TOWARD A TRUCE WITH THE EARTH:
NON-VIOLENCE AND THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT
Department of Philosophy
California State University,
Presented at the Conference: "The Ethics of Non-Violence"
USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 27-29 November, 1989
Published in the Soviet
"Примирение с Планетой: Ненасилие и Глобальные Экологические Проблемы,"
Этика Ненасилия, Академия Наук, СССР,
Revised and expanded in June, 2006, as "Swords
If you are English and someone says to you: "The
French are your brothers," your first instinctive feeling will be:
"Nonsense, they shrug their shoulders and talk French. And I am even
told that they eat frogs." If he explains to you that we may have to
fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the
line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be
defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see
what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if
some fellow-traveler were to go on to say that the Russians also are
your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could
show that we are in danger from the Martians.
Nobel Prize Speech, 1950.
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. As the head quotation
shows, 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
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 adversaries.
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 the same 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 disputes.
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
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
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
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
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
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 similar
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
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
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?
Copyright by Ernest Partridge, 1989, 2005