phase of geopolitical primacy as the fallacious basis of stability in world affairs. There are two points interwoven here: the pervasiveness of violence in human experience and the degree to which a nuclear war could parallel eco-catastrophe, threatening the Gaia Equilibrium that led stratigraphers to pronounce our geological age as the Anthropocene.

When we consider the sorts of human futures that would transcend the maladies of the present historical circumstances, we cannot get very far without a radical turn against individual and collective forms of violence and warfare. It is relevant to take note of the degree to which violence in every shape and form infuses even entertainment in many civilizational spaces, including even most indigenous communities. China is far from nonviolent, yet its remarkable surge, overcoming the extreme poverty of at least 300,000,000 million Chinese, as well as its expansionist vision of the vast Belt and Road Initiative seems a better platform from which to hope for benign civilizational transcendence.

As earlier observed, there are also obstacles associated with the civilizational modalities that presently control the basic categories of time and space. There is a mismatch between the time horizons of ecological, economic, and security challenges and electoral cycles of accountability. Political, corporate, and financial leaders are viewed by their short-term performance records, and thus tend to under-react to medium- and longer-term threats. In relation to space, the vast differences in wealth and capabilities among states and regions produces inequalities perceived as unjust, and need to be defended and justified by ideologies that fragment of human identity and community. In terms of world order, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and until that ratio can be inverted, Paul Raskin’s imperative of expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship will fall mostly on deaf ears. We live in a world in which the part is valued more than the whole, and such a political order might have persisted in a pre-Anthropocene worldview, but is now in deep jeopardy.

9 Responses to “Nuclear Violence is Why We Are Living in the Anthropocene Age”

  1. Ray Joseph Cormier February 15, 2021 at 6:09 am #

    Presidents Putin and Chinese President Xi, speaking at Davos 2021, echoed the 1896 William Jennings Bryan ‘Cross of Gold’ speech,

    “There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below.

    The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” […] Having behind us the commercial interests and the labouring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a “Cross of gold.”

    Compare this to General-President Eisenhower’s 1953 ‘Cross of Iron” speech, fresh off his WWII Military Experience, entering the Political realm.

    First: No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be an enemy — for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.
    Second: No nation’s security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation — but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations.
    Third: Every nation’s right to a form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable.
    Fourth: Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.
    And fifth: A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments — but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.

    In the light of these principles, the citizens of the United States defined the way they proposed to follow, through the aftermath of — of war, toward true peace.

    It’s obvious US Foreign Policy, under Republicans and Democrats, repudiate the practical Principles the last Real Commander-in-Chief enunciates, in the delusional belief the US has a Divine Mandate to rule this World in place of the Almighty.

    General-President continued in that 1962 speech,
    Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

    This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

    The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
    It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
    It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
    It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.

    We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.” […]
    This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a Cross of Iron.

    That was when the US DoD Budget was $60 Billion, compared to $740 BILLION Today.

    After 8 years as President, Eisenhower had the same warning in his 1961 retirement speech,

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

    Who listens anymore?

    • Ray Joseph Cormier February 15, 2021 at 6:13 am #

      Typo correction: General-President continued in that 1953 speech,

    • Richard Falk February 15, 2021 at 11:15 pm #

      Thanks Ray for a very illuminating comment!

  2. Paul Wapner February 15, 2021 at 7:26 am #

    The connection between violence and planetary fragility is fundamental—as is the relationship between the current (statist) world order and associated time horizons. You do a wonderful job articulating them.

    I’m wondering if you have read and have an opinion on Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now. I have tended to dismiss technological optimism, romantic interpretations of wealth creation, and other liberal measures and celebrations of ‘progress’—largely because they ignore searing inequality and the kinds of global dangers you have always illuminated and warned against. And yet Pinker’s book seems to have gotten A BIT under my skin. His claims, taken also from The Better Angels of Our Nature, that historically violence, poverty, infant mortality, and many other scourges are declining and that humanity is on an upward trend toward (for him, universal) betterment—based largely on the success of Enlightenment thinking (and dependent on the continual deepening of Enlightenment orientations), have a quiet but nevertheless hopeful ring to them.

    To me, Pinker’s blind spots rest squarely in his (naive, in my view) embrace of capitalism and in his unconditional faith in science as well as his under appreciation for the magnitude and existential quality of nuclear and ecological threats. But A PART OF ME wants to believe Pinker’s overall upbeat perspective. Perhaps I have gotten so cynical that I am grasping at straws these days. Indeed, works like Pinker’s—especially rosy assessments of environmental trends and complacent assessments of the nuclear threat —have done tremendous damage as they have undermined sound criticism of the status quo and distracted readers from appreciating the depth and urgency of current challenges—especially challenges of social injustice. But straws seem hopeful at the moment.

    Help me! Is Pinker’s evidence wrong? Too grand in its historical sweep to be relevant? Am I slipping into magical thinking (although disguised as hard headed, secular, modernist ‘intelligence’)?

    The entire critical tradition, of which I consider myself a student, stands as a critique of Pinker and other apologists for western, capitalist, violence-drenched, society. I still resonate fundamentally with that tradition. And yet I want to make some space for Pinker and his allies. Any thoughts to help guard against falling into deeper delusion?

    Of course this request is far afield from your perceptive essay. You needn’t respond. My comments about Pinker represent merely a quick reaction to your piece. I suffer from being influenced by the last thing I read—and I just finished Pinker a few days ago.

    Luckily, I just finished YOUR insightful structural analysis this morning so my head is nicely oriented at the moment!

    • Richard Falk February 15, 2021 at 11:13 pm #

      Dear Paul: I am the wrong person to provide Pinker with a positive endorsement, either
      intellectually or personally. I had an unpleasant debate with him at an ISA meeting in
      San Diego a decade ago. I agree with all your reservations, but would add a methodological
      one–evaluating progress by what can be confirmed quantitatively, which obscures the qualitative
      realities of the last hundred years, ranging from the threats posed by nuclearism and climate
      change, as well as biodiversity. At the other extreme from Pinker were the essays by E.P. Thompson
      on the cultural costs of preparing to kill millions of innocent people, a radical critique of
      deterrence. Or, the unknowable numbers of persons terrified by the prospect of a drone attack
      even if it never happens. The whole transition to the Anthropocene expresses the magnitude of what
      could happen if the imprudent risks that modernity has accepted to achieve Pinker’s ‘progress’ should
      materialize at some point. What Pinker does show is an incomplete and selective presentation of the
      Enlightenment legacy–we live longer, we have more leisure, we have better access to information, etc..
      and fewer wars, and those that happen are not as deadly, or so it seems. In the end I do think the
      crucial issue is the epistemological reliance on data-driven assessments of ‘progress.’ How can we attach
      a number to the dangers os species extinction, and related issues? or even the loss of a spectacular animal?

      I hope this musing is at least partially responsive to your thoughtful reflections.

      • Paul Wapner February 16, 2021 at 3:55 pm #

        Wow, thanks for taking my query so seriously. Your reply is exactly what I needed to hear. You’ve always warned about the trade-off between methodological ‘rigor’ and genuine insight. You’ve also pointed out that methodological precision rarely offers moral significance. Your response reminds me of the immeasurable dimension of human distress and the inability to commodify and quantify some of the most precious elements of life–and of course the existential stakes of nuclearism and eco-cide.

        Your response also posts the important warning of fully realizing modernity’s promise. I love (and shutter at) your line, “The whole transition to the Anthropocene expresses the magnitude of what could happen if the imprudent risks that modernity has accepted to achieve Pinker’s ‘progress’ should materialize at some point.”

        I have no idea how you have the time and wherewithal to remain so generous to us, your readers, as we think through your words and appeal to you for help in finding our own intellectual and moral ground.

  3. Beau Oolayforos February 15, 2021 at 4:49 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Thank you, as always, for your insights, and for directing us to Raskin’s. Another brilliant mind who views this from a slightly different angle is Greg Mello at the Los Alamos Study Group (lasg.org)

    • Richard Falk February 16, 2021 at 2:32 am #

      I have known about Greg Mello, but now I will become attentive. Thanks for
      the guidance!

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