"Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up." "Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?"
"As a species, we're doomed by hope, then?"
The first quote is from Ronald Wright's neat, focused book, A Short History of Progress, which describes how civilizations progress until they use up or screw up the natural resources on which they depend, then crash. Wright also looks at some achievements of advanced civilizations, including the Roman circus, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the Inquisition, the Nazi death-camps. We might add the 100 million who died in 20th century wars, the Soviet gulags, Hiroshima, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib.
This week people in high places have tinkered with words until they have convinced themselves that they can fix what's wrong in Afghanistan by just repeating history, but doing it better.
Never mind that the price of repeating history in Afghanistan has been calculated at $1.1 million per soldier per year -- about twice what we paid for the occupation of Iraq. Never mind that the cost of this war will be paid by Afghan people and Americans needing jobs, homes, health care, and education..
Never mind that for this price we will still only rent stability, security and peace -- not own them. And we'll be renting it from our own generals, weapons manufacturers and oil corporations.
In the eight years following our first invasion of Afghanistan, we spent some $300 billion and achieved what? Half of the Afghans live, starving, on about 45 cents a day; half of their children die before reaching five years of age. Their government, dubiously elected, is riddled with corruption and drug-dealing.
Even if we killed every Taliban and Al Qaeda supporter, Afghanistan would still have the same infrastructure of patronage and poverty that not only cannot feed the people and provide them with minimal government and services, it can't produce security and stability, let alone democracy and prosperity.
Whether crude or sophisticated, war eats people, consumes resources, and has never, in some 10,000 years of "civilization and progress" brought lasting peace and prosperity. So why, in the words of Psalm 2, the second quote above, is our nation raging toward more war, and why are we imagining such vain things?
How can our civilized nations -- and We-the-People -- be so mentally, mechanically, and morally bankrupt that we imagine that the only way we can save Afghanistan -- or democracy, or U.S. hegemony, or energy supplies, or capitalism - - is to blow the Bad Guys (and everyone nearby) to bits and force the survivors into submission with killing, destruction, and our own brands of hi-tech terrorism?
And so we come to the third quote: Jimmy's anguished question (in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake) about being doomed by hope. Wright explains: "Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create ever more dangerous messes. Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller knows, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism."
And hope, funded by unbridled capitalism, promoted by comfortable elites, and underwritten by pervasive poverty, fuels bigger, better, more improbable, ineffective and hopeless wars.
Our hopes may betray us on other fronts. We could pay an even higher price for repeating past wars if a small nation or band of zealots so outraged or bereft by war manages to acquire one of the nuclear weapons scattered all over this planet and detonate it. Does anyone imagine that Israel, Iran, India, or Pakistan would refrain from responding in kind to a nuclear attack, setting off a chain of retaliation that would blow the few survivors back to the Stone Age?
But the highest price of all may be charged to us if we continue to reprise history with depletion of our planet's natural resources and disruption of the finely-tuned systems that regulate temperature, rainfall, weather and seasons. Tim Flannery has called humans "Future-eaters" and "Weather-makers." In our effort to supply food, energy and consumer goods to nearly seven billion human beings, we have already eaten into the capital resources of the planet and modified its climate.
We humans probably have technologies adequate to manage these systems and live within their constraints -- if we start right away with large commitments both to renewable energy and population control. Indeed, humans may be the only hope of reversing the present warming trend in time to prevent long-term damage. Nature will eventually cool the planet down and reduce our numbers, but she will not be especially humane in doing so.
Peace on Earth? Forget it. The rich, the powerful, the military and the weapons and oil industries don't want it: they would lose the perpetual rents we pay them. Our president, who promised us hope, has opted to repeat history. Must we hope that he succeeds where others failed?
Good Will toward Mankind? Forget that, too. We are still caught up in vain things, trying to buy or rent loyalty, justice, democracy, peace.
Hope may doom us if we believe we can't fail, that we can do war, society and technology better than anyone has ever done them. Hope may doom us if we vest that hope in some short-term, local, military or technological fixes. Hope without humility, honesty, and compassion for the poor will certainly doom us, as a nation, a civilization and a species.