For a long time now we have faced our problems from a certain standpoint. Confronted by grave difficulties, we redouble our efforts. Our resilience of mind is remarkable: we seem to persist in our course no matter what occurs. Our answer is almost always the same: if we are not succeeding, it is because we are not doing enough.
I’m told that one in six (or even one in four) women is sexually abused sometime in her life, as one in ten men is abused in his. Most of these assaults happen early in life. To counteract them we put more efforts into teaching children to beware strangers, to stay in at night, to not drink so much or to not wear “provocative” clothing. If our children are just careful enough and safe enough, we reason, rape will end and we will be safe.
It helps to catch rapists, of course, as with all other criminals, and crime is certainly a major issue in this country. Drug crimes in particular, but violent offenses as well. We have traditionally dealt with crime through adding more police, handing down harsher sentences, imprisoning more people and for longer, in bigger jails. We give our police and law enforcement agents more power, more resources, more weapons, more latitude. If we just lock away enough criminals, we reason, crime will end and we will be safe.
Every now and then, though, we’re hit by a crime so big (called terrorism) that we have to employ a particularly fierce response to it (called war). To fight the war we recruit more soldiers by promising them more money or forcing some of them to serve longer; we arm them by buying new, bigger, better, more advanced, and more numerous weapons, at considerable cost; when the war goes sour we respond by sending more troops, sometimes calling the effort “surges.” If we have enough troops shooting enough guns and killing enough terrorists, we reason, then terrorism will end, there will be no need for war, and we will be safe.
Terrorism isn’t the biggest threat, though. We now face global warming, AKA climate change, AKA climate chaos. While it poses no existential threat to life on earth — the planet has been even warmer in the past, after all, though not in our time — it does pose an existential threat to our civilization. All our society is structured around the existing climate, from food production to water and power use. Change the climate and all that we eat becomes trickier to raise, all the water that we drink becomes harder to secure, all the power we need for our gadgets and lights becomes trickier to generate, and so it goes. Make so much of our lives so much harder to come by and civilization first strains, then breaks. Our reaction to the problem so far has been to figure out ways to drive cars with less fuel or pollution, to burn coal but more cleanly, to get more power from the atom or the wind or the sun. If we just produce our power cleanly enough, or make such cleanliness profitable enough, we reason, then global warming will end and we will be safe.
All this is entirely understandable, and extremely human. I understand the appeal myself quite clearly.
It’s been said that doing something over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. We are slightly better off than that — we’re not trying the same thing, we’re trying the same thing and amplifying it. We’re also slightly worse off — we’re trying the same thing and amplifying it. Something of a wash, and so we are resolutely, determinedly, heroically deluded.
Because it’s not the cleanliness of the power sources, it’s that we’re using too much power, period; it’s not the kind of cars we drive, it’s that we drive cars when we could bus or bike or walk. It’s not that we haven’t killed enough terrorists, it’s that we’re killing at all, as even some generals in the Pentagon will tell you. It’s not that we can’t destroy enough coca or catch enough dope at the borders, it’s that we have such a demand for cocaine here in the US, and criminals are the only suppliers we permit. It’s not that we haven’t imprisoned enough people, it’s that we’ve imprisoned too many, turning nonviolent drug offenders into unemployable felons — and, shortly thereafter, into criminals and violent offenders (how else will they eat?). It’s not that children and women aren’t careful enough, it’s that men still feel that they can take and touch who they want.
There are some who will disagree with my analysis, who say that the climate isn’t changing at all, or that the military will prevail, or that we have to get tough on crime, or that rape is less of a problem than I make out. But their reaction — and the counter-reaction that is sparked in turn from those who would agree with me — is the same behavior: if the opposition remains unconvinced, make your talking point again, louder or more forcefully; bring up more stats and experts and anecdotes and personal testimonies, and eventually we’ll have said enough to persuade our opponents or drown them out (it counts as winning either way). It’s just a matter of enough. If we win the argument, then the arguing will end and we will be safe.
We don’t see that the problem lies not in our exertion or our resolution, but in our methods… and in ourselves.
Just draw enough blood, kill enough of the right people, and the world will be a better place. Is there no simpler explanation of all wars? Once I felt the same: I held a knife in my hand and felt that if I just drew enough blood, I could master all problems.
I still have the scars. All violence is self-destructive.
All such delusions end in tears, or in rage, or in fire — or they end as mine did, when someone says, “Stop. No more. Enough.”
Rape ends when men say, to themselves and to other men, “No more rapes, no more coercion, no more doing as we please with the bodies of women or children. It’s our responsibility.” Rape ends when men say, “Stop” — and not before.
Crime ends, or at least will dwindle, when we as a society say, “No more bias and injustice in our laws and law enforcement, and no more of the life sentence of a felony conviction on people’s permanent records. It’s our responsibility to stop crime before it happens, or before it happens again, by eradicating poverty and discrimination, and by offering alternatives to crime.” Crime ends, or dwindles, when we say, “Criminals aren’t the enemy, they’re our people too” — and not before.
War ends when our country calls the soldiers home and says, “No more. Never again do we attack overseas. We are a friend to all and a neighbor to all. Violence begets violence and terror begets terrors, so we shall use neither” — and not before.
Climate chaos may never end. It may be too far advanced. But we survive it when we say, “We have burned too much and drunk too deep. Let us be done with cars and jets. Let us be done with coal and oil. We’ll survive by using less power, and making our power cleaner when we must have it.” And not before.
We have choices ahead of us. Each one of us, individually, has the responsibility and the power; together we can say, “Stop. No more. Enough.”
To take such a step — to admit our mistakes, to put down our knives and end our self-inflicted wounds — is difficult beyond all telling. It may prove to be impossible. But I tell you, it must happen, and we must hope it is enough. Or we ourselves shall be no more.
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