Do you all know the phrase “the moral equivalent of war”? It shows up in many places, from the probably spurious but still fascinating “Report from Iron Mountain”[1] to a famous speech by Jimmy Carter in 1977 [2]. It’s originally from the philosopher William James, as near as I can tell, from 1910. His essay[3] of the same name is online, outdated but with a still important message for us in the 21st century. The basic logic goes: A) society needs an organizing principle B) war provides that principle (for many reasons) C) getting rid of war requires replacing that organizing principle with another, better one. D) this new principle must provide all the benefits of war without the harms.

These are arguable propositions, I suppose, as is their obvious corollary: that our current civilization continues to be organized around the basic principle of warfare. A longer essay, perhaps to come, would detail and give examples of those claims, which to me are fairly self-evident. Check out the links below for some of that argument.

But it strikes me now, in this era of inevitable catastrophe— near-term from overwhelming climate disruption [4] and the Sixth Extinction [5], and long-term from all the other forces that punctuate the cycles of destruction and rebirth of life on earth— that doing what we can to prevent and/or mitigate these catastrophes could become the “moral equivalent of war” in re-organizing our world, replacing warfare as our central organizing principle with something positive and constructive.

We could declare a new world war, but this time against our own destructive habits, replacing them with a new symbiotic relationship with the rest of the earth, and then, perhaps, against comets and asteroids, and possibly other inevitable disasters for ourselves and the living earth.

Many benefits leap to mind from this shift. The practical difficulties of making that shift seem political rather than physical, perhaps impossible, but I’m always an optimist to the end. For starters, this could begin at any local level, re-structuring city services, for example, not with a vague goal of “sustainability” but with that as the central principle. And local strategies could mitigate the coming disasters for those areas, if not world-wide.

Protecting life, in the broadest sense, not just our own human lives (though, that too, for sure), but the life of the Earth itself, is my nominee for the new organizing principle of our society, either now, or after the coming collapse. What do you all think?

[1]Report from Iron Mountain
[2]Jimmy Carter speech
[3] William James essay)
[4]David Suzuki
[5] Elizabeth Kolbert lecture on sixth extinction

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