Monday, September 12, 2011

What does peace mean to you?

While both require planning, perseverance, and a steadfastness, peace stands in stark contrast to war. Peace preserves, accepts, and cherishes differences. War obliterates them.

I cannot say whether or not we are closer to living a life of peace or not, particularly when it comes down to the different cultures that make up this human world. Peace is likely not going to come from a compromise of our differences. Indeed, if even Americans cannot resolve their differences through compromise, then how can we expect the Western world to compromise on their differences with people in the East? Peace will come only when we accept the differences that exist. But acceptance is only a first step. We must cherish the differences, while at the same time making an intense effort at truly understanding why people would resort to flying planes into buildings. And so today, a decade on, how has peace influenced the debate on conflict resolution?

It amazes me that we think humans are the greatest thing in the world, but when it comes down to our differences, we will resort to violence to make sure that power stays concentrated with certain people. There is a clear discrepancy, it seems then, between doing all that we can to keep humanity alive, and then resorting to violence to kill humans when we don't agree. Of course, someone that has power might say then that it is in the interest of the broader humanity that their power is being used as violence against others, but that is unjustifiable.

Just as with many of the most complicated issues of our time, words have jumbled meanings. War can happen in the name of peace, and people convince themselves that this must be true. But what about this statement?
Since the Second World War, more than four fifths of the people killed in war have been civilians.
And despite the grief that comes with the loss of human life, there are many more dimensions that we don't think about when we think of war, and the environment is one of those things. How is the Earth's capacity for life changed when we war? Asked another way, what do our differences mean for the environment? Well, differences themselves are borne of the environment. Cultures are outcomes of environmental conditions, different ones, all over the world. This cannot be denied. And so when we resort to violence, we not only kill people, but we disturb and disrupt the ecosystems that build a culture.

There are many historical cases in which the ecological degradation has been used as a weapon to wipe people out, to oppress. In a prescient piece The environmental damage of war in Iraq from The Guardian, written eight years ago before the war, the potential ecologically degrading outcomes of war in Iraq were explored in the context of previous wars, both in the Balkans and in the Middle East:
During the 1991 war devastating damage was done to the oil industry in Kuwait. Iraqi forces destroyed more than seven hundred oil wells in Kuwait, spilling sixty million barrels of oil. Over ten million cubic metres of soil was still contaminated as late as 1998. A major groundwater aquifer, two fifths of Kuwait's entire freshwater reserve, remains contaminated to this day. Ten million barrels or oil were released into the Gulf, affecting coastline along 1500 km and costing more than $700 million to clean up. During the nine months that the wells burned, average air temperatures fell by 10 degrees C as a result of reduced light from the sun. The costs of environmental damage were estimated at $40 billion. Estimates of the numbers likely to die as a result of the air pollution effects were put at about a thousand. Since Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves of any nation on earth, the potential environmental damage caused by destruction of oil facilities during a new war must be enormous.

Other environmental effects of the 1991 Gulf War included destruction of sewage treatment plants in Kuwait, resulting in the discharge of over 50,000 cubic metres of raw sewage every day into Kuwait Bay.
Secondly, specific weapons likely to be used against Iraq will also create environmental damage. Top of the list of concern are depleted uranium (DU) projectiles.
Guess what? Depleted uranium has wreaked havoc in Iraq. Surprised?

When it comes to "just war theory", both jus in bello and jus ad bellum, how do we hold warring factions to these customs that make attempts at doing "minimal damage to the environment"? Is it even possible? The government and corporations we patronise deal with the issues of defense and war on a day-to-day basis. They in fact make a huge profit from war. The tentacles of war have weaved their way into each and every one of our communities, in all fifty states, from manufacturing to financing to politics to constitutional amendments. So how can we think about peace when war pays the bills?

There is a lack of peace within us. In fact, being peaceful and thoughtful is made to seem passive and subservient. When we find it tasteful to use guns against other people, and use guns as a sign of power and control, we will no doubt find it tasteful to use bombs to blow tops off of mountains to reach for coal - indeed this is a sign of power and control, not over people in this case, but the environment. What may be hindering our cause to find harmony and peace with nature is the violence we are able to perpetrate against our own kind. Or maybe our ability and willingness to perpetrate violence against nature, beautiful and delicate, is standing in the way of finding peace with our own kind. In the end, if we cannot find peace within us, we cannot find peace without us. 

I believe that if we find peace within ourselves and where we are, we can radically redefine notions of "progress" and "community." When I say peace, I in no way mean complacency. When I say peace, I mean that we recognise, understand and internalise our place in the world, our place in our communities, our place within our families, and our place in our own minds and bodies. Being at peace doesn't necessarily mean being satisfied with where we are ethically and morally; clearly, given our increasingly complex world, much of the complexity of which is man-made, there are ways in which we need to be redefining what it means to interact with each other, what it means to be a good citizen and a good steward. As a society as a whole, we are far from the ethical, moral and spiritual heights we need to be at to fully understand our impact on other humans, as well as the environment. There is no way we can envision a sustainable future when we find peace in violence. But if we can find peace in where we are materially and in physical place, we will have reached some level of peaceableness with the environment. Peace with the environment allows us the time to think and appreciate about its marvels, of which humans are one. Such a peace will not allow us to use violent force against any aspect of our environment, humans included. 

What does peace mean to you?

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