Idealism is the New Realism

By Peter Bergel

I was among the 900 or so who turned out in Salem, OR on Feb. 26 to support preservation of Wisconsin public employees’ collective bargaining rights and protest the increasing domination by corporations of our political and economic system. It was one of those heady moments when ordinary people scent the distant fragrance of “the power of the people.” With the rest of the crowd, I cheered the speakers, smiled at my fellow demonstrators and agreed with others that something seems to be happening at last.

All the while, though, a voice kept whispering in my mind that demonstrations are easy and those who attend them are often fickle supporters of the cause. While it was wonderful to feel that sense of collective power and strength, a single demonstration means nothing by itself. Will this demonstration be followed by the ever-larger ones that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt? Will all those who held signs on the Capitol steps on Saturday also be on hand to help with the unglamorous organizing that is the only way social change ever takes place?

Saving the American Dream is Not Enough

The demonstration was billed as a “Rally to Save the American Dream.” Again, well and good, but the American Dream – as I have noted before in this space– needs more than saving. It needs to be reinvented. If we want to survive as a species, we can no longer afford to focus on our own prosperity without taking into account its effect on the environment. No longer can we focus on jobs without asking where those jobs are taking us. No longer can we acquiesce to the slow erosion of the constitutional rights that made us a great country. And no longer can we countenance the so-called “personhood” of corporations that has led to undue corporate influence over our political process. In short, if we continue to seek the American Dream of the 1950s without expanding it to take account of the realities of the 21st century, we will achieve neither that 60-year-old dream nor a world in which we can live today.

Indeed, with global warming crowding out our species’ future options, peak oil about to force  radical changes in our energy choices, and a combination of greed and irresponsibility threatening to wreck our economic system, we are going to have to think – and think soon – about the kind of world we want to create, and then take immediate action on many fronts to bring that world into being.

A Modest List of Urgent Needs:

  • Redefine national security to focus on environmental and financial threats instead of oil wars, and stop the oil wars currently underway.
  • Strip corporations of their status as “persons” and return them to their original purpose of serving the public under strict charters issued by the states.
  • Craft world energy, transportation and food policy to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere below 350 ppm – the global warming disaster threshold.
  • Halt population growth and bring the number of humans within the carrying capacity of the Earth.
  • Move all the nuclear nations toward zero nuclear weapons, with the U.S. necessarily leading the way.
  • Dedicate ourselves to achieving the vision articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you have not read the UDHR recently, click here.

Asking Too Much?

You may be thinking, “We can’t even stop the wars in the Middle East –– what makes this guy think we have any chance of dealing with an agenda like the one above? Is he nuts?”

No. I don’t think I’m nuts – just realistic. This is a new kind of realism for a new kind of reality.

It is reality that life on earth is threatened with total or near-total destruction by global warming and nuclear weapons. It is reality that fossil fuels are running out and new options must be found for both practical and environmental reasons. It is reality that the stresses placed on our economic system by over-spending on wars and militaries and the greedy wrongdoing of “too big to fail” businesses may cause that system to collapse.

This reality is a new experience for the human family. It poses a new set of challenges never before faced by previous generations of humans. We have three choices as we confront these challenges:

  1. We can give up, live as best we can, and allow matters to take their own course;
  2. We can ignore the new realities and carry on with business as usual; or
  3. We can devise new strategies for addressing the new situations now before us.

The first two choices will likely lead to the same result (even if “business as usual” means working hard in a conventional manner on public interest projects like saving a species, ending a war or feeding the hungry). That result will involve incalculable human suffering and the possible extinction of our species. Only the third approach offers hope of securing our collective future. That’s why I call it realism, even though it requires us to tackle enormously difficult problems. Only by facing those problems head on is there any chance that we can preserve our species and build a better world.

If that is true, then there is no higher priority than asking ourselves what the world we want to evolve towards should look like. Tackling interconnected problems one by one is a strategy of the past, no longer suitable to today’s reality. We are going to have to look at the whole picture at once and deal with linked problems all together.

The good news is that sometimes a holistic approach to a complex of problems yields a

solution where the piece by piece approach fails. Consider, for example, a person suffering from obesity, stomach upset, poor glandular function, halitosis and skin lesions. Dealing with each problem separately might lead the sufferer to stapling surgery, expensive medicines, mouth wash and acne ointments. These strategies would probably offer temporary symptomatic relief. On the other hand, addressing all the problems together might lead to a permanently different lifestyle — specifically a change of diet and an exercise program – which would work with the body’s natural healing mechanisms to result in enormously improved health and – by the way – elimination of the original symptoms.

New Paradigms Needed

Similarly, is it possible that we can address many of our most threatening problems by permanently adopting a different lifestyle and attitude toward each other and our world? It is increasingly clear that, like the sufferer above, our quality of life – and maybe even our collective life itself – is in danger. Will we accept the death of our species — and possibly life on earth – because we are unwilling to change? Or will we do the hard work of changing our way of life in order to preserve it?

We need a new paradigm based on sustainability rather than profit, on cooperation rather than domination. Fortunately, we need look no further than the natural world around us to see how that paradigm works. Nothing is wasted, symbiosis is the rule, diversity creates progress and no part of the natural world can move very far from balance before nature moves to restore the balance.

When he spoke to the United Nations on September 23, 2009 President Obama said, “We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, and failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for.” Although his subsequent choices have not been congruent with it, he then outlined a four-part peace vision comprised of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament; promotion of peace and security; preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people. Thus a new paradigm was articulated by the leader of the world’s most powerful military.

If we doubt that such a visionary paradigm could ever command widespread agreement, it is worth noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – crafted with leadership from the United States in 1948 and accepted by most of the world’s nations – has done so.Despite all the conflict, greed, suffering and inequity in the world, it is still possible for a large majority of the human race to come to consensus on what it wants.

What we need is the collective courage to face the seriousness of the situation we find ourselves in and the will, both political and otherwise, to make the sacrifices necessary to survive. Φ

Peter Bergel is Executive Director of Oregon PeaceWorks and founding editor of The PeaceWorker.

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