At the beginning of a new year it is customary for us to express our hopes for peace in the year ahead and to wish each other peace. But to actually achieve peace is by no means an easy task. Real peace is not simply the absence of violent conflict but a state of harmony: harmony between people; harmony between humanity and nature; and harmony within ourselves. Without harmony, the seeds of conflict and violence will always be ready to sprout.
When I reflect on the challenge of achieving peace in today’s world, I have found it useful to treat the subject under three main headings: (1) The Obstacles to Achieving Peace—the barriers that maintain tension and foment conflict; (2) The Prerequisites of Peace—the goals we should pursue to achieve peace; and (3) The Means to Realizing these Goals. Each can in turn be analyzed into three secondary aspects.
The Obstacles to Achieving Peace
(1) Profit-seeking: Driven by the urge to expand profits, global corporations and other mammoth enterprises flood the market with harmful or frivolous commodities. They spend billions on advertising, despoil the natural environment with toxic waste, and scuttle laws that protect workers and consumers. They take wild risks which, when successful, benefit management and shareholders, and when failures, push the costs on to the public. The neoliberal economy has led to wider inequality of incomes and wealth. Recent figures reveal that the richest 70 people now own more wealth than the poorest half of the world, while in the US a mere 40 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom half. High levels of income inequality are associated with economic instability and crisis, whereas more equal societies tend to be more stable and to enjoy longer periods of sustained growth. More unequal societies show higher rates of violent crime and lower levels of social trust; more equal societies have lower crime rates and greater social trust. Greater economic equality thus contributes to peace.
(2) Plunder: Since the dawn of the industrial era we have been plundering nature’s treasures with reckless abandon. Today, this extractionist frame of mind drives us ever closer to the edge of calamity as rapacious economic activity disrupts the natural climate cycles on which human life depends. The big fossil fuel corporations plunder the earth for oil, coal, and gas, clearing ancient forests, blasting mountains to bits, and drilling down into the ocean depths. They transport the substances they extract over vast distances from source to refinery to market. Factories fill the skies with carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and harmful toxins. Extraction operations discharge toxic waste into rivers and lakes, poisoning the water resources on which whole communities depend.
Cumulative carbon emissions are cooking the planet and warming the seas. We’ve already had a taste of the future in the strange weather events that occur with greater frequency: droughts, floods, heat waves, and crop failures. As large regions of the earth turn barren, we will face mass migrations that can raise tensions and ignite violent confrontations. States may fail, unleashing chaos and giving the chance for tyrants to seize power and launch campaigns of conquest.
(3) Power projection: Driven by narrow economic interests, the powerful nations seek to enhance their might by projecting strategies of full-spectrum dominance across the globe. They finance ever more sophisticated weapons systems, spend billions on armaments, and spy on their citizens. They manipulate international protocols to their advantage, heightening tensions among old rivals. Weapons corporations thrive on the tensions, which they regard as new opportunities for profit. Global hostilities boil, and in certain hot spots periodically explode in outbursts of lethal violence.
The Prerequisites to Achieving Peace
(1) Protection: To achieve real peace, we need a global commitment to protecting people everywhere from harm and misery. This commitment must be rooted in a universal perspective that enables us to see all people as brothers and sisters, worthy of care and respect regardless of their ethnic, national, and religious identity. As Americans we can’t go on thinking that American lives are more important than the lives of people elsewhere—in Iraq and Afghanistan, in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. We can’t think that only the lives of middle-class people count, but not the lives of black youths in Chicago, herdsmen in Ethiopia, rice farmers in the Philippines, or factory workers in Bangladesh. Rather, we must regard all people as endowed with intrinsic value, which we must affirm by establishing greater economic, social, and political justice.
(2) Preservation. The greatest challenge of our time is to avoid climate chaos. The earth is our irreplaceable home, and if we destroy it, we will have no other place to go. At the rate we’re spitting out greenhouse gases, within a few decades we may raise the earth’s temperature to the point where the planet becomes inhospitable to human life. All the money in the world will be worthless on a planet where the grain belts have withered and oceans have turned deadly acidic.
We need to start making a rapid and full-scale transition to a new economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy. The sun, wind, and heat of the earth are capable of providing us with all the energy we need. The main obstacle to date has been the lack of political will, whereby a band of powerful corporations, lobbyists, and compliant politicians reject the hard truths of science and even the clear decrees of rational self-interest.
We must stand up against moneyed interests and press our governments and civil groups to expedite the transition to a clean-energy future. Our window of opportunity is closing, and we must act fast before it slams shut. We need a sense of urgency, as if our clothes were on fire, an urge to act to preserve this precious planet—a miracle in a sea of cosmic dust, a blue-green pearl teeming with living forms.
(3) Prosperity. While extreme wealth for a few means misery for many others, prosperity is a good in which we all should be able to share. There is certainly enough wealth in the world to ensure that everyone can obtain sufficient food, clothing, housing, and medical care. The problem is not lack of wealth but its uneven distribution.
To lay the foundations for real peace, both national policies and international institutions must give precedence to uplifting people from the worst extremes of poverty. In today’s world, 900 million people live in perpetual food insecurity, while at least two billion suffer from malnutrition. Six million people a year, over half of them children, die from chronic hunger and related illnesses. The UN estimates that it would take just $30 billion a year to solve world hunger, a small fraction of the $737 billion that the US spent on defense in 2012. Tackling global hunger is not only a moral and ethical obligation but a policy that would have positive economic impacts and promote global solidarity. It could be a giant step in the direction of world peace.
Related: Climate Change is a Moral Issue
Here in the US, some 50 million people—one out of seven—live in poverty. A half-century ago, the US had a social system that, while far from perfect, excelled in its public services. Over the past 30 years, many of these services have been downgraded or slashed. As the wealthiest country in the world, we can easily provide for the basic needs of all our citizens. But this will require new values. Instead of exalting individualism and ambition, we should prize cooperation and compassion. Instead of inciting competition, we should nurture harmonious communities and social solidarity.
The Means to Realizing these Goals
(1) Prayer, meditation, and contemplation. People of faith should root transformative action in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. While traditionally such practices served as stepping stones to the realization of a transcendent goal, today we need a wider spiritual vision that can encompass the divine and the mundane, the transcendent and the immanent, in an integral whole. By bringing us into intimate contact with the transcendent ground of justice and love, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer empower us to bring greater justice and love into the world. By purging the toxins of greed, hatred, and selfishness from our hearts, these practices open us to the universality of suffering, awakening our compassion and inspiring us to become a source of good for others.
(2) Peace. Peace is not only the goal of our efforts but also a means for reaching that goal. Peace belongs to the means because in order to establish peace, we must be peaceful ourselves. If our minds are agitated by anger and resentment, our efforts to promote peace are more likely to create more conflict and perhaps ignite more violence. An angry mind is not a reliable instrument for promoting peace. But when our minds are peaceful, our bodily actions will be peaceful, and we will convey an ambiance of love, care, and mercy, which will help to establish peaceful relations.
(3) Participation. While the pursuit of meditation and other spiritual practices as a private quest for inner awakening and liberation may have fit the worldview of past historical eras, in today’s world our emphasis must shift toward a more participatory kind of spirituality, one that unites the quest for inner peace with the commitment to world peace, human unity, and planetary preservation. Our devotion to contemplative practice can inspire in us a stronger aspiration to promote social and economic justice, to preserve the planet’s vital ecosystems, and to heal long-standing enmities. At the same time, our active commitment to the well-being of others can nurture our own spiritual growth, deepening our compassion and strengthening our moral integrity.
There are many venues through which we can embody participatory spirituality in action. We can support organizations that advocate for poverty alleviation, address climate change, and promote the ethical treatment of animals, immigration rights, and better pay for fast-food workers. We can write to our congressional representatives, expressing our views on the issues that most deeply concern us. Our votes, too, express our values and conscience. Although the electoral process in this country has been badly skewed in favor of Big Money, our votes still count and can make a difference.
To express conscience in action, we can sign petitions, join marches, and participate in demonstrations. In New York this past September, 400,000 people walked peacefully through the streets on the People’s Climate March, demanding that world leaders tackle the climate crisis. In cities across the country, low-wage workers have been demanding better wages and other conditions that will enable them to live with dignity. In many cities as well, people of all ethnic backgrounds have joined hands to protest police brutality against communities of color.
While the endeavor to achieve peace may often be frustrating, we should remember that nothing truly worthy can be achieved without effort. Peace and justice may be slow to arrive, but we will never obtain them without a struggle.
Let us make the new year a year in which we firmly commit ourselves to the pursuit of real peace. Then, a year from now, we can look back and consider our time to have been truly well spent.
[This story was first published in 2015]
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