Sustainable Peace

Putting the pieces together

One of the articles in The Foundations Of Peace (IC#4)
Originally published in Autumn 1983 on page 58
Copyright (c)1983, 1997 by Context Institute

WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS for building a sustainable planetary peace? What would be the elements in such a peace and how might we bring it about? In spite of all the militarism that now fills the headlines, I’m feeling encouraged that the prospects are good for building a meaningful peace over the next few decades. This is not to deny the immediate dangers we are in, but as long as we can avoid a catastrophic nuclear mistake, I feel the tides of history are moving in the right direction. Let me explain.

The previous articles, as well as lots of other studies, all point to the same basic causes of war at this point in history:

  • ignorance of, and a lack of mechanisms for, non-violent conflict resolution;
  • ignorance about the "other," leading to distortion and mistrust; and
  • emotional insecurity on the part of both leaders and populace.

These causes in turn reflect an inadequacy throughout the world of three basic elements: nurturing, empowerment, and communications. Let me explain what I mean by these, and in the process describe what I see as the basic elements needed for a sustainable peace.


By nurturing, I am referring to the basic physical and emotional support each person needs to function fully as a human being. Peace requires that essentially everyone throughout the planet succeed in meeting these needs. In part that means an end to structural violence, and it means empowering ourselves (i.e. everyone) so that we have the genuine opportunity to meet our own needs. But it also means an emotional supportiveness. Peace begins with love, and as the anthropological and psychological studies show, emotional maturity is greatly aided though lots of physical affection from birth on, but especially for infants and adolescents. We need to build a culture that recognizes the social value of adequate nurturing for all, and supports it.

This relates directly to the problem of consumerism raised in a number of previous articles. In its common neurotic form it is a surrogate for genuine nurture. (Perhaps if we hugged each other more, we would not feel as compelled to buy and possess things.) The question of nurture also extends to the natural world, since we can not expect to be at peace with each other while we are at war with the planet. Thus nurture of children, nurture of adults, and nurture of the planet all fit together as one major element in a peaceable humane sustainable culture.


Yet an exclusive focus on nurturing is unbalanced and potentially stifling. The emotional maturity on which both good communications skills and successful non-violence rest also requires the development and acknowledgement of each person’s inner strength and worth. At a personal level, this can mean participation in significant rites of passage (such as "Outward Bound" type wilderness experiences or vision quests), or a process of psychological self-discovery. At its best, it means a profound journey of spiritual growth.

Indeed, all the world’s great teachings agree that there is no real security that is not based on inner security. No matter how cleverly we may try to arrange social systems, or provide protection for ourselves, life is always full of surprises. As long as there is not a firm foundation of inner peace, the mind remains remarkably capable of generating fears and insecurities.

This is hardly the place to go into the wide variety of approaches that can help in developing that inner peace, but I would like to mention one resource that is particularly appropriate to our theme. Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, by Joanna Rogers Macy (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1983, $8.95) deals directly with overcoming the immobilization and despair that our massive planetary problems so often evoke. She is a teacher of comparative religion, and has led hundreds of workshops on "Despair and Empowerment" around the world since 1979. The book grows out of, and is a guide to, that work. She begins as follows:

"You and I share common knowledge and common fears about what is happening to our world. We live in an extraordinary time – here at this moment on planet Earth. From news reports and from our environment, we are bombarded by signals of distress – of toxic wastes and famines and expiring species, of arms and wars and preparations for war. These boggle the mind and stir within us feelings of dread, anger and sorrow, even though we may never express them. By virtue of our humanity, we share these deep responses.

"Let’s try something. Take a moment now, take a couple of deep breaths to relax, and let two or three things come to mind that gave you concern for our world this past week. Note the images and feelings that arise. "

For some of us, incidents and images may have surfaced immediately. Others of us may still be trying to think of something, while feeling a growing sense of discomfort – even dread. Let me assure you that whatever your response to that exercise, you are not alone. Though our styles of response may differ, we are all citizens of the same planet, all trying in our different ways to cope with a deep, inchoate and collective sense of danger. For to be conscious in our world today involves awareness of unprecedented peril."

The book then goes on, through explanations and exercises, to apply the principle that "As we allow ourselves to feel our pain for the world, we find our connection with each other." It is powerful material, and I recommend it as a tool for deepening both your inner peace and your humanity.

Yet inner peace is only half, one leg, of empowerment. The other is building the cultural, political, and economic institutions that can give full expression to our inner empowerment. This means eliminating structural violence in all its forms – certainly in its grosser forms that keep people starving throughout the world, but also in its subtler forms. The decentralization described by the Lovinses in "Real Security" and the Mondragon Cooperatives described in the Spring 1983 issue of IN CONTEXT point in the direction of the kind of practical empowering institutions we can develop. This combination of inner and outer empowerment is thus the second major element in a peaceable humane sustainable culture.


But empowerment also is not enough. Done in isolation it can lead to the disaster of a fortress or lifeboat mentality, and there is no way, in terms of outer empowerment, that in isolation we can ever be strong enough to meet all the challenges that life offers. Besides, isolation simply isn’t much fun. So the necessary third element is communications.

Communications serves the cause of peace in two major ways. General communications helps to overcome ignorance and build the bonds of community, while special communication skills are the heart of effective conflict resolution.

In terms of general communications, what we need in not necessarily more information, but reliable and useful information. This is greatly helped by having a variety of sources of information – through travel and personal relationships with people around the globe, as well as through various media. Above all, we need sources of information other than the nation-state. One of the most hopeful, profound, yet subtle changes that has occurred in the past hundred years or so has been the enormous expansion in the reach of personal communications in comparison with institutional communications. Until this century, few people had meaningful human relationships with anyone beyond their village or district, yet for thousands of years large military and governmental bureaucracies have maintained communication channels over large territories. Now that monopoly is broken. We no longer have to funnel our "foreign relations" through the nation-state. We have become a "global village" with many parallel and direct means of communication linking us to every other point on the planet.

The effect of this is to alter our image of the national government away from "our representative to the world" towards a kind of district administration – like our current attitude toward state and county governments. As we build up more and more planetary personal relationships outside of government channels, we are building the kind of planetary community that can eventually force national governments to behave.

Good general communications thus provides the first step of reducing the likelihood of violent conflict, but it is essential that we also have means of handling conflict when it does occur. In part this involves having institution available, like the World Court, that can provide procedures for conflict resolution, but for these high level institutions to have the kind of political support that they need to be effective, it is also important that win-win approaches such as negotiation and mediation become, as Jessie Dye suggests, a part of everyday life for people all over the world.

These techniques can’t be used, however, until there is a mutual willingness by the parties involved to work together. Indeed, many would say that overcoming the usual unwillingness is the crux of the problem of moving from the patterns of warfare to the patterns of genuine problem solving. There are two major blocks to this willingness, distrust and the belief that you can force things to go "your way". My sense is that we are doing more about trust building – the Mo Tzu Project and the Quilts For Peace are only two of many such activities – than about overcoming the seductive appeal of "winning."

The belief that it is possible, in a significant conflict and not just a game, to "win" by forcing someone else to lose, and the idea that "winning" and "losing" are all or nothing, black and white may well be the most significant obstacle we face in building a culture of peace. It is a belief that is especially prevalent among those who have "won" political positions (in whatever system), and as long as they think this is the way the world works, they will understandably focus on trying to win rather than on finding genuine solutions.

We can counteract this belief in two ways. The first deals directly with the belief by publicizing the frequently high cost to the "winner" of choosing a win- lose approach rather than a "win-win" approach. As the level of awareness rises about the ineffectiveness and stupidity of win-lose approaches, they are bound to lose some of their appeal. But it is unlikely that they will lose all of their appeal, and thus we need to be prepared to directly thwart coercion. This is, of course, the traditional justification for having a defensive military force. The limitation of that justification is that it fails to recognize the many other effective techniques for thwarting coercion. Gandhian non-cooperation is the most famous example, but there are others as well. Gene Keyes describes a variety of these in "Force Without Firepower" (CoEvolution Quarterly, Summer 1982, p 4). Whether or not these techniques need to include the direct use of physical force (from the skills of the martial arts to the sabotage of equipment) is a matter of debate, but as "Aikido In Action" suggests, we still have a long way to go in developing our non-violent techniques before we can feel that we "have no alternative" but to use a more violent approach.


How do we get from here to there? We need to begin by seeing that warfare is an integral part of the patterns of civilization as they have existed for the past 5,500 years, and we can’t expect to develop a better game than war without many other cultural changes as well. Thus the strategy for building a sustainable peace is essentially the same as the strategy for building a humane sustainable culture. The elimination of war is just one of the consequences of that broader shift. Nevertheless, focusing on the issue of war and peace helps us to identify certain important elements in that broader work. l would suggest four key areas:

Raise the level of nurturing and empowerment This large area of activity runs all the way from remembering to hug more often, to building new social and economic institutions here in our society, to working directly on world- wide structural violence. To find ways you could help with this last item, l recommend contacting any of the following: Oxfam America (grass roots development), 115 Broadway, Boston, MA 02116; Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1885 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103; Aprovecho Institute (solutions to the third world firewood crisis), 80574 Hazelton Rd, Cottage Grove, OR 97424; The Institute of Cultural Affairs (grass roots development), 4750 N. Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60640.

Raise the level of non-violent conflict resolution skills Whether it is through encouraging the formation of local mediation services or role play training for actual confrontations, there is a great deal that could be done so that people won’t feel "but there was no alternative".

Develop a true defense system The overwhelming bulk of our "defense" expenditures go towards having the capacity to threaten others, not towards making us more secure. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the impression that the whole thing is designed for the benefit of those special interest groups within the United States who want to be able to project power around the globe, and who are willing to hold the rest of us hostage in a global chess game of nuclear terror. This madness continues because the general public is unaware of convincing alternatives that could better serve their security. "Real Security" points in the direction of these alternatives. The other piece of the puzzle is provided by the techniques discussed above for thwarting coercion. Taken together, they form a meaningful defense strategy that would devote most of its energy to local empowerment. It is time that such a policy be clearly developed, publicized, and put into action.

Build planetary links Finally, we need to build community within the "global village." From simply learning about people in other lands to doing things together, a world of delight and discovery awaits us. One of the ways we can convert this into a strategy for peace is through the development of what I would call "the planetary buddy system." Most of us have friends who live some distance way from us, many have friends in other countries. We care about these people, but we are rarely explicit in expressing our concern. The idea of the planetary buddy system is to say to our friends, "If there is ever anything that you feel is diminishing your security – whether it be a military threat, an economic problem, or whatever – I’d like to hear about it. I’m not sure what I could do to help, but there may be something, and I want to at least have the chance to try." If the world had millions of such "buddy-pairs," early warning about problem areas would spread rapidly and we would have a much better chance of dealing with stresses before they are polarized into violence.

What hope does such a grass roots approach to peace have in the face of the $600 billion per year war machine? I suspect its chances are surprisingly good. Even $600 billion is relatively small if you look at all the effort that people around the world are putting into nurturing, empowerment and communications. The fact that the number of deaths from structural violence actually declined from 1965 to 1979 reflects some of the success of that effort. There is much more that remains to be done, but all the strategies discussed here are in keeping with the major cultural trends throughout the world. The end of war within the next few decades is as much of a possibility as the end of slavery was during the mid 19th century. It is an opportunity I would hate to see us miss.

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