The New Page
Culture of War and Culture of Peace
By Federico Mayor with the collaboration of Tom Forstenzer
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A new page is being turned in human history and, particularly, in the history of our species relationship with the planet on which we live. We are being reintroduced to time in a rapid, accelerating sequence of political, social, cultural and environmental events which are changing our perceptions of ourselves as communities and individuals and challenging our confidence to manage global trends.
The pace and direction of these changes are altering - in equally important ways - our systems of perceiving both the human and the physical environment around us. As more and more unexpected and significant sets of information come to our attention, Marshall McLuhans dictum becomes a concrete reality: Information overload; system transformation. But systems do not transform in a unilinear or reflexive way. Many continue to project a safe and known past onto the future. Others plunge into disorientation, pessimism and despair.
Writing from my individual vantage point, as a scientist, educator, and as the person who heads the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, I would like to think out loud in these pages - to speak out as a private person in public functions. My views are not presented here in any official capacity, but they draw on the unique perspective of seeing the world as a whole every day, a requirement of my job and the result of a professional career that has moved from the local to the regional to the national and, finally, to the international.
My own experience of transition in my life, in that of my country, Catalonia, and of my nation, Spain, leads me to believe that our world may be facing a sudden and unexpected opportunity to move - rapidly - from a culture of war to a culture of peace. All the habits, disciplines, identities and, of course, investments made in an atmosphere of nearly permanent mobilization for conflict are now moving towards change. Security is being redefined as a civil, even a scientific issue, and no longer seen as a matter of warheads and delivery systems.
As 1989 came to a close, our celebration of the bicentenary of the French Revolution turned into a reliving of an era of sudden, rapid advances of freedom and democracy. Peacefully, in most cases, whole national communities simply shrugged off a political and social system that seemed as if it would last for many generations. These totalitarian systems, with their control of information, their institutionalization (indeed celebration) of the need to police and control the details of private and public life and their vast repressive powers simply evaporated when confronted by massive, peaceful outpourings of the longing to live in free, democratic societies. Even when the most brutal and personalized of those regimes (that of Ceaucescu in Romania) turned to violence in a desperate bid to survive, its own army and Party deserted it and rallied to the defence of popular protest.
These movements in Eastern Europe succeeded because the Soviet Union itself had embarked upon a daring programme of reform and democratization. Leaders in the West have committed themselves to a dynamic of nuclear and conventional disarmament which, as dialogue between the blocs continues, holds out a new, unexpected promise for the future. The armed truce we have been living through for 45 years, based on mutually assured destruction is being replaced by a new approach to security built on mutually verifiable arms control.
While governments, East and West, can begin to think about peace budgets and peace dividends, new priorities have been coming to the fore with increasing insistence. The parallel growth of democracy in the Third World, particularly in Latin America and Asia, is threatened by a widespread crisis of development in which debt, prices of raw materials and other factors are wiping out the progress towards growth and better living standards made in the 1960s and 1970s. Poverty is increasing in the poorest countries; school systems are underfinanced and cannot educate the new generation; the number of famished children and illiterate young people continues to grow in too many settings. The end of a bipolar world has also meant the rise of interethnic, inter-religious strife in the former Yugoslavia, former Soviet Union and in Somalia. Peace-keeping has come onto the United Nations agenda as never before.
At the same time, the effects of poverty in the south and progress in the north are driving changes in our planets life-support systems that threaten the survival of all. From the inefficient burning of fossil fuels in the most advanced societies to the daily necessity of cutting and burning wood to cook the meagre meals of those subsisting in the villages and slums of the least developed countries (LDCs), factors are converging that accelerate global change towards a very real point of no return: the greenhouse effect on our air, oceans and climate. The notion of a point of no return has been so effectively used in science fiction that we must work hard to show the public and decision makers its relevance to science fact. The dystopian novels of such gifted seers as Asimov and Zelazny, of Fred Hoyle and Stanislaw Lem, were not meant to dull us to the reality of the questions they probed. In fact, Asimov and Hoyle wrote science fiction against the background of lives spent researching and teaching science. All of these thinkers were contemporaries of the domestic and international tensions of the cold war, but their work used scientifically inspired fancy to draw our attention to the environmental and technical challenges developing at more basic levels of our social existence.
Meanwhile, scientists ranging over such disciplines as theoretical physics, epidemiology, meteorology and mathematics were quietly exploding the timeless Newtonian universe and introducing the idea of chaos - instability in natural and human systems. Time, which is so central to the novelists storytelling, was returned to science, which must now tell a new, more accurate story about the way nature really works. In an unstable, not entirely predictable natural universe, events do not move at the steady tick-tock of the metronome or mechanical clock. A test-tube reaction, or an earthquake, move at varying pace, slowly building up to a sudden acceleration to the outcome. We may not yet know the early, gathering signs of the oncoming dramatic event, but scientists can indicate the moment at which the reaction the disaster - becomes irreversible. This point of no return for Earths -support systems may be fast approaching.
From the richest countries, with enormous scientific and technical know-how and resources, to the poorest, lacking for the most part in the most basic human skills and infrastructures, the environmental moment of irreversibility will announce a shared catastrophe. All will be relatively equal before the implacable force of rising seas and chronic drought - outcomes of a climate heated beyond the natural level which nurtures the human species. This global change will have been largely the result of human interaction with the atmosphere, the water and the soil that, for millennia, gave us life. This thin and fragile biosphere formed the basis for the many different forms of social organization, production, value systems and religious beliefs we call cultures. Our accelerating demographic growth, our needs for fuel and food and shelter are driving the process more and more rapidly to a point of no return.
We must act quickly and comprehensively to prevent the dynamic of irreversibility from taking hold. Finite and diminishing world enough and time remain for us to affirm life and to meet our intergenerational responsibilities to the very young. If not, todays children and their children may suffer predictable - and preventable - environmental deterioration in the next century. To pull back from the brink, to reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in our environment. no single nation, however strong, no single institution or set of institutions can succeed alone. Parliaments and political leaders, the mass media and the scientists and technologists will have to transcend the limits of their special callings and work together.
The frontiers between nations mean nothing to the molecules acting on our air and water. Within each political unit, the dividing lines between politics, communications, science and education form unnecessary obstacles to a holistic understanding of a multidimensional problem. Global change means that our highly specialized professions and institutions will have to find common ground in understanding the interconnections between the scientific, social, political and economic facets of the way human behaviour is changing our environment. Only then can efficient solutions be generated and applied.
UNESCOs Constitution, which calls for building the defenses of peace in the minds of men, may seem dated against a contemporary history which moved, almost non-stop, from the physical horror of the Second World War to the permanent threat of nuclear conflict. Somehow, in the brief transition from hot war to cold war, religious and ethical traditions of respect for life and of the community, through education, science, culture and communication, managed to come together in an institution of the United Nations system. Witnesses to the anti-humanism of various forms of Fascism and Nazism, UNESCOs founders believed that knowledge has an ethical foundation and an ethical role to play in building a peaceful world through intellectual cooperation. The perversion of education, science, culture and communication in the celebration of violence and hate - in their mobilization in the most extreme forms of the culture of war - led the framers of UNESCOs Constitution to rededicate learning and creativity to building global communities of tolerance, cooperation and mutual understanding. The renascent culture of war that developed during the cold war did not make UNESCOs vision easy to maintain in a world in which knowledge was increasingly dedicated to fabricating weapons systems of enormous destructive power and sophistication. The division of the world into heavily armed blocs did not facilitate intellectual dialogue.
History is constantly changing direction and pace. This historical flux has opened up vistas and provided us with opportunities that other generations have been denied. We are, simultaneously, the products of a war culture and the potential avatars of a peace culture. In us, in our culture and society, are a set of attitudes and outlooks we must understand, confront and overcome. Humans are not violent by nature. In 1986, I participated in a meeting of scientists in Seville. The Seville Statement concluded, categorically, that there is no scientific evidence whatever that humans are violent because of anything inherent in the organism. Our genes are not to blame. We, as the thinking, feeling, creating animal of the planet, have only ourselves to blame, or to accept and change.
Culture, the symbols, values and messages that are our greatest creation, exists within us more vibrantly than any stone monument. It is a sea of memories, significations and fantasies for the future in which we swim all our lives. And every woman, child and man bathes in it and has the potential, unlike the fish or the dolphin, to change that sea by creating new insights, new ways of seeing, doing and being. The fantastic potential of each human being is that, unlike Ved Mehtas Fly in the Fly Bottle, we know we are surrounded by boundaries of our own contrivance and that, therefore, we can escape across them and even smash them forever!
But first, we must see them clearly and understand how they work around us and within us. Our own century is particularly instructive on the war culture. It was born in enormous hope for peace and progress. The end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th (the last fin de siècle) were marked by the most basic and lasting discoveries of our time: the nature of matter, nuclear energy and relativity and the nature of the psyche, our internal dynamics and the irrational. Art, like science and psychiatry, was also breaking out of Victorian constraints and exploring expressionism and abstraction. In political life, democracy and liberalism were making progress in Europe and the first signs of trends towards national independence in the colonial empires were becoming visible.
Our nostalgia for this simpler, more hopeful time is only understandable when we consider what befell it and us. Within it, inside its confident and graceful outer facade, political ambitions, ignorance, fear of the poor and of democratic change and blind patriotism were waiting to sweep reason away. In 1914, the European world of light, science and hope gave way to one of darkness, hatred and destruction. Modern science and industry converged with military aims and ambitions to foster a war of unexpected, seemingly uncontrollable destructive power and duration. Paul Fussell, the Anglo-American scholar, has written about The Great War and Modern Consciousness. He argues that it had a greater impact on our ways of thinking than anything, including the nuclear age, that came after.
The industrialization of war into a monstrous, mass enterprise was unexpected. On both the Western and the Eastern fronts, the antagonists confidently predicted wars of movement, bright slashing sorties of plumed hussars and battle lines of colourful infantry. Barbed wire, high explosives, smokeless powder, machine guns and the repeating rifle turned this 19th-century vision of acceptable gallantry into the reality of trenches and stalemated armies seeking camouflage in the colours of mud and smoke. More searing to contemporaries and troublesome to our later consciousness, these masses of young men, officered by the most educated generation of middle-class Europeans in history, stepped off, again and again into no mans land to certain destruction.
Victory was measured in metres and casualties in the hundreds of thousands per month.
Science and technology were mobilized to break the stalemate poison gases, aeroplanes, submarines and the tank. The level of violence and suffering increased and was sustained until the weakest and most backward belligerent societies simply cracked. First Russia, then Austria-Hungary and finally Germany ceased to be imperial monarchies. Even the French army mutinied in 1917. The visions of Blasco Ibanezs The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and of Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front still haunt our century. Out of collapse came the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Fascist movements in Germany, Italy and the successor states of Central Europe and of domestic political extremisms among the liberal democratic victors.
The extremisms of the 1920s and 1930s exalted the state, traded individual dignity for different forms of escape from freedom and rushed headlong towards a Second World War. Armies moved at great speeds to avoid stalemate but ideology and pragmatism joined to widen the war zone to include bombing civilian populations. The first experiments in air attacks on cities and towns took place in my own country. The cold war has taught us to live on ground-zero, with every expectation that the next world war would be the last, ending not in a victory or a peace, but in the silence of the Earth. Yet the cold war stalemate also contributed to the independence of countries that had, until the Second World War, been colonies of European powers. The international scenario, beginning in the early 1960s, became vastly more complex, with new, developing countries opting for alignment with East or West or for non-alignment. Whatever the frequently changing choices, they largely remained technologically dependent on the industrialized countries. And, of course, cold war became hot in all too many Third-World settings.
All this, of course, is history, but while our concern is now and tomorrow, we must carefully examine and even catalogue the baggage we carry out of the past. In our minds, and our hearts, we carry burdens we must discard and limits we must transcend if the future is truly to be different. In a culture of war, all bodies, all mentalities, all souls, if you will, are permanently tensed for the worst. The other in another camp, another country, another continent, is a threat. Differences between individuals and communities become rallying points for mobilization and hatred, not simply the rich pluralism history has given us.
Science, technology, art and communication become weapons or buttresses to secure us from our enemies, and soothe us in the righteousness or superiority of our cause or identity. Government itself, in the state of war or the state of permanent mobilization, is expected to attend to business and protect us with ever more destructive and sophisticated weapons systems. We are told that we can sleep well each night because soldiers, sailors and airmen are awake and ready to launch missiles that ensure that they- the others - will never launch theirs. And even the smallest exchange of warheads, through accident or strategy, could plunge the Earth into nuclear winter. The weapons become so secret that the civilian, non-scientific leadership of nations may not be trusted to understand their own arsenals. Security becomes an obsession - and it is defined as secrecy, unaccountability and dissembling. In the words of Pogo, We have met the enemy and he is us!
Indeed, the culture of war is such that it has pervaded our behaviour in ways other than we might have expected. The culture of war may have taught us certain survival skills in an extremely hostile world, but it may have taught us skills which are poorly adapted to a world which offers new possibilities for our personal achievements, societal progress and world development. One is reminded of the biography of the great Max Weber, to whom we owe recognition as the founder of modern sociology as a discipline. Weber, universally admired for his scholarly abilities, beloved of scholars of comparative religion, historians, philosophers and students, was none the less happiest when, in his day, he could put on his military reservists uniform and seem to be an ordinary member of what we can only describe as the culture of war. Weber was and is symbolic of an intellect and personality divided between innovation and conformity. This most tolerant of thinkers felt it necessary to appear to be an officer and a gentleman in order fully to enjoy a civic identity. That he was among the foremost thinkers of his time was not enough for him or his milieu.
We too are divided. We have created chasms between people of different skin colours, different ideological persuasions, different religious convictions and different languages. We have adopted ways of producing things and doing business which glorify not the productive aspects of our work but the competitive ones. Competition is useful, competition is even playful, but when raised to the level of seeking the humiliation or the suffering of others, competition is not a proper way in which to pursue the development of a humane world. Perhaps the worst aspect of the culture or war, which even exists in times of peace, is our constant definition of us against them, our constant notion that there is a barrier between who we think we are, the people with whom we interact normally and outsiders. Thus we divide the world between hostile groupings in which we tend to identify the outsider (or difference) as something which must be rejected, looked down upon or viewed as a potential threat to our own behaviour.
Indeed, the market with its competitive drives which can often be very useful for innovation and in deciding whether we are efficient or not can also be seen against a military metaphor and therefore denatured into something which is not a test of ourselves against ourselves but rather a test of ourselves against some others. Thus the culture of war, because of its dominance, can also influence our behaviour in peace. It can make us feel in conflict when in fact we should be in playful or constructive competition, not in a life-and-death struggle against outside forces which are somehow made into a threat to our egos or ourselves.
We have attached so many labels onto others - and they onto us - that we may have lost sight of that most basic, enormous truth: the other is a woman, a child, a man, capable of love, uniquely capable of receiving and giving love, uniquely valid and valuable and human. Dare we reach out and take the risk that every major religion and philosophy says we must, the risk of loving and being loved? To retreat or hate is to love death, to reach out and tenderly accept the great chain of being is to affirm life.
For in the midst of this culture of war there were visionaries and rebels who could not or would not conform. They were individuals, men and women, who could understand that war was not necessarily a solution to the problems that confronted their society and their nations. They did not merely abhor war morally, they also understood historically that war has rarely provided a definitive or stable solution to problems between or within nations. Beginning, if one wishes, with Lysistrata, Aristophanes could make fun of war as a dangerous and bloody game among men that women sought to put to an end by withholding their sexual favours. This was not merely an entertainment, which still moves audiences to laugh thousands of years after it was written, but also a deep and abiding affirmation of life, against the notion that death somehow can be honourable or glorious in an occupation, namely war, which offers no ready answer to the problems it may be waged to solve. One rebel thinker defined war as a socially organized activity for introducing sharp pieces of steel into the bodies of young men.
Indeed, every culture and every great world religion has a strand in it which emphasizes that which is common between us, that which is peaceful between us, that which is a dialogue between us and can be used in the place of hostility and aggression. It is unnecessary here to recall the importance of peace both inside ourselves and in the world around us to the founders of the worlds great religions.
Later, on an intellectual and secular basis, war would be questioned for the waste of young lives, the sacking of great cities and the loss of great cultural memories and histories by many who either were students of the past or were attempting to understand the present dynamics of their societies. Avatars of the culture of peace include thinkers from every region of the world. Gandhi represented not only his own rootedness in his own Asian culture but significant youthful experience in South Africa and Great Britain. Others who understood the price paid for a culture of war were often those who had directly experienced combat and its costs. The great American general, William Tecumseh Sherman, who led his army through Georgia to defeat the Confederacy, became even more famous for the phrase, War is hell. Similarly, the trench poets who chronicled the British experience of the First World War, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, developed metaphors for mass violence never before used in formal English. George Groszs drawing of Christ on a cross with a gas mask is part of a figurative pacifist tradition that includes the work of Goya and Picasso.
By the end of the Second World War, artists and writers, academics and politicians were ready to explore a multilateral vision of a potential culture of peace. Meeting in London throughout much of the war, they were conscious that the 1920s and the 1930s had witnessed a paroxysm of militarism, in part caused by the intense experience of the trenches. Italian Fascism taught children in the primary grades to recite Obey, believe, fight German children of the 1930s were taught by the National Socialists to think with their blood and a Nazi slogan proclaimed, Whenever I hear the word "culture" ... I release the safety catch on my pistol.
UNESCO, created in London in 1946 against this background, has continually sought to build the defences of peace in the minds of men. This hope that tolerance and dialogue could gently conjure away violence remains the core ethical mission of the organization. Despite the intervening tensions of cold war and nuclear stalemate, UNESCO and all its supporters throughout the world - teachers, scientists, writers, journalists and artists have sought to advance the culture of peace through education, culture, science and communication. These activities of the human intellect are understood as the windows onto a more tolerant and civilized future. They form the aesthetics of a reachable Utopia against the background of potential dystopia.
Thus the events of the recent past have removed many of the ideological obstacles to a more pertinent and concrete international cooperation in intellectual matters. The visionaries of the 1940s could perhaps never have imagined that their brief, hopeful world could be recaptured and relived 40 years later. Yet these were patient and persistent, even practical, dreamers.
My own early childhood in Barcelona was marked by civil war. My adolescence and adulthood were lived under the shadow of hot war and cold war on the European continent. As a scientist, I have dedicated my research interests to ensuring the proper development of the brain in the newborn child. As an educator, I have worked to win political space for academic freedom and the social responsibility of the university in different political contexts. As a committed citizen, I participated in my countrys transition to democracy. In all of this I try to express my deep conviction that violence is never inevitable and that the culture of war need not last beyond its time. Instability theory teaches us that we must not only expect the unexpected but that we must act in a timely fashion to prevent catastrophes from becoming inevitable. It also teaches us that, in human affairs, events can move at unexpectedly rapid rhythms and that we must adapt to that pace or be left behind.