Beyond Peace

[The following essay was written in response to a request from students at a Massachusetts middle school for essays about peace contributing to what they hope will be “the largest book in the world on the subject of peace.” For more information about the project, go to www.pagesforpeace.com/]

It has long been a staple of the antiwar movement that there can be no meaningful peace without justice on a global scale. Those of us living in the First World, especially in the United States, cannot pretend to be working for peace unless we also are working for a more just and equitable distribution of the world’s resources.

The antiwar/peace movement, therefore, must also be a movement focused on the grotesque inequalities in a predatory corporate capitalist system. In a world where half the population lives on less than $2 a day, it’s clear that (a) the global economy is itself a form of war on billions of people, sometimes as destructive as shooting wars, and (b) that in such an profoundly unjust world, armed conflict is inevitable because there always will be resistance to this inequality, and powerful states will respond militarily to any threat, real or perceived, to their dominance.

In other words: No justice, no peace.

Now it’s time for those of us in the peace-and-justice movement in the First World, especially in the United States, to take the next step: We must recognize that there can be no justice over the long term without sustainability, and creating a sustainable world will require not only radical change in systems and structures of power but also a radical change in the way we in affluent societies live. It’s time to recognize that if we are serious about the values of equality that we claim to be the core of our politics, we must scale back the level at which we live.

In other words: No reduction in First World consumption, no justice; and no justice, no peace.

Put simply: One cannot be a serious peace activist without putting peace in the context of justice and sustainability, and the high-energy/high-tech lifestyle of the First World is not sustainable and not compatible with the demands of justice. Meaningful peace requires real justice, which means we must learn to live with less.

We could start to move toward the changes necessary by applying a “Golden Rule” of consumption. Working from the common moral principle that we should follow a path based on rules that we would be willing to apply to all (and some version of this Golden Rule exists in all ethical and theological systems), we could begin with this: Consume at a level that, if applied throughout the world, would allow all people a decent life consistent with long-term sustainability. That doesn’t prescribe a destination but suggests a direction; instead of anyone sanctimoniously dictating a specific lifestyle, we can collectively recognize that we must move toward living lower on the food chain, using far less energy, consuming far fewer of the planet’s limited resources, generating far less toxic waste. (For a more detailed exploration of this argument, see “What is a moral level of consumption?”)

While some might see this as a sacrifice — and in some sense, of course, we will have to give up material things that we have come to rely on and enjoy — this moment in history also provides us with a chance to redefine what it means to live a good life. Rather than accept the mad scramble to accumulate goods and insulate ourselves from the natural world — the good life as defined in a consumer capitalist society awash in high-tech toys and mass-mediated entertainment — we can reorient ourselves toward the traditional definition of a good life in terms of community and connection with others, service and sacrifice for others, and a deeper sense of meaning for ourselves.

Eloquent calls for peace are easy to make from the material comfort of the First World . Moving beyond that to a demand for meaningful justice gets us closer to the goal. A commitment to moving toward a sustainable level of consumption should be at the core of this work. It will be a struggle, of course, often confusing and sometimes painful. But we can remember that there is joy in the struggle for a better world, which is always at the same time a struggle to become more fully human.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hp said on March 18th, 2008 at 12:16pm #

    In other words, Robert, the endeavor, the journey, the striving for peace, is the goal? This peace is like a desert mirage. We’re convinced it’s real, we know it’s real, but it just remains out of reach. Except in the realms of human belief in truth and justice, hope and love.
    For without even a benchmark, a time, a place when this elusive peace has ever existed, we continue to believe in such a thing.

  2. joed said on March 18th, 2008 at 1:14pm #

    seems some amount of sacrifice and hardship is required for real change to take place.
    “Real change is painful and takes sacrifice, and the only people willing to sacrifice are those who already have.”
    Quote from; Why So Blue?, by Sheila Velazquez / March 10th, 2008
    http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/03/why-so-blue

    i don’t know how true it is that, “…the only people willing to sacrifice are those who already have.” but there does seem to be some truth to it.
    the near future is going to be a struggle for all of us. we may not get to pick and choose the things/actions we sacrifice nor choose the amount of pain we shall endure.
    anyway Mr. Jensen, thanks so much for the timely and necessary article. i look forward to reading more of your articles.

  3. Alex said on March 18th, 2008 at 10:58pm #

    A wise man once said: “Peace and Freedom will never coexist.” The idea of a utopian society is a mirage to use “hp’s” language.

    I do agree with the author that in spirit we (mankind) should all be working for the good of the whole, the good of humanity, or for “God” – take your pick. There is a trend in the universe that everything goes toward the mean. Human beings also seek equality (equivalent consumption of goods) and the “have-nots” historically band together to force a convergence of equality with the “haves”. The tricky part is how. Can it (justice, sustainability, convergence of equality) be done without violence from either the haves (preemptive wars) or have-nots (rebellions)?

  4. hp said on March 19th, 2008 at 10:51am #

    joed,
    I’ve found the people who are by far the people most likely to sacrifice and give are the poor. It seems no matter where you go, America, Mexico or Turkey, the poor are always ready to share what little they have. And they share it gladly, with grace.