Beyond the Mulish, Look to the Stars

Nancy Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan may be brave or foolhardy, but the Chinese reaction so far (lots of live-fire weapons drills close to the island nation, along with acts of cyber-sabotage) suggests how threatened the government of the Peoples’ Republic of China feels.

The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman even suggested that her visit could touch off WW3. It’s a measure of the strangeness of political “face” (we denigrate the Chinese preoccupation with “face,” as if our “credibility” did not amount to exactly the same thing) when the diplomatic visit of a lone government official can become the kind of spark that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand played in setting off WW1. But almost any inadvertency could start WW3, because deterrence, to “work” (until it doesn’t “work” that is) requires hair-trigger preparedness.

It’s an outrage, it’s evil, it’s incredibly stupid, and it ought to be illegal under international law. Oh, wait a minute, it is illegal under international law. See the Kellogg-Briand pact against war, in force since 1929; the treaty on Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (NPT), in force since 1971; and also the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in the process of being ratified by a majority of the world’s nations and having the force of international law applicable to all since 22 January 2021.

Democratic nuclear powers rationalize their weapons as good because their governments are representative, but in reality, world-ending weapons are all world-ending, not “good” nuclear weapons because they are in the hands of good people or “bad” nuclear weapons because they are in the hands of totalitarian dictators. The catastrophe resulting from escalating into even a limited nuclear war would render such a distinction meaningless.

Nobody, including both the non-democracies and the democracies, wants war. Meanwhile the deterrence system remains a holocaust waiting to happen that would dwarf the Nazi Holocaust. Nuclear policy consists of mulish refusal of nuclear nations to come together in their own self-interest and move beyond obsolete, unworkable games of chicken. All these smart people interested in wielding power seem blind to the reality that it is perfectly feasible technologically to verifiably, reciprocally reduce nuclear weapons to zero, thereby raising humankind’s chances of survival considerably.

The merciless and pointless invasion of Ukraine and the equally pointless war China threatens to make on Taiwan (or the second Gulf war for that matter) indicate a profound sickness in power dynamics—the failure to act upon the truth that we are all in this together on one small planet, and we either are going to destroy everything or learn to get along and save everything. The cries of the hungry and displaced are not cries for trillions of dollars to be spent in endless arms renewal.

President Biden is a good, decent public servant, but he presides over what Elaine Scarry calls a thermonuclear monarchy, identical to the nuclear monarchies of oligarch-dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping.

Where is citizen mobilization around a larger vision of self-interest that would yield servant leadership at the top? Limitless egocentricity insists that the whole nuclear system continue merely for a few men to preserve their power. In the U.S. this egocentricity manifests of course in the phenomenon of Trump, who identifies with dictators and wouldn’t mind being one.

The misunderstanding of power dynamics on the part of these leaders, the utter failure to see past the short-term to the actual state of the Earth at this moment in the great unfolding story of the human experiment, is breathtaking.

Mulishness, even if it is an insult to mules, may be the word to describe this complete misunderstanding, this narrowness of focus on remaining in power at all costs, including the casual willingness to use even nuclear threats in defense of that power. When leaders try to maintain a deterrent system which can fail at any moment for the flimsiest of reasons, the far, far greater power of nuclear weapons is going to inevitably come back to bite us all in our collective butts with its poisonous fangs.

When it comes to the environment, the reality of our oneness as a species has begun to penetrate, but not nearly far enough into the collective soul to make the necessary difference. The ecophilosopher Thomas Berry asserts that this moment on the planet, the radical degradation of our oceans, our air, our soil, along with the rapid extinction of thousands of species of birds and insects and other forms of life, represents the end of the 65 million year period of the Cenozoic, which began with the demise of the dinosaurs.

Our energy as a species must now be focused upon bringing the whole Earth community together into a new moment of creative collaboration, which Berry has called the Ecozoic. That task far transcends the obsolete power dynamics, based in fear, hate and helplessness, that energizes not only the leaders of too many nations but too many of their followers as well.

Ultimately nuclear weapons and environmental disaster represent an identical misunderstanding of our interdependence with each other and the biosystem.

We are, as Berry says, at the end of an old, unworkable story. The new story, whatever form it may take, involves the harnessing of our creative energies in the context of forces infinitely larger and more mysterious than the political ego.

As one example of what might encourage us to move safely into the future, we need look no further than the Webb telescope—to the cooperative spirit displayed by scientists from 14 nations who realized the project. Even more importantly, let us look to the vision the Webb reveals of our place among hundreds of billions of galaxies. We humans are an integral part of 13.85 billion years of creativity. We are the universe looking at itself in wonder. That wonder has the potential to dissolve our obstinate mulishness, re-energizing our politics, our economics, our religious convictions, and our understanding of self-interest.

Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.