[The following essay was written in response to a request from students at a Massachusetts middle school for essays about peace contributing to what they hope will be “the largest book in the world on the subject of peace.” For more information about the project, go to http://www.pagesforpeace.com/]
It has long been a staple of the antiwar movement that there can be no meaningful peace without justice on a global scale. Those of us living in the First World, especially in the United States, cannot pretend to be working for peace unless we also are working for a more just and equitable distribution of the world’s resources.
The antiwar/peace movement, therefore, must also be a movement focused on the grotesque inequalities in a predatory corporate capitalist system. In a world where half the population lives on less than $2 a day, it’s clear that (a) the global economy is itself a form of war on billions of people, sometimes as destructive as shooting wars, and (b) that in such an profoundly unjust world, armed conflict is inevitable because there always will be resistance to this inequality, and powerful states will respond militarily to any threat, real or perceived, to their dominance.
In other words: No justice, no peace.
Now it’s time for those of us in the peace-and-justice movement in the First World, especially in the United States, to take the next step: We must recognize that there can be no justice over the long term without sustainability, and creating a sustainable world will require not only radical change in systems and structures of power but also a radical change in the way we in affluent societies live. It’s time to recognize that if we are serious about the values of equality that we claim to be the core of our politics, we must scale back the level at which we live.
In other words: No reduction in First World consumption, no justice; and no justice, no peace.
Put simply: One cannot be a serious peace activist without putting peace in the context of justice and sustainability, and the high-energy/high-tech lifestyle of the First World is not sustainable and not compatible with the demands of justice. Meaningful peace requires real justice, which means we must learn to live with less.
We could start to move toward the changes necessary by applying a “Golden Rule” of consumption. Working from the common moral principle that we should follow a path based on rules that we would be willing to apply to all (and some version of this Golden Rule exists in all ethical and theological systems), we could begin with this: Consume at a level that, if applied throughout the world, would allow all people a decent life consistent with long-term sustainability. That doesn’t prescribe a destination but suggests a direction; instead of anyone sanctimoniously dictating a specific lifestyle, we can collectively recognize that we must move toward living lower on the food chain, using far less energy, consuming far fewer of the planet’s limited resources, generating far less toxic waste. (For a more detailed exploration of this argument, see “What is a moral level of consumption?”
While some might see this as a sacrifice — and in some sense, of course, we will have to give up material things that we have come to rely on and enjoy — this moment in history also provides us with a chance to redefine what it means to live a good life. Rather than accept the mad scramble to accumulate goods and insulate ourselves from the natural world — the good life as defined in a consumer capitalist society awash in high-tech toys and mass-mediated entertainment — we can reorient ourselves toward the traditional definition of a good life in terms of community and connection with others, service and sacrifice for others, and a deeper sense of meaning for ourselves.
Eloquent calls for peace are easy to make from the material comfort of the First World. Moving beyond that to a demand for meaningful justice gets us closer to the goal. A commitment to moving toward a sustainable level of consumption should be at the core of this work. It will be a struggle, of course, often confusing and sometimes painful. But we can remember that there is joy in the struggle for a better world, which is always at the same time a struggle to become more fully human.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com.