On numerous occasions near the end of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan remarked
that if the Earth were faced with a common threat of invasion from outer space,
the United States and the Soviet Union would immediately set their differences aside and would form
an alliance. Like so many of Mr. Reagan's sage observations, this comes from an
earlier source. Bertrand Russell said as much in
his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 1950. And the idea that alliances are only
formed against a common threat is prominent in the thought of Hobbes and
Machiavelli, and on back to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, Thucydides
reported such an alliance between the Athenians and the Spartans, facing an
invasion by the Persians.
Common to all these observations is the assumption that the "common
threat" is the armed force of an aggressor, and that the alliances
disintegrate upon the defeat of the aggressor. Thus we hear today that if indeed
the Cold War is truly over, ancient rivalries and feuds among the constituent
nations of NATO and the Warsaw Pact might heat up once again, just as, with the
defeat of the common Fascist enemy, a new global confrontation emerged over the
wreckage of the old, while old enemies became allies and former allies became
Space probes have now assured us that there will never be a Martian invasion.
How then might the emerging detente be secured, if there is to be no common
enemy? Must we look for new "enemies," or will common moral purpose
and common human interest suffice to ensure global cooperation and peace?
In his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, Bertrand Russell offered an answer which is
instructive, both in it's truth and in its error:
We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be
very few people whom we should love.
All this, however, is only true so long as we are concerned solely with
attitudes towards other human beings. . . . You might regard Mother Nature in
general as your enemy, and envisage human life as a struggle to get the better
of Mother Nature.
Given the alarming news that is coming in from the Environmental Sciences, we
would be well advised to regard Nature as a common threat. However, we would
also be morally misguided to "regard Mother Nature in general as [our] enemy."
Nature is not malicious or blameworthy. And yet, while nature is not a moral
agent, it is, in an important yet figurative sense, about to launch a dreadful
retaliation against us. For the atmospheric and ecological scientists tell us
that the same physical, chemical and biological processes which nurtured and
sustained us as a species, have been so distorted by our thoughtless
interventions upon the environment, that we are about to face consequences that
we can barely foresee or scarcely imagine.
No, nature is not our "enemy," nature is our Mother -- our source
and our sustenance. And what nature is about to do to us, we will have done to
ourselves by fouling our own nest. We have brought ourselves to this pass
through our collective folly, and we must rescue ourselves through collective
wisdom and restraint.
As the emergency is global, so too must be our response. And the gravity of
the global emergency is such that it requires an international commitment and
response sufficient to render obsolete and irrelevant, all remaining violent
disputes among nations. For there is in fact no national interest which
transcends in importance the common global interest in repairing and restoring
ecological balance and securing common survival on a functioning planet. That's
the simple fact of the matter. The fundamental question lies in our capacity to
perceive, appreciate and act upon this fact of common environmental threat, and
to see that this threat transcends any existing tribal feuds or national
Perhaps the gravest obstacle to this realization lies in the psychology of
collective action, both violent and non-violent. Herein is the paradox that in
times of war and violent confrontation, the adversaries both personalize and
depersonalize their enemies. Nations, as entities, become personalized
incarnations of evil. Ugly terms of ethnic disparagement, which would
normally be regarded as crude and uncultivated, become the norm -- thus arise
such epithets as "Hun," "Jap," "Yid,"
"Gook," "Commie," "Yanqui" and so on. And yet
at the same time, citizens of the "enemy" country become
depersonalized, as language becomes an early casualty of armed conflict:
"free fire zone" means "shoot at anything that moves,"
"collateral damage" means "civilian casualties," and
"termination with prejudice" is the sanitized word for
"assassination." Thus might atrocities be excused with such remarks as
"they just do not value human life as we do," meaning "we do not
value their human lives."
Another heavy moral price of armed conflict is the self-righteousness and
self-congratulation of the mobilized nation, and along with this moral myopia,
an enhanced toleration for the moral imperfections and injustices of one's own
society and those of one's allies. These are regarded as "the necessary
price we must pay for national defense." Thus, during the common struggle
against Fascism, the Stalin regime never fully deserved the praise it received
from my government. And in the Cold War which followed, the Soviet government,
society and people never deserved the moral condemnation which it received from
the American government and media. In short, in times of armed threat and
conflict, our moral critical facilities are distorted by our alliances and our
antagonisms. We become tolerant of repressive regimes with which we are allied,
and intolerant of progressive regimes on "the other side. One side's
"terrorist" is another side's "freedom fighter."
Now that the Soviet Union, under the courageous leadership of President
Gorbachev, appears to be depriving us of our "enemy," we face the
discomfort of acknowledging the economic injustice and communal squalor amidst
private affluence at home. This is much more difficult for us, since we could
formerly blame "the Evil Empire" for the perceived necessity of
"national defense," and the consequent excuse of neglecting the poor
and oppressed at home, and our future generations. Now, without an "Evil
Empire," we must blame only ourselves for a continuation of these
conditions. Few nations and communities are capable of such moral candor and
resolution. Failing that, and urged on by a flourishing Military-Industrial
complex, they go in search of new "enemies." So much easier to notice
the mote in another's eye, and disregard the beam in our own.
How then might we be able to coordinate collective global efforts to restore
the environment and to protect ourselves from the threats of coming climate
changes [etc.], when the causes of these things are ourselves, and not an
external malevolent "Evil Empire" -- when we must accept
responsibility for our troubles, rather than blame others? Can we, under such
circumstances, rally our moral enthusiasm sufficiently to meet these impersonal
threats? In short, can cultural tolerance and good will exist within an
alliance, if it is not cemented by collective animosity and conflict with an
externally perceived rival power?
It is, of course, much easier to ask such questions than to answer them. But
I would suggest at least this much:
Publics throughout the world must be made aware of this common global
problem, by means of the advancing and very effective modes of technology of
public relations, public education, and communications. We must constantly be
reminded of what we are losing in the natural world, in order to be made aware
of what is worth saving.
In juxtaposition, we should be shown what is being lost, and what are the
threats. The fact should be emphasized that these threats do not recognize
national boundaries. In other words, the environmental threat and challenge must
become part of our global sub-conscious -- something that permeates our
awareness, as the Cold War once did.
Electronic communications can be very useful toward this end. Global
communications across "space bridges," telex and computer networking -- in short, the
so-called "electronic revolution" is truly bringing
about a single "global village."
We must constantly be reminded of the indivisibility of the global
environmental crisis -- a lesson taught us by the science of Ecology. Thus the
global solution will not be found through a summation of independent national
initiatives. Accordingly, interdisciplinary and international joint ventures
should be encouraged -- e.g., joint space exploration and global monitoring
projects. The internationalization of such projects is of utmost importance.
Can such cooperative endeavors actually work? I submit that they already
have. For example, the international debate on "nuclear Winter"
provides a vivid example of how an international search for hard scientific
facts, and the consequent perception of a common global threat, can lend itself
to non-violent solutions. Hopefully, the ongoing "International Geosphere/Biosphere
Project" of the International Council for Scientific Unions might have a
Projects, and even more careers, in environmental restoration must be
generously subsidized by governments -- as weapons projects and military careers
are now. These environmental programs should involve widespread international
interchange and cooperation among researchers and students. In short, with a
degree of determination, creativity and aggressiveness found in wartime
propaganda, we must alert the global population to the common threat. Toward
this end of furthering global knowledge, awareness and communication of the
common threat, and of appropriate collective responses thereto, an international
environmental university and research institute should be established, with
working centers in each continent.
We should declare a global environmental amnesty. Assessing blame for past
assaults on nature (may of them done in ignorance of their harmful effects),
will only drain effort and attention to the daunting tasks ahead. Moreover, the
very science and technology that has led to the fouling of the Earth, might
provide the tools for its restoration.
The violence that we have done to nature threatens violent repercussions upon
this culpable species. Our global response can only be non-violent, since nature
will not respond to our threats, and nor be "defeated" through further
violence upon it. If nature, now severely injured, is ultimately defeated, then
so too shall we be defeated. The task before is that of reconciliation with
nature and repair of it's life-support system. What remains to be seen is
whether or not we can appropriately respond to an historically unique
circumstance, unite before a common impersonal threat that is not a common
"enemy." This must involve a re-evaluation of our received ethical
norms, and a re-structuring of our political and economic institutions. It is a
daunting task, and the outcome is uncertain. What is not uncertain is the
necessity that we face this challenge with intelligence, ingenuity,
determination and courage.
I close with this thought. In the Chinese language, the concept of
"crisis" is written by combining the ideograms for "danger"
and "opportunity." And in fact, crises can bring out both the best and
the worst in us. In 1933 a global economic emergency brought both Adolph Hitler
and Franklin Roosevelt to power. A war ensued which evoked acts of extreme
barbarism and extreme heroism. While there is no indication how virtue and vice
will balance out in the coming emergency, it is not too early to mobilize our
moral forces to assure to most favorable balance.
While I have suggested an agenda of action in this paper, I am no more
qualified to do so than anyone else in this room. So I will stop at this point,
since, along with the rest of you, I would much prefer a collaborative effort. I
therefore close simply with a re-iteration of my central question: If armed
alliances are formed from a perception among allies of a common external threat
of violence, can effective alliances likewise be formed to take effective non-violent joint action against a common environmental emergency
-- a peril
that is impervious to both to the threat and to the reality of violent action?