"Hey! Your end of the boat is leaking"
That's something we've got to stop saying to one another, said former Congressman Dennis Eckart in a recent speech at Kent State University. He was speaking about the problems of economic development in northeast Ohio, but it's instructive to apply the idea to the entire Spaceship Earth.
In this year 2003 CE, few doubt that parts of Spaceship Earth are leaking. Physically, its temperature is rising, its atmosphere is changing, its waters being polluted, its minerals being depleted, its forests, grasslands, and its diversity of species shrinking as one clever, talkative, social, predatory species takes over. The ship is overloaded with these human animals, most of them just wanting decent lives, but many of them poor, hungry, sick, or illiterate. Quite a few of them are ambitious, quarrelsome or greedy, and some have become wealthy and powerful
Almost everyone believes that Spaceship Earth needs improvement, and many wealthy and powerful men have Grand Plans to make it better. These plans have different names, like free-market capitalism, globalization, liberation, jihad, or good stewardship, and include schemes to identify "Evil" and blow it up, or to kill everyone who doesn't adopt certain religious or political beliefs, or to commandeer Earth's natural resources and technology and manage them for everyone else's benefit.
The problem with any of these Grand Plans (including good stewardship) is that they involve notions of goodness, worth, progress, success, health, virtue, justice, morality, or God that all the clever, talkative, social, predatory animals don't agree on, though they all try to define goodness and make sense of the world in the context of their talk with others and the society they live in.
As humans we select what we hear, see, read and say to keep down the dissonance between our existing concepts and the real world. We adopt frames of reference and points of view that explain the way we want things to be. We repeat the latest words from a favorite TV or press oracle, exchange stories, myths and factoids that comfort us, and recite slogans or phrases of religious, patriotic or ideological dogma. We like to assign responsibility to others and to cite numbers or logic to prove our virtue and another's wickedness.
Evidence has surfaced that it was a U.S. Harm missile that killed 58 civilians in a Baghdad marketplace last Friday. But immediately thereafter counterclaims were made, that the fragment with the identifying number on it had been faked, or that it had been planted at the scene.
A Reuters newsphoto (3/29/03) showed an Iraqi child with bloody wounds to her face.. The caption was "Confused frontline crossfire ripped apart an Iraqi family on Saturday after local soldiers appeared to force civilians toward U.S. marines", suggesting that Iraqi soldiers were responsible for her wounds. Does it really matter whose weapons tore up her face? Does it make us more virtuous and moral if she was wounded by her own people? Do we really believe that starting the war that injured her was good or just or necessary?
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The truth is, when we find ourselves explaining away the bombing of civilians and the killing and maiming of children, we are all in the same dreadfully leaking boat. Bush & Co are at the helm, determined to sink Saddam Hussein's end of the boat and designing stories, frames, and information systems to distract us and keep us from noticing that war doesn't patch leaks in the boat we are all in.
James C. Scott, in "Seeing Like a State" (1998) observes that most Grand Plans "far from being cynical grabs for power and wealth were animated by a genuine desire to improve the human condition." Yet most of them became tragic failures, he says, because their progenitors "regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were, and... regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were."
Bush & Co's Grand Plan to improve the human condition is apparently grander than we suspected, including a third World War to create a global political economy controlled by God's chosen Superpower.
Humans, as clever, talkative, social, predatory animals, are not either Good or Evil, but are all --including Bush and Saddam Hussein -- capable of great wisdom and great folly. We construct spacious epistemologies and make them work, sometimes accomplishing great good, sometimes doing terrible, tragic damage. It is not just our predatory tendencies and our cleverness at technologies of production and destruction that have created the potential for damage. Our information systems -- the way we talk to each other -- and our social institutions are imperfect, fallible, corruptible and contingent.
Bush and Co are not necessarily Evil, nor are they smarter and more farseeing than the rest of us. We are not necessarily Good, nor are we as stupid and incompetent than they think we are.
Our information systems and social institutions are still the best hope we have of sealing the leaks and strengthening the hull of our ship. We have to stop talking destiny, blame, necessity, justification, justice, inevitability, and start talking about practical ways to stop a cruel war that is endangering our whole planet. And we have to start supporting social institutions like the UN and international law that offer hope of making a stronger world.
Because our boat is leaking.