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Toward a New Moral Equivalent of War

Dissident Voice Article

By Alton C. Thompson

Prefatory Remarks

I have difficulty avoiding thought about the future because I have a picture of one of my granddaughters on my computer screen—a beautiful girl standing in Fall splendor on the Boston College campus. In addition, I have a picture of my other granddaughter—older, but also beautiful—on my mouse pad, sitting next to her handsome younger brother. (Another grandchild—to be a sister of the one in Boston—is due in about two months.) Thus, I can relate to Mark Hertsgaard, whose Hot1 was written in part because he has a young daughter, and is understandably concerned about the sort of future she’ll be living in.

I should have started thinking seriously about the future much earlier. After all, in the late 1950s, while in college, I had taken a conservation course (which used a text by Raymond Dassman, and was taught by Dr. Jacob Shapiro, who taught the course with the fire of a Hebrew prophet). Around the same time I read Harrison Brown’s The Challenge of Man’s Future. In the early 1970s I read The Limits to Growth and E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. In the 1980s I read Catton’s Overshoot and Stephen H. Schneider’s Global Warming. In the 1990s I read Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and Alan Thein Durning’s How Much is Enough? Several years ago I read James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy. Etc.

Why, then, have I done so little in working for a better future? I would rationalize my inaction by referring to the fact that Madhu Suri Prakash (a contributing editor to Yes! magazine) recently wrote a letter to Wendell Berry, “proposing that he write an open letter to President Obama calling for funding to establish new small farms.”

Berry’s response, in part:

I’m not a leader. I am, above all, in no way comparable to Gandhi, who was an ascetic. I love the world’s abundance of ordinary pleasures. And he was a leader. I have neither the character nor the abilities required for leadership. And I want no followers. If I looked back and saw myself being followed, my only wish would be to escape. I am a mostly solitary man, always in need of quiet, who has written some essays inviting, not converts or followers, but honest judgment.

(Berry made the reference to Mohandas Gandhi because Prakash had written, in her letter, “Your long patience with all of us during the past half-century reminds me of the 50-year-old patience of Gandhi.”)

Just as Berry is “in no way comparable to Gandhi (so he claims, at any rate), I am in no way comparable to Wendell Berry.2 Not only am I, like Berry, not a leader; even more like Berry, I am not an activist. I wish that I had the adventurist blood of some of my ancestors—such as Wolfgang Klingenberg (who around 1500 CE left the Constance area of Germany, and acquired a large property at the far end of Songefjord in Norway), Tjøstolv Torjesen (my father’s grandfather, who left the Tvedestrand area of Norway for Chicago in 1848), and Nonis Hasselquist, my mother’s grandfather, who was involved in the Nevada silver rush in the 1860s). But I don’t seem to have their “gumption.” (If I do, it hasn’t come to the surface yet!) In addition, I have been in the same boat as most others in our society: In being forced to “make a living,” I have of necessity been living in the here-and-now. It appears, then, that the most that I can do is to develop, and write down, some ideas, and then try to get them posted. That may be all that I’m “destined” to do.

I come to that writing with a very limited background in science. While in high school I limited my science exposure to Physics. While in college, my major was History, with minors in English and Geology—so that the latter was my only exposure to science. In graduate school my focus was on Urban Economic Geography, Economics, and Sociology, and over the years I have been an avid reader, but especially in the “social studies” area rather than science. Thus, my education in the area of “climate science” is a result of my reading “on the side” rather than course work. Given the newness of “climate science,” most individuals would, of course, admit the same thing.

In the case of a subject such as “global warming,” there are, it seems to me, four basic questions to ask:

  • What is the course (over time and space) of its occurrence?
  • Why is it occurring?
  • What are the effects of its occurrence?
  • Given those effects, how should we humans respond?

I have nothing to offer so far as the first three questions are concerned: As with most others, I must rely on others with the relevant expertise for answers to those questions.3 It is only the fourth question — which is one that involves opinion, but opinion based (one hopes) on objective fact — that I dare address because of a unique viewpoint regarding what we should do.

One way of perceiving my recommendations is to regard them as a sort of Sorelian myth. Georges Sorel (1847-1922), was a Frenchman who is usually categorized as a “syndicalist”; “Syndicalism grew out of trade union associations that espoused the utopian vision of one day controlling their industries and, eventually, the political state.” Sorel is most noted for having written Reflections on Violence (1908), a book in which he developed the “notion of the general strike as a mythic belief, the widespread acceptance of which would prompt collective action by workers as well as soften employers’ resolve against concessions.”

I have never read Sorel’s book (and likely never will — and I certainly do not advocate the use of violence, as did Sorel), but gather from reading about Sorel that he developed the idea of a general strike not so much as an event that was likely to occur, but as an idea — a “myth” — that, if accepted by people, had the capability of motivating people to take action. I refer to the recommendation that I will make in a later essay as such a myth because it is not so much as a serious recommendation as a set of ideas that have potential to motivate people. To motivate them to think about how to respond to “global warming,” and also motivate them to themselves develop “action plans” in response to the ideas that they develop.

It would be neither possible — nor even desirable! — for those recommendations to be followed to the letter. The recommendations should be perceived, rather, as some ideas intended to supplement the ideas of others, and specifically ideas having pertinence especially for the early stages of a process of societal change. If those ideas are implemented (along with other ideas from others), they will initiate a certain course of development; but that course will evolve in a way that none of us can predict at this time.

I begin by commenting on a relevant essay written by philosopher William James.

Part I: Introduction

So far, the fight against global warming has been conspicuously lacking in inspiration, perhaps in part because it has been conspicuously lacking in people who are willing to lay it on the line. Maybe the movement is still young or maybe the enemy is too diffuse.  Or maybe we just like the idea of living on a hotter planet.4

A little over a century ago (in 1906) philosopher William James delivered his famous “The Moral Equivalent of Warspeech at Stanford University, his essay with that name (published in 1910) having been derived from that speech.5 It has been noted that James, in his earlier writings (e.g., the massive Principles of Psychology, 1890), had “sought to re-conceive the human mind as inherently purposive and selective”—a point of view that was in conflict with the dominant philosophical schools of the day. “Moral Equivalent” can be conceived as an essay exemplifying this point of view.6

James — who asserted “I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium” — began his essay, however, by recognizing that this “war [against war] is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.” Why? Because “The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade.” (A statement that rings as true — unfortunately! — in our day as it did in James’s; see, e.g., Henry Giroux.)

James “admitted” (wrongly, it turns out): “We inherit the warlike type; and for most of the capacities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank this cruel history…. Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our borne and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.” He added: “Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible. Without risks or prizes for the darer, history would be insipid indeed; and there is a type of military character which everyone feels that the race should never cease to breed, for everyone is sensitive to its superiority.” Therefore, “The duty is incumbent on mankind, of keeping military character in stock—if keeping them, if not for use, then as ends in themselves and as pure species of perfection …”

One who believes (as did James) “devoutly in the reign of peace,” yet recognizes our (supposedly) natural proclivities for violent behavior, needs also to recognize “two unwillingnesses of the imagination, one aesthetic, and the other moral; unwillingness, first, to envisage a future in which army-life, with its many elements of charm, shall be forever impossible, and in which the destinies of peoples shall nevermore be decided quickly, thrillingly, and tragically by force, but only gradually and insipidly by ‘evolution,’ and, secondly, unwillingness to see the supreme theatre of human strenuousness closed, and the splendid military aptitudes of men doomed to keep always in a state of latency and never show themselves in action. These insistent unwillingnesses, no less than other aesthetic and ethical insistencies, have, it seems to me, to be listened to and respected. One cannot meet them effectively by mere counter-insistency on war’s expensiveness and horror. The horror makes the thrill; and when the question is getting the extremist and supremest out of human nature, talk of expense sounds ignominious.”

How, then, does the pacifist (e.g., James) proceed? “Pacifists ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents.” For “So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war, analogous, as one might say, to the mechanical equivalent of heat, so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation. And as a rule they do fail. The duties, penalties, and sanctions pictured in the utopias they paint are all too weak and tame to touch the military-minded.”

James put himself “firmly into the anti-military party,” and looked “forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples.” But, he continued, “I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting [not in 2011! and certainly not in the United States!] we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly habitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement …”

He continued: “The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues, although originally gain by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods.” For, after all, “Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are … only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form.” “What the whole community comes to believe in grasps the individual as in a vise. The war-function has grasped us so far; but the constructive interests may some day seem no less imperative, and impose on the individual a hardly lighter burden.”

To be more concrete in making a recommendation: “If now—and this is my idea—there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population [of males] to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the [social] injustice [currently existing] would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes are now blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life.”

Thus, by conscripting (male) youth, but for purposes other than war preparation, one could accomplish two goals at once: One could contribute to the development of a pacifist spirit in those conscripted, while simultaneously reducing classism in the society.

Those so conscripted would engage in a “war against Nature.” Specifically, they would be sent: “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

Such conscription should appeal to the military-minded, for it “would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which … [they are] so afraid of seeing disappear in peace. We should get toughness without callousnous, authority with a as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and threatens not, as new, to degrade the whole remainder of one’s life.” “So far,” James continued, “war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way.” He added that “I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent as I have sketched, or some other just as effective for preserving manliness of type. It is but a question of time, of skillful propagandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities.”

James’s argument, in brief, was, then:

1. Waging a war against war will not be easy because war has been with us since early times.

2. The reason for that fact is that we are naturally competitive, and that natural proclivity has been expressed, in part, through militarism.

3. Some supporters of war argue that it preserves certain desirable personal traits in the population.

4. Other supporters argue that unless nations expand, they will shrink, and that they need war for expansion.

5. James asserted that until pacifists propose a substitute for war that has a disciplinary function that is military in character, they will be unsuccessful.

6. He added that military virtue provides a cement to a society.

7. He argued that our competitive nature needs to be expressed in a constructive way.

8. That way was a “war against Nature,” and he proposed that male youth be conscripted to engage in such a war.

Several comments are in order regarding some of the points in this essay:

1. I agree that there is a better course of action than one focused on militarism; for militarism not only results in loss of life (of our people, along with other peoples) and property damage, but is costly—directly and indirectly. In addition, our actions often result in terrorist reactions. Put another way—and more accurately—our terrorist activities result in “blowback” (a term associated with Chalmers A. Johnson) in the form of counter terrorist activities.

2. The assumption of an innate competitive nature was plausible in James’s day because Charles Darwin’s concept of “natural selection” assumed it (without, however, proving it).7 But anthropological research over the years,8 and recent observational and experimental research9 has made that viewpoint untenable.

3. A society likely needs some sort of “cement” (indeed, it’s hard to imagine a society that lacks one!), but the question arises: Can that “cementing” be accomplished by forcing certain actions upon individuals, even if that forcing involves selection from among a series of options? (My answer: I have my doubts!)

4. One might have expected James to have suggested sports as a suitable glue — the modern Olympics having been re-started (in Athens, Greece) in 1896: As a Green Bay Packers fan for the past 50+ years, such a suggestion highly plausible. However, James insists on constructive activities as necessary for providing the necessary “cement,” and insists on conscription. I concur with James on this point, and offer precisely that in this series. My view of what constitutes “constructive” differs, however, from that of James.

5. There are ambiguities associated with James’s list of activities. It’s not clear whether these would be public-funded activities, private ones, or some mix. If the activities included privately-owned organizations, there is the question of finding ones willing to participate with the program. And although those working for a public organization would be paid by the government, how would those working for privately-owned organizations be paid (assuming the involvement of such organizations)—and would any government supervision be provided?

6. James provided no assessment as to how practical his proposal was—how likely it was that the federal government would accept it. Indeed, one would need to admit that it has never been accepted. (One might argue that, e.g., the Peace Corps was inspired by James’s essay; if it was, it involved no conscription, and was not clearly a “war against Nature.”

7. Even had James’s proposal been implemented, it likely would have done little in serving a “cementing” function: It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could generate much enthusiasm for his proposal!

My proposal (discussed in Parts IV and V) responds — from a “Jamesian” standpoint — to René Dubos’s statement: “To long for a human situation not subservient to the technological order is not a regression or escapist attitude but rather one that requires a progressive outlook and heroic efforts.” And: “The impulse to withdraw from a way of life we know to be inhuman is probably so widespread that it will become a dominant social force in the future.”10

And to this statement by Paul Shepard: “There are many striking parallels between post-industrial men and hunter-gatherer men. They are both highly mobile, non-territorial, non-soil-working, nature-interested, much leisured, function-oriented, small-familied, and altruistic. The most modern urban men are ready to abandon, if they only knew how, civilization based on war and competition and on industry so heavy that the human personality as well as the surface of the earth is stamped with its obscenity.”11

What, you may ask, do these statements have to do with “global warming”? — given that the only “environmental” reference here is to “the surface of the earth.” In Parts IV and V I will discuss their relevance; at this point I will simply note that a proposal that responds to the above statements of Dubos and Shepard would seem to have the potential of motivating people to act—in my case relative to “global warming” (among other problems, some of which are identified in Part IV).

The proposal that I put forward in this series has motivational capabilities because it:

  • Addresses what is perhaps the major threat facing humankind at present, that of “global warming.”
  • Simultaneously addresses many other important societal problems as well.
  • Has plausibility — so that it should be capable of implementation (with the qualifications specified in the Prefatory Remarks above).
  • Relies on a means that should be attractive to many in our society.

If December 21, 2012, marks the dawn of a New Age, perhaps this will be because what I propose in this series is acted upon!
There are many good ideas out there,12 and I offer my proposal, not as one as providing THE answer to our problems, but as just another proposal.

  1. Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. There is also, of course, James Hansen’s, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009.
  2. I once heard him speak at a conference, but did not have an opportunity to speak with him. I had attended the conference at Paul Shepard’s invitation, and chatted with Paul briefly before his presentation, but not to any of the other of the speakers that day.
  3. As a consequence, I will make no attempt here to rebut the arguments set forth recently on this site by Denis Rancourt in “The Lie of Climate Change Science.”
  4. Jeff Goodell, “Time for Climate Activists to Get Tough,” June 30, 2011.
  5. This epigraph (written by?) appears above the essay on the Emory University site: This essay, based on a speech delivered at Stanford University in 1906, is the origin of the idea of organized national service. The line of descent runs directly from this address to the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to the Peace Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps. Though some phrases grate upon modern ears, particularly the assumption that only males can perform such service, several racially-biased comments, and the notion that the main form of service should be viewed as a “warfare against nature,” it still sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation.
  6. Lee Harris, in his interesting “Why Isn’t Socialism Dead?,” relates the thinking of James to Georges Sorel, and Sorel’s thinking, in turn, to that of, e.g., Karl Marx and Eduard Bernstein
  7. “Concept” rather than “theory” for the simple reason that it was not the latter. It was a concoction for which Darwin provided no empirical support—for the simple reason that it has little such support—and none in the case of humans. See my discussion of Darwin.
  8. See, e.g., Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1974; Robin Clarke and Geoffrey Hindley, The Challenge of the Primitives. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975; and Colin M. Turnbull, The Human Cycle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
  9. See, e.g., Frans B. M. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996; and Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
  10. So Human An Animal. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968, p. 196.
  11. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973, p. 277.
  12. See, e.g., the Hertsgaard book cited in endnote 1, his discussion of Ron Sims, for example (p. 78 ff).

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