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Visions of a Free Society

Month: November, 2016

Owl of Athena

owlofathena

The Owl of Athena awakes from her slumber to view a sea of ominous clouds stretching bleakly across the horizon. As dusk falls she contemplates the current era of human civilization. Her thoughts are tragic, questions abound.

Who are the masters of humankind?  Who owns the Earth and all her wildness, order, breath, and water? Who will defend her and uphold the rights of nature? Will the masters of humankind continue their dominance and lay waste to the commons?

Impending environmental calamity and the prospects of state violence should be clear today to any rationale person. Climate continues to shift as greenhouse gases are continually pumped into the atmosphere to secure the economic interests of power. Global air pollution is responsible for one in eight total deaths across the Earth. Water resources are on the decline as carcinogens leech into the public water supply and as plastics fill the ocean. The soil is worn, acidic and over utilized by powerful industries. Entire species are going extinct, on par with the extinction rate that terminated the Mesozoic. These are just a few examples of environmental calamity, yet all expose the fact that human life and ecological communities are viewed as disposable. But, pay no attention — these environmental issues are non issues, environmental calamity is simply hyperbole.

Thus systems of power and domination continue their war on both households and the Earth. Aside from economic violence, systems of power command wartime violence. In wartime the environment is a silent casualty. Land resources are contaminated by pollution or vaporized by bombs, forests are laid to waste, states or warlords plunder the natural resources of occupied territories, management systems collapse, and entire ecological communities are lost. As widespread and devastating the environmental consequences of war are, the human connection is truly tragic. Human life, especially that of children, is lost thus denying humanity of innocence and the pursuit of happiness. Families must deal with unimaginable loss, terror and uncertainty. In a world of violence refugees are displaced. They are forced to migrate across Hell just to be pushed into national borders and subjected to regulation. Again, we see that human life and whole ecosystems are regarded as disposable. But, pay no attention — war is a necessary evil needed to protect the national interest.

All the while the Owl of Athena asks her questions. As we build systems of power with our vote the masters guide states as they see fit. Elections allow them to lay claim to their perceived right of domination. Even so, challenges to the legitimacy of such domination raise dissent against these masters of humankind.

Social movements, especially those organized by indigenous communities, labor for the protection of wilderness. As wilderness is protected authoritarian power is reduced. As a result there is habitat and thus refuge from centralized domination as the commons are protected. This refuge is important for the health of households and the Earth. The environment is protected when humanity owns a piece of it, meaning the commons are local. In the local, we do not look to our peers and observe a disposable being, nor do we do look to our natural heritage as waste. Human life and ecological systems are instead nurtured because all life is precious.

Today, more than ever, human civilization faces complex wicked problems. So ominous is the horizon, in fact, the intellectual community is beginning to ponder human extinction — another casualty of the hegemonic environmental crisis. As war rages in the very cradle of human civilization, as natural systems are continually subjected to economic interests, we are faced with a decision.

We can continue to place faith in, and labor for, the masters of humankind. We can continue to turn our backs on our neighbors as we legitimize systems of power and domination. Or, we can join our peers locally and enhance a worldwide struggle to protect human life and the commons from the ravages of natural plunder and war. We can face the world with resolve and push for decent human survival. We can protect both households and the Earth for they are our common possession to defend or let destroy.

May the owl stretch her wings and take flight so her wisdom shines through the clouds. May we realize our human potential.

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Song of Minerva

minerva

There currently exist two very real and ever wicked threats to human civilization. Those threats are a looming environmental crisis and nuclear war. As different as the two appear, these threats are not isolated from one another — they are congruent.

The growing environmental crisis is well documented, but the root ills are not well understood. The leading environmental issue of the day is climate change. Climate is at the forefront of environmental discussions between policymakers and rightly so as it is a complex global issue. In public discourse climate is linked to the burning of fossil fuels and the need to empower, and thus imperil, human civilization. As such, popular solutions to the issue are top-down incentives to cut emissions and boost green energy. All fine and well, yet we miss discussions of habitat loss and depreciating ecosystem resiliency. Conversations that note the ethics of species extinction and the plunder of fragile ecosystems are rare. An extension of this problem is that human communities and individuals themselves are trashed.

The environmental crisis is linked to the idea that life is disposable. It is okay to cut down a forest or shorten the life of a child to strengthen the economy. This is not hyperbole, for if it were communities like Cancer Alley would not exist.

Threats to global peace and dwindling stability among major nation states are well documented in the public arena, though the root causes are obscured. Wars are fought for power and control of resources. The mightier the state, the more resources its economy demands. It is here we see the congruent nature of environmental crisis and prospects for global war. Those of us living in the West do not consider the horrors of war as often as we should. Our populations are largely sheltered from wartime violence. Such quiescence is dangerous. The current horizon of war is particularly ominous.

In the very cradle of human civilization an endless war rages. The United States and allied forces have long flexed military might over the Middle East. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is unique, though, as this military engagement is now active in six different countries with no end in sight. As a result of Western invasion the terrible ISIS regime is spreading calamity, uncertainty and fear across the war-torn region. Furthermore, most obvious in Syria, the Middle East is grounds for a strategic chess match between the West and powerful states in the East. Notably, tensions between the United States and Russia are at their highest since the Cold War. This demands pause; as tensions rise it is important to remember that the United States and Russia control 93% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. This chess match between powerful nation-states exacerbates instability in the region. As a result the frequency of regional skirmishes, between Pakistan and India (two nuclear states) for instance, are on the rise and this too enhances the nuclear threat.

This horizon of war is linked to the idea that life is disposable. Systems of power and domination organize violence and lay waste to “others” to secure their status in the world. If need be their own citizens will be sacrificed for the cause.

Though the horizon is ominous, I am hopeful for the future of humanity. Civilization was born as we know it in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, spread across the fertile crescent, evolved during the age of ancients in Greece and further Rome. All the while, humankind has balanced existence between powerful systems and the ever beautiful idea of liberty — this balance reminds me of the story of Minerva.

Ancient Rome’s King of the Gods, Jupiter, dreamt his own child would challenge his rule and overthrow him. When Jupiter learned he had impregnated a Titaness, he swallowed his lover whole in fear that the unborn child would displace him from the throne and rule over his kingdom. In the belly of the king, the Titaness forged weapons for her child, protected her and saw that the child would live. The child was given the name Minerva and she grew into a powerful woman. Using the weapons from her mother, she pounded away at the head of Jupiter. His headaches grew so severe he had his head split open — Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, emerged from the hole in the king’s head with a glorious song.

Perhaps it is time to question the legitimacy of the rulers of humankind. Are systems of power and domination necessary for human life? Do we, as individual actors, hold the wisdom to solve the complex wicked problems we face as a species?

The work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom and those who follow in her footsteps note that free people, organized voluntarily, usually work together in a cooperative manner. The cooperative capacity of human beings opens the possibility of polycentric governance — the ability for governments and market actors to interact with community organizations. Instead of confining a population to a “rule of the land,” inclined citizens could truly engage decision-making so that civic sector institutions can influence policy. The ramifications of this idea are huge.

Wicked problems such as climate change and armed conflict are incredibly complex. Is it wise to depend on top-down policies to tackle such problems? The implications are global in perspective, this is true, but it is important to remember that both of these threats have regional and local impacts as well. Top-down solutions cannot take into account such complex systems. Ostrom would argue a better way to solve such crises are to allow local and regional policies to influence external governance.

Under polycentric decision-making complexity is built into policy, thus there is variance in the system. Think of how natural selection operates — the more variance in a population the better chances a population can survive changes in the environment. The same concept applies to human governance and systems of adaptation. With such complex problems facing civilization, more desirable policies can be selected. Centralized authority ultimately builds simple solutions, at the cost of human life, for complex issues. Individual actors, when brought together, can build complex solutions for wicked problems. At the local level, life is not disposable.

This turns the “Tragedy of the Commons” on its head. Existing power structures are the true tragedy and right now we are stuck within their systems. One can only wonder what thoughts travel the mind of the Goddess of Wisdom as she ponders this age of human uncertainty. Surely she hopes individuals will work to control their own fate.

If we are to meet the 21st century with arms wide open, to laugh, love, trade, enjoy the wild, find comfort and meaning in existence, it is time to lay claim to power. May we break through the crown in a brilliant, powerful voice and sing the song of Minerva.

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