by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
January 7, 2005
ARE WE NOT TOO LATE, OR TRULY DOOMED?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, in an upcoming revised edition of his landmark 1985 book, "War," tells a story about the Forest Troop of baboons in Kenya.
The aggressive, macho males of the baboon troop routinely raided the garbage dump of a nearby tourist lodge to forage food. The mellower, less aggressive males did not.
About 20 years ago, the macho baboons all ate infected meat from the dump and died. The mellow baboons, who were always bullied by the machos, did not. The whole culture of the troop changed after that.
Freed from having to constantly deal with the aggressiveness of the machos, the survivors relaxed and began treating each other better. There were fewer fights and more friendly social behavior. The behavioral change held over the years, and the troop today remains less belligerent and more cooperative compared to others.
Humans may be, most of the time, less aggressive and more cooperative than the average baboon. But, Dyer writes, "war is deeply embedded in our history and our culture." However, "weaning ourselves away from it should not be a bigger mountain to climb than some of the other changes we have already made in the way we live, given the right incentives."
The incentives are certainly there. Nuclear proliferation has made a comeback, increasing the probability of a major war fought with nuclear weapons. Power is shifting, as China and India - two nations with nuclear capability - grow in economic strength. Environmental crises, such as global warming, threaten to create global devastation at levels previously unimagined.
In Dyer's view, a combination of good luck and good management over the past 60 years has kept the world out of another global conflagration. Unfortunately, we cannot count on either to continue.
In an age where unilateral foreign policy is back with a vengeance and mistrust seems to reign supreme, the idea that the world's salvation must lie with international cooperation seems naive and unattainable. But it is the only way we can avoid catastrophe.
"If baboons can do it, why not us?" asks Dyer.
Why not, indeed.
The good news is that despite the destructive decisions of the past few years by the Bush administration - to act as an unrestrained global bully - there has been a tremendous growth of international organizations in the past 60 years. The growth of both official and non-governmental bodies has played a big role in preventing World War III from breaking out.
It is popular in American political circles to criticize the United Nations. That organization has not been a total success, but there is no practical alternative. As Dyer sees it, the UN is "an association of poachers turned gamekeepers, not an assembly of saints," because "it is not 'mankind' that makes decisions at the United Nations, but governments with their own national interests to protect."
The victors of World War II founded and have controlled the UN since its inception. The self-interest of the founders continues to dominate it, and it will be next to impossible to get the United States, Britain, Russia, India and China to subordinate their interests to the world's lesser powers. But the survival of the planet demands obedience to what Dyer calls the primary reality that humans have dealt with for tens of thousands of years - "We cannot get all we want, and some method must exist to decide who gets what."
The transition to the next redefinition of humanity and moral consciousness is still in progress. Expanding that definition to, in Dyer's words, "embrace the whole of mankind," will take time. But it is happening.
Technology, commerce and culture are bringing the world closer together. Our interconnectedness becomes more apparent every day. A natural disaster such as the Southeast Asia tsunami becomes a global loss. Opposition to an unjust and immoral war in Iraq becomes a worldwide cause. Music, art, literature and film become a uniting force.
This process is a fragile one, especially when looking at the direction in which the United States is headed. Even if our current leaders regain their senses and abandon their foolish policies, there are too many other threats to the planet's survival.
Jared Diamond, author of the new book, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," wrote recently in The New York Times that there are five main factors to how societies collapse - "the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts."
If the developed world fails to make the changes that could forestall the sort of environmental collapse that many scientists believe is coming, wars over scarce resources such as food, water and energy seem inevitable.
Diamond's book chronicles the fates of dozens of failed societies over the centuries. He believes the common thread for failure, besides not taking environmental change seriously, is that "the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions" and is unwilling "to re-examine long-held core values."
Elites rarely suffer in war. It's the lower classes that do the fighting and dying. Elites do not worry about the limits of nature, because they know they have the wealth to insulate themselves from the consequences.
But if we fail to deal with the problems that are of our own making - nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, economic inequality - the day will come when these ills will fuel a cataclyism of war and destruction that will engulf the world. Ultimately, there won't be enough money in the world to protect anyone from this nightmare scenario.
I'd like to think we're smarter than the baboons. I'd like to think we can learn from the mistakes of the past and heed the clear warnings that we have to change the way we think and live on this crowded little planet. History's path is littered with the wreckage of societies that didn't have the will to change. Is America next in line?
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.