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Song of Minerva: the Twin Perils of Our Time

There currently exist two very real and ever wicked threats to human civilization. Those threats are a looming environmental crisis and nuclear war. As different as the two appear, these threats are not isolated from one another — they are congruent.

The growing environmental crisis is well documented, but the root ills are not well understood. The leading environmental issue of the day is climate change. Climate is at the forefront of environmental discussions between policymakers and rightly so as it is a complex global issue. In public discourse climate is linked to the burning of fossil fuels and the need to empower, and thus imperil, human civilization. As such, popular solutions to the issue are top-down incentives to cut emissions and boost green energy. All fine and well, yet we miss discussions of habitat loss and depreciating ecosystem resiliency. Conversations that note the ethics of species extinction and the plunder of fragile ecosystems are rare. An extension of this problem is that human communities and individuals themselves are trashed.

The environmental crisis is linked to the idea that life is disposable. It is okay to cut down a forest or shorten the life of a child to strengthen the economy. This is not hyperbole, for if it were communities like Cancer Alley would not exist.

Threats to global peace and dwindling stability among major nation states are well documented in the public arena, though the root causes are obscured. Wars are fought for power and control of resources. The mightier the state, the more resources its economy demands. It is here we see the congruent nature of environmental crisis and prospects for global war. Those of us living in the West do not consider the horrors of war as often as we should. Our populations are largely sheltered from wartime violence. Such quiescence is dangerous. The current horizon of war is particularly ominous.

In the very cradle of human civilization an endless war rages. The United States and allied forces have long flexed military might over the Middle East. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is unique, though, as this military engagement is now active in six different countries with no end in sight. As a result of Western invasion the terrible ISIS regime is spreading calamity, uncertainty and fear across the war-torn region. Furthermore, most obvious in Syria, the Middle East is grounds for a strategic chess match between the West and powerful states in the East. Notably, tensions between the United States and Russia are at their highest since the Cold War. This demands pause; as tensions rise it is important to remember that the United States and Russia control 93% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. This chess match between powerful nation-states exacerbates instability in the region. As a result the frequency of regional skirmishes, between Pakistan and India (two nuclear states) for instance, are on the rise and this too enhances the nuclear threat.

This horizon of war is linked to the idea that life is disposable. Systems of power and domination organize violence and lay waste to “others” to secure their status in the world. If need be their own citizens will be sacrificed for the cause.

Though the horizon is ominous, I am hopeful for the future of humanity. Civilization was born as we know it in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, spread across the fertile crescent, evolved during the age of ancients in Greece and further Rome. All the while, humankind has balanced existence between powerful systems and the ever beautiful idea of liberty — this balance reminds me of the story of Minerva.

Ancient Rome’s King of the Gods, Jupiter, dreamt his own child would challenge his rule and overthrow him. When Jupiter learned he had impregnated a Titaness, he swallowed his lover whole in fear that the unborn child would displace him from the throne and rule over his kingdom. In the belly of the king, the Titaness forged weapons for her child, protected her and saw that the child would live. The child was given the name Minerva and she grew into a powerful woman. Using the weapons from her mother, she pounded away at the head of Jupiter. His headaches grew so severe he had his head split open — Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, emerged from the hole in the king’s head with a glorious song.

Perhaps it is time to question the legitimacy of the rulers of humankind. Are systems of power and domination necessary for human life? Do we, as individual actors, hold the wisdom to solve the complex wicked problems we face as a species?

The work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom and those who follow in her footsteps note that free people, organized voluntarily, usually work together in a cooperative manner. The cooperative capacity of human beings opens the possibility of polycentric governance — the ability for governments and market actors to interact with community organizations. Instead of confining a population to a “rule of the land,” inclined citizens could truly engage decision-making so that civic sector institutions can influence policy. The ramifications of this idea are huge.

Wicked problems such as climate change and armed conflict are incredibly complex. Is it wise to depend on top-down policies to tackle such problems? The implications are global in perspective, this is true, but it is important to remember that both of these threats have regional and local impacts as well. Top-down solutions cannot take into account such complex systems. Ostrom would argue a better way to solve such crises are to allow local and regional policies to influence external governance.

Under polycentric decision-making complexity is built into policy, thus there is variance in the system. Think of how natural selection operates — the more variance in a population the better chances a population can survive changes in the environment. The same concept applies to human governance and systems of adaptation. With such complex problems facing civilization, more desirable policies can be selected. Centralized authority ultimately builds simple solutions, at the cost of human life, for complex issues. Individual actors, when brought together, can build complex solutions for wicked problems. At the local level, life is not disposable.

This turns the “Tragedy of the Commons” on its head. Existing power structures are the true tragedy and right now we are stuck within their systems. One can only wonder what thoughts travel the mind of the Goddess of Wisdom as she ponders this age of human uncertainty. Surely she hopes individuals will work to control their own fate.

If we are to meet the 21st century with arms wide open, to laugh, love, trade, enjoy the wild, find comfort and meaning in existence, it is time to lay claim to power. May we break through the crown in a brilliant, powerful voice and sing the song of Minerva.

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Grant A. Mincy is a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS.org) where he holds the Elinor Ostrom Chair in Environmental Studies and Commons Governance. He also blogs at appalachianson.wordpress.com. In addition, Mincy is an associate editor of the Molinari Review and an Energy & Environment Advisory Council Member for the Our America Initiative. He earned his Masters degree in Earth and Planetary Science from the University of Tennessee in the summer of 2012. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee where he teaches both Biology and Geology at area colleges.

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