Despite thousands of years of civilization during which time great strides have been made in the advancement of knowledge and the accumulation of data regarding the real workings of the natural world, the human species remains plagued by violence and war. Although science has gradually and ineluctably eroded away at ignorance and successfully undermined superstition and prejudice, there still remains a tendency for groups, tribes and nations to view “outsiders” with suspicion, distrust and fear. It is fear that has the capacity to drive forward irrational conclusions and ultimately violent behavior. It is fear that closes the mind and hinders the possibility for rational discourse between those who are in conflict. It is fear that nurtures hatred and propels the “darker” emotions within the human spirit. There is abundant evidence of this reality operating within the context of human affairs.
There are many armed conflicts raging all over the planet in the beginning of the twenty-first century. The war in Iraq has ended with the standing down of American forces of occupation; although sectarian violence and civil strife continue to plague the Iraqi people and the infrastructure of the country is still not sufficiently rebuilt to allow for reliable electric power, clean water, sanitation or public health. The War in Afghanistan continues, but the resolve on behalf of the American people to continue fighting is waning.
Human conflict continues in large areas of the world including India and Pakistan, Columbia, the Sudan and between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In addition to these, there has been renewed and unsettling violence in Egypt following a resurgence of the repressive action of the military. This is particularly disheartening given the initial gains made by the movement that was fondly described as the “Arab Spring.”
In addition, a civil war rages in Syria where the government felt so threatened and vulnerable that is resorted to the use of chemical weapons in order to derail the progress being made by the armed resistance. This revelation was met by revulsion on the part of many members of the world’s global population. The belligerent response of the developed countries of the West is of particular interest in light of the fact that these same sovereignties, especially the United States and Great Britain, have resorted to the use of such terrorizing weaponry in the pursuit of their own interests in the not so distant past. The question that continues to haunt me is, “Why is the history of human civilization so impregnated with the reality of war and the constant threat of conflict?”
The underlying source of the social and economic instabilities that are responsible for the civil conflicts that have plagued many nations in the so-called “third world” can often be traced to the disastrous effects of colonialism. The following are a few examples of the deleterious consequences of the imposition of foreign rule on the future prospects of an occupied country.
The Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Mathaai described her personal experiences growing up in Kenya. She was born when Kenya was ruled by the British. She watched as the beliefs and traditions of her people gradually died away as a result of the Western idea of progress. The degradation of her local environment had a profound impact on her sensibilities.
Throughout the nineteenth century, western missionaries came to Africa followed by explorers, adventurers and fortune seekers in service of the European powers. Missionaries came to Kenya towards the end of the nineteenth century. They taught that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but in heaven. The missionaries and the colonial administrators who followed them introduced new methods of exploiting natural resources such as logging, clear-cutting, creating plantations of imported trees, the commercial hunting of wildlife and commercial agriculture. As a consequence of the implementation of these practices, hallowed landscapes were exploited. In 1884-1885, Britain and the other major colonialist European powers met in Berlin at the Berlin Conference to draft what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa.” This conference formalized plans to achieve its ultimate goal - to lay claim to all of Africa within thirty years.
In Kenya, the British subdivided the country into different areas based upon the populations of different religious denominations who inhabited those regions. In Maathai’s region, there were Scottish Presbyterians and Italian Catholics. In the 1910’s, the British government encouraged British citizens to settle in Kenya, especially in the fertile highlands; these settlers received title deeds and the natives were relocated to the Rift Valley. The British settlers introduced commercial agriculture and grew wheat, maze, coffee and tea.
As a result of colonial exploitation, the following changes in the natural environment took place:
• Decimation of native plants for the purpose of growing so-called “cash crops” like tobacco
• Importation of exotic plants for purely commercial purposes; this practice played havoc with the delicate ecological balance
• Soil erosion as a result of extreme logging practices, especially clear-cutting
• Imposition of agribusiness methods led to over cultivation and pollution of the soil and local environment with chemicals designed to improve crop production
• Creation of commercial plantations supporting non-native trees i.e. Pine, Eucalyptus and Black Wattle, a species of Acacia normally found in Australia, for the timber and building industries - this had a profound impact on the natural ecosystem and its capacity to retain rainwater.
The impact of colonial rule on the native population was equally disastrous. In the highlands, the area where Maathai was born, large British plantations usurped the native agriculture. Although crops like tobacco brought in sizeable profits for the white settlers, native Kenyans were allowed to raise only pyrethrum as a cash crop. In addition, the British imposed an income tax to be paid in money effectively transforming the livestock-based economy to a cash-based economy. This kind of restriction imposed so much hardship; it was akin to slavery.
These practices imposed on the people of Kenya against their will solely for the purpose of exploiting the riches derived from the country’s natural resources, had a destabilizing impact upon the nation’s future.
The nation of Nigeria was, in fact, an artificial construct as a result of colonization by the British. It was created from the remains of the Niger River Trading Company. The Europeans helped themselves to vast territorial holdings in Africa as a result of the Treaty of Berlin as described above.
Northern Nigeria was populated by Muslims – the Hausa Fulani ethnic group ruled by emirs. The people of northern Nigeria were relatively easy to control on account of the hierarchical nature of their social structure. The peoples of southern Nigeria, on the other hand, were more difficult to subjugate – they were fiercely democratic. In order to subdue them, the British used religion, bribery, the influence of missionaries, and the power of the military. It was British administration driven by economic considerations that carved out the Nigerian borders. It was through the clever application of divide and conquer that the colonialists used the differences between the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba peoples in the west and the Ibo in the east to create sharp political and social divisions within the country while busily extracting the economic resources of the region.
When the country won independence from the British in 1960, the bureaucratic and administrative organization of government created by the colonial authority remained in place allowing for future problems. Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1958. For over 30 years oil has provided over 30 billion dollars to the Nigerian economy. However, this revenue fed corruption and enriched a small and well-connected minority of the nation’s population. The Ogoni people received no real benefit from their oil-rich land. Quite to the contrary, they had no reliable electricity, no pipe-born water and they were not the beneficiaries of any significant social or economic projects. In addition, their language was disappearing and they were effectively pushed into slavery as their natural environment was adversely impacted by irresponsible practices on the part of the oil industry. The famed Nigerian author and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for his attempt to mobilize opposition to the economic and environmental devastation wrought by oil production in his country. Nigeria remains plagued by problems that had their roots in the practices established and employed by their previous colonial masters.
The examples cited above share numerous aspects in common with many other troubled spots throughout the world. The excesses of colonialism have effectively outlived the colonial powers such as Great Britain, Portugal and Spain whose empires are no longer extant. The idea of empire, however, has not subsided; there are many nations who currently aspire to that “ideal” of national greatness. It is imperative for the future of the species that human societies ultimately embrace the all-inclusive idea of family extending the concept to all of human kind as Desmond Tutu suggests. Otherwise, humanity will continue to view the world as consisting of irreconcilable enclaves of “us and them.”
On examining the ferocity of warfare, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the human species has not learned very much over its protracted history. The history of Europe from the Ancient Roman and Greek civilizations to the present, as an example, is replete with carnage that is the inevitable outcome of innumerable wars.
Within the individual human psyche there exists a constant tension between the force and power of the emotions driven by the passions embodied in territory, tribe and nation and that of reason. The more reactive emotions stem in large part from the evolution of the species in an environment that was essentially hostile and in which the forces of nature that impacted human experience were not understood and the causes of calamity were attributed to the gods, malevolent spirits or a specific enemy.
In the beginnings of the human kind, ignorance was prevalent and fear and suspicion dominated and shaped human behavior. Although the advancement of science and technology has shed light upon many aspects of the human experience that were once shrouded in mystery, the inherent tendency to strike out violently against that which is feared and poorly understood remains to haunt human societies. What is particularly unique about humanity in the twenty-first century is the inescapable reality that the application of overwhelming force against a perceived enemy is no longer a viable solution especially considering the destructiveness of modern weaponry.
Over the thousands of years of human civilization, great empires have risen and eventually fallen. The cycle of empire building and dissolution has generally followed the same inexorable path. The beginning stage is represented by the rise of a local community of common origin followed by a gradual accretion of power usually by force. Success at this initial stage leads to an ascendancy to the use of overwhelming force in order to subdue all adversaries. As power becomes increasingly concentrated within a burgeoning empire, there is a tendency to broaden the sphere of influence. This expansion ultimately leads to an exhaustion of resources both material and human. Finally, the empire contracts and ultimately dissolves. The entire process might take place over a thousand years as exemplified by the Roman Empire or hundreds of years as demonstrated by the British Empire.
In all of human history, cycles of expansion and warfare were tolerable given the low density of human populations on the planet and the relatively benign effects of the primitive weaponry on the global environment. This model of human behavior where economic, political and social differences and rivalries are settled through violent means is no longer tenable in the modern era.
The essentially tribal nature of human interactions has evolved over the generations into competing national sovereignties. The idea that each nation-state is a power unto itself is no longer compatible with the rapidly evolving global character of human endeavor. The development of technological weaponry, especially nuclear and chemical weapons, has created a situation in which warfare necessarily leads to horrific consequences both locally for the populations involved and globally due to the environmental effects as witnessed in the nuclear attacks against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs and landmines in Cambodia, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) hardened ordnance in Iraq. The daunting issues that face humanity are no longer local but rather global in nature. The remarkable savagery of the First and Second World Wars of the Twentieth Century awakened the idea of the need for a world organization as a forum for international communication so as to foster dialog between nations and forestall the possibility of future wars of such magnitude. The first experiment in a world organization as a vehicle for adjudicating international disputes was the League of Nations that was created in the aftermath to World War I. This, unfortunately, met with limited success and was eventually disbanded. Subsequently the United Nations was created at the end of World War II. The United Nations is still extant but remains hostage to the dominance of the special interests of the powerful industrial nations that constitute the Security Council.
The will to empire is still very much with us. Apparently, no significant lessons have been learned from the horrid mistakes of the past. The absolute need for true international cooperation as a means to effectively circumvent a catastrophic future that now seems so likely is still not recognized. Many nations remain fixated on the ferocious competition for dominance and supremacy at the expense of those sovereignties that are weaker and more fragile. This competition has usually been over the resources required to fuel and sustain national economies. The need for additional natural resources such as land for expansion of national populations or energy and mineral resources has often been the focus of extreme competition resulting in the colonization of resource-rich poor nations by the more powerful states. As needed resources such as oil or water become scarce, the competition will, by necessity, grow more fierce and explosive.
This particular mindset has become problematic; the species is in desperate need of a completely new paradigm. The model must be based, by necessity, on a spirit of cooperation, compassion, generosity and a willingness to reach meaningful compromise to avert disaster. At that the very core of such a marked change in worldview is the incorporation of a non-violent philosophy in the essential character of human social interaction.
The chasm that currently exists between the so-called “haves” and “have-nots” both within and between sovereign states is helping to sustain the extreme level of violence that continues to plague humanity. Fundamental issues of social and economic justice need to be uppermost on the agenda. Such a focus would require a serious implementation of the role of social responsibility and conscience in the behavior of governments. The idea of belonging wholly to one nation must be superseded by the idea of being a member of the world community. This, of course, represents a momentous leap in understanding, tolerance and compassion; it requires an obligation to act in the best interests of all humanity.
To continue down the current path in which domestic and international behavior is dictated by a passion born of fear and ignorance is to take a journey leading into a horrific future.
This is not the only possible destiny of the human species. There are other more benign and desirable alternatives. There is a way out of the madness. Humans are quite capable of using intelligence to direct and guide their behavior and plan for a future in which all of humanity can share in the benefits of collective action for the good of all people. To do this, however, old patterns of behavior and thinking need to be discarded and replaced by a new paradigm that envisions all of us as being of equal worth and understands that we depend on a fragile planet with limited resources. Beneficial change demands that fear, and the suspicion and hatred that necessarily follows, be replaced by compassion, understanding and a determination to work for true social justice and freedom. These goals cannot be achieved by an imposition of a particular set of values by brute force or economic coercion. Imperialism represents a viewpoint that depends and thrives upon a world out of balance and it is an idea that is no longer viable. The urge towards empire is not yet dead, but is has become completely ineffectual, dangerous and counter-productive.
I believe I can say with some assurance that all people desire a world for their descendants in which peace is a reality and a future in which the planet retains its natural beauty and the majesty of all of life. To achieve this result, a great deal of work is required. This is a wholly different kind of work, since it requires profound self-examination and a will towards significant change. The question remains as to whether the species has the wherewithal to take on this challenge. I hope for the sake of future generations that this is so.
The first images of the planet taken from space clearly demonstrated that for all human beings and for all of life, for that matter, the earth is our only home. This conception has, in my judgment, become such an integral part of human consciousness that the current and obvious threat posed by climate change may offer some impetus for reform. The time may be right to open more effective channels of communication between nations with the focus of developing sustainable economies that would help insure a livable planet for future generations of not only the human species but all the magnificent creatures that constitute the living world. Simply moving through life with self-interest as the guiding principle is not enough to forestall a major calamity that only concerted human action can avert.
These thoughts do not, by any means, represent new concepts or ideas. Quite to the contrary, throughout human history there have been voices putting forth the idea of peace and suggesting methodologies to achieve this elusive goal.
In spite of the destabilizing and destructive effects that wars impose upon the human population, staggering amounts of financial and human resources are currently being expended worldwide to prepare for and conduct wars. Should one, therefore, conclude that aggression is a natural proclivity of the human condition or does it represent abnormal behavior? There is, at this time, no unambiguous answer to this question.
The scientific disciples embodied within neuroscience and neurobiology are currently making great progress in understanding the intricate structure and function of the so-called “normal” human brain and, therefore, shedding light upon the underlying organic origins of aberrant human behavior. In spite of these advances, human societies, through law and custom, continue to harbor significant prejudices and suspicion regarding the area of mental illness and dysfunction. These reactionary attitudes have a significant bearing on the course of human societal development.
There is a tendency to use the life of deranged yet charismatic historic figures such as Adolf Hitler of Germany, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Idi Amin of Uganda as repositories for evil. This is a simplistic view of human history and fails to take into account the real political, social and economic forces that shape events. Although these individual were wholly responsible for incredibly evil acts of wholesale violence and death, we must not ignore the fundamental reality that their policies could not have been implemented without a loyal and obeisant following. They could not have assumed their powerful positions if it were not for the existing historic realities that made their crazed and distorted beliefs seem plausible. Societies built on a model of true social and economic justice and equality would make such historic developments highly improbable. This is the lesson that should be learned from history.
Although the news we are constantly subjected to regarding the state of human affairs around the globe gives us cause to be pessimistic about prospects for the future viability of the species, there are also trends that may suggest a different future. I have come to this conclusion not out of unfounded optimism or purely wishful thinking but rather out of the realization that there exists an insatiable hunger within the vast majority of the world’s people for a more peaceful world grounded in true human equality and social justice.
The desire to satiate this longing is evidenced by the multitude of voices around the globe that are not only insisting upon changes in the status quo but also actively pursuing paths towards the peaceful transition to a sane and viable future. These voices are everywhere, and cannot be silenced. This conclusion can be readily verified by simply searching the Internet for those organizations built upon the premise of creating the conditions for a more peaceful and equitable world. Such organizations focus their attention on human rights abuses and the often intolerable conditions that are the daily reality of hundreds of millions of individuals; these kinds of organizations literally stretch around the globe and are often deeply intertwined.
It might be argued that there are also very powerful forces of oppression focused on limiting human freedom and social justice either for personal advantage or in order to conform to a particular political ideology. In addition, these forces often use overt violence and aggression as the means to maintain the status quo. This is no doubt true; however, this type of repressive social paradigm is not sustainable over the long term. It is not counter-violence that will subdue these historic realities; it is the power of ideas embedded within the bedrock of social harmony and universal justice that will ultimately prevail. As we have seen in the history of many civil rights movements, true and viable social progress is a painstakingly slow endeavor – the struggle for women’s suffrage worldwide, the abolition of slavery in the United States and the demolition of Apartheid in South Africa are additional examples.
In my judgment, the lesson here is not to give up hope and yield to despair – as enticing as that might seem at times – but to persist in the ongoing struggle for sanity in this exasperatingly human world. There are many ways to contribute to the interdependent causes of peace and social justice. May the beginning of every new year bring inspiration, hope and renewal to us all.