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What to Do When Peace Breaks Out

 With the economic crisis worsening and anxiety growing, people are beginning to speculate about what things might look like in the event of societal collapse. Previously, this line of inquiry was more the domain of science fiction, and indeed there are critical lessons to be gleaned from these genre works that oftentimes display some truly amazing predictive capacities. But now, with the twin challenges of climate change and financial instability taking center stage, reality seems to be catching up with speculation.

Some pundits have even begun to anticipate a rising right-wing backlash that could both foment and capitalize upon growing civil unrest. And it certainly has been the case historically that fascism and organized violence sometimes arise in times of social distress. Octavia Butler's Parable novels describe a near-future world of rampant marauders and unspeakable, self-defeating brutalities that ensue in the wake of systemic collapse. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a neighbor recently, who was asked about his plan for food, water, etc. in the event that the grid should go down. His pithy, chilling, and not very facetious reply? "Ammo."

But all of this doomsaying misses an important point. We are living right now in a time of pervasive violence, militarism, and aggression, and society is still quite intact. People may be buying guns at an alarming rate, but that is happening on the watch of "law and order." Any potential collapse of the social infrastructure could exacerbate these trends, yet it might also have just the opposite effect since much of the conflict and despair we face is actually the product of that same system we're presently living under. I don't want to overstate this or needlessly polemicize it, but we are enacting the authoritarian, dystopian version of reality as we speak, not in some speculative future.

So I'd like to take a moment and pose the question that never gets asked, the one that seems counterintuitive but is actually empirically valid. We keep hearing about people essentially making preparations for a war of aggression - incidentally, something defined as a "war crime" under the Nuremberg Principles - yet rarely are given a chance to reflect upon the more likely scenario that far more people are preparing for. Simply put, what are we going to do when peace finally breaks out? Here are some suggestions:

Tear Down Those Walls:  From Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho this is a world of walls and fences and security gates. It's time to take them all down, and to use the materials for building chicken coops, gardens, and puppet show theaters. No more militarized borders, "keep out" signs, or cloistered cul-de-sacs. The enclosure and subsequent privatization of common lands is one of the things that got us into this mess in the first place, and national divisions have ushered in an era of continual warfare - so instead we'll "imagine there's no countries," which really "isn't hard to do." Prisons become collective farms and Wall Street . . . well . . . no wall, only street.

Living La Vida Local:  The scale of our lives has gotten far out of balance, with our nutriments and essentials coming from points far and wide. This is a highly vulnerable and inefficient system, and so it will be replaced by bioregional consumption initially spawned of necessity but later embraced because it works. Food no longer comes from the supermarket via agribusiness ventures in faraway places, but will be grown in every rural yard and on every urban rooftop. Our neighbors will be the people we trade with, share the work with, and break bread with. The geographical scope of our material lives will shrink to a sustainable size, but we will discover great abundance and camaraderie in the process. We will all become locavores and find ourselves loving every minute of it.

From the Neoliberal to the Neolithic?  It's not only the geography of our lives that has become unmanageable, but the temporal flux we experience daily as well. Time will slow back down to meet the rhythms of the world around us. No more caffeinated multitasking and that pervasive sense of always falling a little further behind our manic schedules. We will find that our biological clocks are plenty accurate for the lives of leisure we'll be leading in the age of peace. Yes, leisure - we will work hard to survive but will share the burdens and blessings in the process, as Marshall Sahlins potently described in The Original Affluent Society. We can, must, and will get ourselves back the garden.

Teach Your Children Well:  Education was never meant to be the stultifying, regimented, Prussian-inspired version we see today. All cultures transmit knowledge and inculcate their members with the values and ethics that inhere therein, but we've come to understand that how we teach people is equally if not more important than what we teach them. No lesson of liberation or tool of conflict resolution was ever adequately delivered in a classroom where structured rows and high-stakes tests prevailed. Now, we will learn by doing, through storytelling, and in mutually-supportive and community-based ways. Children will never again be viewed as lesser, and adults will always be gaining an education. Decisions are made intergenerationally, and knowledge is the property of all.

Free at Last!  And so, finally, Martin's dream is realized. Loosed from the shackles of consumerism, exploitation, indebtedness, immiseration, and coercion, people slowly begin to see themselves as fully-formed beings with keen instincts and capable hands. No prophet need be consulted for how we ought to live in the world, and no one will desire to sit in judgment over another. With newfound freedom also comes responsibility and, to paraphrase Mario Savio, we can be confident that people will be as diligent in exercising their freedom as they were in winning it. When it all comes down, and people feel as if there's nothing left to lose, then and there do we break free of that sense of being "everywhere in chains" as Rousseau once lamented.

Okay, before the "realists" pounce, let me thank you for indulging my momentary reverie. To me, realism has a funny way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy - to wit, more people get locked up despite (or because of) more laws and longer punishments. If we view people as inherently untrustworthy, then we are being untrusting and the hypothesis is proved. But the opposite can also be true, namely that embracing the best in each other and ourselves tends to cultivate even more of our innate capacity for good. We're fast approaching a fork in the long and winding road of human history, and I for one would rather cast my lot with Pollyanna than with paranoia. Indeed, let's really go for it full bore and adopt a true spirit openness, localism, simplicity, education, and freedom - in short, peace - even before reality catches up with speculative fiction.

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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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