Science for Peace and Sustainability? Not without a Strategy

Humanity faces the gravest crisis in our short history. Our governmental leaders are unwilling or unable to grapple effectively with two looming catastrophes: escalating climatic disasters and growing arsenals of increasingly deadlier nuclear arsenals, combined with rising tensions among nuclear powers. Authoritarian tendencies throughout the world make matters worse, as far-right deniers and conspiracy theorists rise to the fore.

Grappling effectively with these problems certainly benefit from scientific analyses of why the problems exist and of what might serve as technically sufficient policy or programmatic solutions. But what is often lacking is an answer to the crucial how question: How, realistically, will the solution be implemented? By whom? With what coalition, ideology and set of tactics? Without rough answers to the political question, we are engaging merely in dreaming about desirable worlds.

The dangers are now so acute that only drastic action can avert catastrophe. Even holding global warming to a disastrous 2 degrees Celsius this century will require emergency action akin to mobilization for war. Preventing an accidental or intentional exchange of nuclear weapons requires a transformation of the dominant, military and nationally based conception of “national security.” With the proliferation of both nuclear-armed countries and the number and destructiveness of nuclear weapons, we are all becoming increasingly insecure. Avoiding the real possibility of civilizational collapse means rocking the boat, disrupting the status quo.

The challenges are urgent and complex; who will lead the way in confronting them?

Where Are the Universities? Think Tanks?

You might think that such emergencies would galvanize universities and colleges to prepare their students and the public to understand and transform this dangerous world. But universities are reluctant to take on this role. Of course, we can name commendable exceptions and scattered units within universities dedicated to environmental and peace and conflict studies. Dependent on financial contributions from governments, corporations and rich individuals, universities and colleges do not confront power structures and ingrained beliefs that buttress a dysfunctional system. This reluctance places a burden on independent think tanks in civil society.

Science for Peace, the Canadian voluntary organization to which I belong, is similar with independent thank tanks elsewhere striving to apply scientific knowledge to resolve crises. The value of a think tank lies in taking the longer view. Although it may engage in campaigns on immediate conflicts, its vocation lies in presenting a comprehensive and integrated vision of what should and can be done to remedy wicked problems.

Canada’s Fraser Institute, like similar right-wing think tanks elsewhere such as the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs and  the US’s Cato Institute, is effective for three reasons. All its research and public education not only focus on promoting free-market solutions, but also reflects the vision. ingrained individualism, and paradigmatic policies of neoliberalism. Obviously, the massive funding that this viewpoint garners from corporations and the rick augments the Institute’s influence.

Science for Peace and other NGOs think tanks will never match the Fraser Institute (or the other two) in highly paid consultants, salaried professional managers, access to key policy-makers, and slick presentations. However, the positive side of our reliance on committed volunteers and shoe-string budgets is independence from both government and corporations. We can voice the uncomfortable truths about what needs to be done, and how.

Thinking Strategically

We “can,” but do we?

Not as well as we might like. If we are taking the longer view – if that is our goal – then what is the coherent message? As for Science for Peace, our “Peace/Ecological Manifesto” does integrate our thinking by linking the ecological crisis to the nuclear/militarist challenge and by offering a theoretical alternative to the current order, namely, “human security”.  We do not propose, however, a plausible pathway to the new order. And our webinars, lectures, statements, petitions, and articles address disparate, albeit important, topics. We have elaborated the severity of the nuclear and climate crises, though too much emphasis on the scope of the emergency can induce paralysis rather than action. We have probed the nature and origins of instances of human suffering, such as the war in Ukraine. Lately, we have focused on the promise and tactics of nonviolent resistance, especially in the context of authoritarian tendencies. And we have taken principled stands in petitions and statements on a range of peace and climate issues. Principles are important; however, sometimes the message is received by those already converted. In short, our offerings are pertinent, though not informed by a coherent strategy. Science for Peace is typical in this respect.

Independent think tanks can be more effective if they have a consistent and reasonable message, which they relay through all means of influence. Yes, we need a luminescent vision of a peaceful and sustainable world. However, the harder part is imagining and forging the feasible pathways for surmounting our predicament. Our research and education should reflect an integrated perspective.

A “pathway” is akin to a strategy in the broad sense. A strategy involves answering three questions:

  • Why does the problem arise? What essential features of the prevailing system lead to the negative outcomes?
  • What needs to be done to remedy this defect and therefore remedy the problem?
  • How will what we need to be done, get done? What is the politics of the transition? Who (what groups) will be the agent of the transition? Using what tactics?

In general, the “why” and “what” questions are easier to answer than the “how” question. The conservative think tanks have answers to all three questions. Independent think tanks emphasize the “what,” with some attention to “why.” Without answering the last question, however, one is engaging only in dreaming. We have enough scientific knowledge  to know what to do, but we don’t do it. We need to focus on how what needs to be done, gets done.

Reform, Revolution, or What?

What is the strategy? It doesn’t need to be spelled out in detail; we don’t have all the answers.

We are in the business of helping to avert two looming catastrophes. My view is that we should be explicit about the need for structural/system change, though without mentioning either capitalism or socialism (as both terms are vague and are weapons used in ideological/political warfare). We might use the more neutral term ’market system’: is there any doubt that the market system is obsolete when it is rapidly undermining the ecological basis of all life? We can oppose the market system, which destructively treats nature and labour as commodities, while still accepting the importance of markets in real commodities in adjusting supply to demand. “Human security” and “Postgrowth” are other positive terms to employ.

Too often analysts and activists frame the macro-strategic choices as revolutionary or reformist change. That is a false dichotomy. For one thing, system change does not necessarily mean the end of capitalism. Yes, we cannot continue with endless growth, especially in the rich countries. However, those who propose movement toward a steady-state economy, an idea associated  with ecological economist Herman Daly, or “postgrowth,” implicitly or explicitly contend that this transition can be made within capitalism. Through-puts of energy and resources remain constant, but competition, entrepreneurship and innovation continue to produce goods more efficiently and invent new products. A steady-state economy or postgrowth is our future.

For another thing, reformism breaks down into two categories: policy reforms that can be implemented within the existing power structures and economic system (usually the position of policy analysis as practised at universities), and radical reforms that will become feasible under foreseeable conditions (that is, human agency can shape the sociopolitical conditions). The last is implicitly, for example, what climate scientists are tending toward in their opaque reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists claim that “holistic and transformative change” is required to hold global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Those changes could only come about via a shift in power structures. In short, the difference between those arguing for system change and those arguing for policy changes is, in some cases, not as deep as it may appear.

What we should aim for is radical reformism with respect both to global warming and to the nuclear threat arising from the international balance of power/terror system. Reforms within neoliberalism are unlikely to resolve the challenges; revolutionary change is not only highly uncertain, but also costly in human suffering. Radical reformism, linked to nonviolent civil resistance, is the only feasible and humane approach in averting catastrophes.

In Conclusion

This advocacy of radical reformism is becoming mainstream. On the issue of postgrowth, for example, consider this project funded by the European Research Council with a budget of €10 million. On the issue of dealing with the threat of nuclear annihilation, refer to this appeal, which is supported by many prominent scholars and activists globally. The manifesto calls for the establishment of a new international order, based on a massive global mobilization of civil societies.

The conclusion is simple. We are in a dangerous era in which boldness is essential in dealing with looming catastrophes. For Science for Peace and other peace and climate organizations to act effectively, we must offer an integrated, reasonable, comprehensive, and radical message.

The barrel of a revolver tied in a knot to symbolize nonviolence

10 Essential Things to Know about Nonviolent Resistance

  1. Two traditions of thinking about nonviolence hold sway.

    • Principled nonviolence: Adherents decide to use nonviolent means on ethical grounds. In the Gandhian approach, nonviolence is a way of living a moral life.
    • Pragmatic nonviolence: Activists, seeking to win rights, freedom, or justice, choose to use nonviolent techniques because they are more effective than violent means in achieving these goals. Gene Sharp is a major proponent of this approach.

However, in practice, principled proponents, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, proved to be adept at pragmatically using nonviolent methods, Equally, some pragmatists, in their hearts, are pacifists as well as hard-headed realists.

  2. Nonviolent resistance (NVR), from the pragmatic viewpoint, is a form of political struggle.

Unarmed civilians employ coordinated and unconventional methods to deter or defend against usurpers and foreign aggressors or to overturn injustices, though without causing or threatening bodily harm to their opponents. Examples of nonviolent methods include demonstrations, protests, strikes, stay-at-homes, boycotts, street theatre, derision of authorities, rebellious graffiti and other communications, shunning of collaborators, building alternative institutions, and many more.

  3. NVR is not a doctrine of passive resistance or acceptance of weakness.

It is not passive, but active, demanding coordinated and unconventional struggle. Far from evincing weakness, NVR demands immense courage of resisters, who are aware their resistance may lead to injury, imprisonment, torture, or even death. NVR is thus not for the weak-hearted. It is a strategy only for those with the determination to persist in the face of repression.

  4. The aim of NVR is to build support and undermine the pillars of the opponent’s power.

NVR movements succeed by building up a large and diverse following of activists, winning over passive supporters, and precipitating demoralization and defections among the pillars of the established order (the police, army, bureaucrats, insiders).

  5. NVR is stunningly effective in comparison to violent campaigns.

Erica Chenoworth, who has undertaken path-breaking research, discovers that, of the 627 revolutionary campaigns waged worldwide between 1900 and 2019, more than half of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded in achieving their goals, whereas only about a quarter of the violent ones succeeded. Nonviolent struggles are twice as effective as violent struggles. Yet the influence of the military-industrial complex, the widespread glorification of violence in popular culture and the equating of masculinity with domination obscure the superiority of nonviolence as a political stratagem.

  6. The leverage of NVR stems from the dependence of rulers on the consent of significant sectors of the population (Gene Sharp).

Rulers cannot rule if bureaucrats obstruct, armed forces and police hold back, people shirk work and ignore laws and regulations, and foreign powers desert. Rulers do not need the support of entire populations; the Nazis could destroy Jews, Roma, the mentally and physically disabled, socialists and union leaders, so long as the ethnic Germans acquiesced to their rule. Hence, the task of nonviolent resisters is fourfold: -to build a large and diverse movement -to attract the loyalty of passive supporters -to encourage the defection of pillars of the regime -to build support in the international community.

  7. The effectiveness of NVR depends on many factors. 

  • Organization: to attract the support of a large and diverse group of supporters.
    1. prior coalition building ensures a core of committed activists
    2. as unity is critical, the coalition needs both clear, unifying goals, and processes to resolve internal disputes
    3. leadership is needed, but it must be decentralized, to make it difficult for rulers to decapitate resistance by arresting its top leaders.
  • Training in nonviolent methods: an effective movement must be able to shift tactics as circumstances change. Noncooperation with the regime is one of the most effective set of methods in the playbook, but these methods require coordinated action.
  • Strategic and tactical agility: protests and demonstrations are only the public face of nonviolent action; effective movements employ the full panoply of strategies, depending on the degree of repression by the rulers. The resisters win when they attract the support of passive supporters and precipitate mass defections among the pillars of the established order.
  • Nonviolent discipline. Rulers respond to NVR by neutralizing the leaders of the opposition, undermining the movement’s unity, and fomenting a violent response on the part of protesters. If the last tactic works, the government can then justify violent repression. It can portray the resisters as a terrorist threat. The resisters can succeed only if it is clear to everyone who is the major threat, namely a ruthless and violent governing elite. Thus, destruction of property (such as the destruction of bridges as enemy forces advance) is permissible, so long as it entails no loss of life or injury. Collaborators of the regime can be shunned, but not assassinated. Such nonviolent discipline is difficult to maintain. It runs counter to one’s inclination to respond to violence with violence. The need for discipline underlines the importance of training.
  1. NVR can be employed to deter and defeat foreign aggressors, as well as to prevent or overthrow dictatorships and establish rights and justice.

Civilian-based defence, in the words of Gene Sharp in his book of that name (1990) is “a policy [whereby] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries.” History holds many examples of civilian defence, including in Denmark and Norway during Nazi occupation and in Czechoslovakia following the 1968 “Prague Spring,” when a Warsaw Pact army sought to reimpose rigid Soviet-style Communism.

  1. NVR became less effective in the period since 2010.

Although nonviolent campaigns worldwide reached unprecedented numbers prior to the 2020 pandemic, their success rate fell. Erica Chenoworth in her 2021 book Civil Resistance provides the statistics. (However, nonviolent resistance remained more effective than violent campaigns.) Chenoworth also offers some tentative reasons for this comparative decline. She highlights “smart repression” by governments and strategic errors on the part of resistance movements. Each is a major subject, and each demands attention if NVR is not to repeat the errors of the past. Restrictions accompanying the pandemic (2020-2022) dampened NVR by rendering mass gatherings illegal and/or dangerous.

  1. “Smart repression” needs to be better understood and counteracted.

Nonviolent movements’ strength depends on maintaining unity among a diverse following, sustaining nonviolent discipline, and demonstrating versatility in nonviolent methods. Determined rulers will undermine the movement’s unity, provoke violent responses, and neutralize the leadership. Digital means of communication have assisted NVR movements in mobilizing large numbers of protesters and in spreading their messages via social media. But there is a dark side to digital technology. It allows governments to enhance surveillance of dissidents, identify leaders, and sow discord through misinformation campaigns. The effectiveness of the next phase of NVR depends both on neutralizing smart resistance and returning to the fundamentals of nonviolence: organization, training, nonviolent discipline, and the versatile use of the full panoply of nonviolent techniques

 

Gandhi is an icon of nonviolent resistance

How Nonviolent is Nonviolent Action?

The relationship between violent and nonviolent action is not as clear-cut as it may at first appear.

In principle, as nonviolence guru Gene Sharp repeatedly reminds us, violence must not be combined with nonviolent action. Why? For one thing, violence will undermine the legitimacy and moral high ground enjoyed by nonviolent resisters. Why is this legitimacy so important? Because of its effect in undermining the morale of the violent attackers, creating dissension among supporters of the invaders/usurpers, and building international support to sanction the aggressors/usurpers of power. Conversely, violence creates fear that not only scares off potential supporters or resistance, but also motivates the oppressor’s police and armed forces to fight back more determinedly. Thus, nonviolent discipline is a key to success, claims Sharp with few dissenting.

In reality, however, violence has played a larger role in effective nonviolent movements than is often acknowledged.

Note first that Sharp encompasses within nonviolence those acts designed to destroy strategically important property and infrastructure. He does add one important proviso: acts of sabotage must not kill or maim civilians or soldiers. Yes, civilian defenders can destroy equipment, files, computers, even bridges and tunnels. But be cautious, Sharp warns: this tactic is risky. If property destruction leads to inadvertent casualties, it may undermine popular support for the resisters and instigate extreme repression.

In short, violence cannot be combined with nonviolence because the former negates the strengths of the latter.

But some radical critics disagree. Consider the position of what is termed “deep green resistance.” Deep green resisters are not opposed to nonviolent climate movements; rather, they believe that such movements alone will not succeed in saving the planet and its species. Saving the planet, for them, involves undermining the industrial civilization that is destroying the future of all life. What is needed, they contend, is full-spectrum resistance. The full spectrum includes clandestine organizations that are sometimes violent, in addition to the above-ground, and separate, nonviolent movements. The former, in aiming to dismantle existing power structures, may engage in violence not only against property, but also at times against persons (including the possibility of guerrilla warfare). To buttress their position, they claim that, in practice, most successful nonviolent movements have partly depended for their success on violence.

My own view is that clandestine groups employing violent means are less successful than nonviolent movements, morally suspect and conducive to authoritarian outcomes.

Nevertheless, deep-green resisters have a point. Violence and the threat of armed resistance may have played a larger role in effective civil disobedience campaigns than is usually acknowledged. Aric McBay in Full Spectrum Resistance reviews, among other cases, Gandhian resistance to the British in India and the civil-rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King. McBay contends that violence and threats of violence emanating from outside the nonviolent movements inclined governments to make concessions to the (more moderate) nonviolent organizations.

For example, the civil-rights movement in the United States in the 1960s won substantial concessions, largely in the form of federal legislation. Certainly, these concessions would not have happened without the courageous and skillful campaigns waged by MLK and his colleagues. In addition, however, the threat of violence hung in the air. McBay mentions the role of the armed Deacons for Defense in the US South, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, inner-city riots and destruction, and, later, the threat posed by the Black Panthers. Concessions to moderates were not just the outcome of civil disobedience.

In a sense, this critique is not new. It is a version of the “left flank strategy” that has a long lineage. Simply put, the threat or actuality of violence by radical elements encourages the authorities to compromise with the more moderate nonviolent leadership.

How does this analysis of strategy relate to nonviolent resistance? Only this: to raise awareness that the injunction to maintain nonviolent discipline, though crucial, is not the whole story. Sabotage is permissible under certain circumstances. And the threat of guerrilla warfare, waged by a clandestine group, may also incline the usurpers/attackers to compromise with the nonviolent tendency.

Whether, of course, the civilian resistance should accept such compromises, is quite another story. In many cases, the civilian leadership should demur. It is often preferable to persist: to continue to vitiate the support base of the oppressors through nonviolent action, than to settle for mitigated domination.


Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace.

total noncooperation with an occupying invader is like a walll the invader cannot penetrate

The Viability of Nonviolent Defence Today

“Non-violent defence” is an oxymoron. Or so it appears to many people. You hear the word “defence”, you think of “military”. You hear the term “national security”, you think of a state’s military strength (and perhaps diplomacy). The military has hi-jacked the terms defence and national security. Consequently, it sounds absurd to talk about non-violent defence.

But is the idea so preposterous?

Consider the war in Ukraine. Civilian resistance to the Russian invaders is inspirational. Civilians have blocked tanks and convoys, berated or cajoled Russian soldiers to undermine their resolve, given wrong directions to Russian convoys, refused to cooperate, and mounted spontaneous protests in occupied areas. And all these tactics were improvised on the spot.

Think how more effective non-violent defence would have been if it had been planned, and if Ukrainians had been trained in non-violent methods. With a civilian defence system in place, the Ukrainian armed forces might have allowed the Russian tanks to enter the country unimpeded. No immediate deaths, no destruction. And what can you, the invader, do with tanks when you face a population united in defiance, unarmed protest and complete non-cooperation? Ukraine would be indigestible.

Whether non-violent defence would have worked cannot be known. But what is certain is this: the prevailing notion of national security is leading us to death and destruction, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Thus, a potential alternative — civilian-based defence — deserves critical scrutiny. My earlier reflection on this system reviewed its strategy and tactics, some limiting conditions and provisos, and its potential benefits. Now I turn to lacuna and obstacles in the theory and practice of non-violent defence. Only hard-headed questioning will mitigate the skepticism surrounding this approach.

This critical review emphasizes the work of Gene Sharp – sometimes referred to as the “Clausewitz of non-violent warfare”. Recent major contributors on the methods of civilian resistance – in particular, Srdja Popovic and Erica Chenoworth – follow in Sharp’s footsteps. They provide either updated non-violent methods for a digital age (and for young rebels) or empirical evidence of the effectiveness of such an approach.

Two issues strike me as pivotal in getting real about non-violent defence. The first is recognizing and overcoming major domestic obstacles, especially vested interests, partisan divides, and apathy. The second involves seeing beyond the static typologies of non-violent action to conceptualize its implementation as a dynamic, mutually reinforcing process. Taking civilian defence seriously confronts its proponents with several dilemmas.

Not Just an Abstraction

Non-violent defence is not simply a theory. Not only is there a long history of improvised civilian resistance to invasions, but also countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Lithuania have institutionalized civilian defence at various times.

Consider Sweden:  “Total defence” (military plus civilian defence) originated in neutral Sweden in the dangerous 1930s and World War II. Created in 1944, a Swedish Civil Defence Board undertook research on civil defence, organized training and oversaw the construction of air raid shelters. Sweden ran civilian-defence training centres in six cities during the Cold War. In 1986 the agency merged with the fire services board in a new Rescue Services Agency. The end of the Cold War led to a withering of the civil defence component. The initial idea – that all citizens had a duty to protect their country in an organized manner – fell into disuse by the mid 1990s.

The Russian attack on Georgia and seizure of Crimea however, revived the concept of total defence after 2014. Everyone between the age of 16 and 70 again has an obligation to respond in the event of an invasion or a natural catastrophe. “Everyone is obliged to contribute and everyone is needed” proclaimed a government pamphlet in 2018. Swedes were cautioned in the same pamphlet to prepare themselves for an emergency, though the emphasis was as much on peace-time natural emergencies as war. Nevertheless, in the event of war, the pamphlet declared that “we will never give up”. This basic idea is central to non-violent defence: an invader may occupy territory, but total non-cooperation and symbolic opposition will raise the costs of occupation, thereby discouraging invasion in the first place. In principle, all municipalities, voluntary organizations, businesses, trade unions, and religious organizations are required to prepare for civilian defence.

By March 2022, at the height of the war in Ukraine,  one in three Swedes was fairly or very concerned their country would be attacked.. Furthermore, a 2021 survey registered popular support for the idea of civil defence: 84 percent of Swedes said they would be willing to play a defence role, so long as it was non-combative.

Sweden is not an ideal case of civilian defence. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the government talked of raising the defence budget and perhaps abandoning Sweden’s neutrality by joining NATO. But the idea of civil defence persists as a defiant complement, though not alternative, to military defence.

Partisanship, Vested Interests and Apathy

If a country were to experiment with non-violent defence, what obstacles would the experiment encounter?

Sharp in Chapter 5 of Civilian-Based Defense contends that non-violent defence, to succeed, must not only adhere to an all-of-society, nonpartisan approach, but also secure the cooperation of the armed forces. People of both sexes and all ages must participate, according to Sharp. They will do so out of patriotism, the desire to maintain their way of life, and an abhorrence of domestic and foreign usurpers alike. It will also be necessary to bring the military onside, claims Sharp. Civilian-based defence (CBD) may thus begin as a minor supplement to the armed forces, the former’s role expanding as it demonstrates its efficacy and popularity.

Is this a realistic scenario in today’s world? The establishment of CBD, from this viewpoint, is largely a top-down exercise, based on two assumptions. The first is that partisan cleavages are bridgeable. According to Sharp, civilian defence must be “transpartisan”. It must accommodate conservatives as well as liberals and socialists. If it becomes the project of a radical movement, or any single party, Sharp contends, its appeal will be too limited.

Secondly, this scenario assumes that reason will trump interests. The armed forces, various security apparatuses, suppliers of weapons and military technology and the national-security intellectual wing, are apparently swayed by evidence. Sharp emphasizes the importance of research in demonstrating CBD’s potential effectiveness. If research on CBD is positive, if the training of the population proceeds, and if civilians show enthusiasm, the armed wing of defence will acquiesce to the ascendancy of non-violent defence. Reason and patriotism will prevail.

Note that Sharp advocates “transarmament,” not disarmament. Presumably, it will be easier to sell CBD if it is seen not as pacifism, but as another form of struggle. The weapons in the new defence system are not munitions, missiles, warplanes, tanks; instead, they involve the subtle employment of 198 non-violent methods, their selection geared to the stage of engagement with the opponent, and the degree of the latter’s repressiveness.

I see three problems with this approach. The first pertains to interests. Sadly, we do not live in a world governed by reason; indeed, today people contest even what counts as fact. Interests shape dominant ideas, including those, or especially those, concerning national security. President Dwight Eisenhower, long ago, warned of the power of the military-industrial complex in bolstering military expenditures. Today, we would need to refer to an expanded military-industrial-security-intellectual complex. Thousands of billions of dollars are spent worldwide on the military and ancillary activities: on weapons, personnel, training, think-tanks, research and development. Many corporations, wealthy shareholders, employees and intellectuals are invested in perpetuating and extending the system of military defence. And defence budgets grow year after year.

In contrast, how much is spent on research on non-military forms of defence? Virtually nothing – perhaps the occasional grant for esoteric scholarly research.

Demilitarization will therefore involve a political struggle. It will be a struggle obviously in the superpowers. But even in in developing countries with weak institutions, the military tends to be comparatively strong. Much is at stake in defence policy for a range of powerful interests. No research results in favour of civilian defence are likely to persuade those whose profits, privileges or job depend on military defence. Non-violent defence – as more than a minor supplement to military defence – is a radical proposal.

Secondly, many societies today are riven with partisan divides and authoritarian tendencies. The United States is an obvious example, but the phenomenon is widespread, in Europe and beyond.

Is it possible to forge transpartisan support for CBD in these circumstances?

Sharp notes in Civilian-Based Defence (ch. 5) that non-violent defence is more likely to work where social cohesion is high and democracy and civil society are strong. However, these ideal conditions are not, he claims, prerequisites.

But is Sharp correct? Can non-violent defence happen in the absence of social cohesion and strong democracy? It seems unlikely. The issue would be politicized and viewed with deep suspicion by conservative/populist forces. And autocrats would not empower their people via training in nonviolence.

Thirdly, alienation and cynicism are rife in many societies today; Yet Sharp emphasizes that non-violent defence requires intensive preparation and training of all or most of a country’s population. What will induce people to shake off their apathy and devote their free time to training? Motivation is a problem, magnified by deep partisan divides.

All these considerations – vested interests, partisan divides and alienation – suggest that a top-down, apolitical approach will not work. The reality is that non–violent defence is a radical democratic initiative. Nonviolent action is inherently democratic to the extent that it empowers people vis-a-vis their rulers or aggressors. Only a mass movement will be powerful enough to overcome the vested interests in militarism and motivate people to participate in training and preparation.

Of course, even if CBD fails as a national system, or is limited to a subsidiary role, people may, when the need arises, spontaneously take up nonviolent resistance. But a trained response would be so much more effective.

A Dynamic, Mutually Reinforcing Process

The prospect of non-violent defence is enhanced if it is understood as a dynamic process, rather than a static design. Don’t get lost in Sharp’s 198 methods of non-violent action and the complexities of relating strategy to circumstances. The key is this: CBD focuses on agency. People possess power to shape their own futures; how therefore  should this agency be harnessed for the common good? People have power because rulers depend on the ruled. Rulers cannot rule if the latter withhold their consent (or perhaps more accurately, assent). Thus, Sharp and his followers explore the bases of consent, and how consent can be denied to internal usurpers or external aggressors through nonviolent means.

Sharp and the others adhere to an inductive approach. They draw principles of effective action from successful and unsuccessful cases. In their examples, groups and individuals improvised responses to attempted domination — for example, the passive resistance of the German population to the French-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr Basin in 1923, the heroic non-violent resistance to German occupation in Denmark and Norway during World War II, and the astounding non-cooperation and defiance of the Czechs and Slovaks that met the Warsaw Pact army’s invasion to end the Prague Spring in 1968. The point of these cases is obvious: if improvised strategies can work so effectively, imagine if they were organized!

Fine. But how do you begin the process? Enthusiasm for nonviolent defence may be limited at first, and powerful groups will not cooperate and may be actively obstructive.

The process seems to work like this. The more the government builds the capabilities of the civilian defenders, the greater the willingness of people to unite and resist, drawing on the learned repertoire of nonviolent strategy and tactics.  And the more advanced the capabilities and the united willingness of defenders to resist, the less likely that enemies will attack or usurpers will usurp power. The costs of domination become too high.

What comprise the capabilities of non-violent defence? They include organizational structure, committed and shrewd leadership, training facilities geared to the general population, the proportion of the population that wants to participate, and ultimately the strength of civil society.

The final factor alludes to the importance of institutional involvement in civilian-based defence. What political parties, trade unions, religious bodies, school systems, municipalities support the system? Obviously, nonviolent action is much easier to develop within a democracy; indeed, it is inherently democratic. Again, CBD empowers people.

As the capabilities grow, the willingness to resist and the participation of the population expands. Concomitantly, the costs of asserting domination on the part of usurpers or aggressors rises, enhancing the prospects of peace – provided the society in question is willing to pre-empt conflict by negotiating jointly acceptable solutions to outstanding disputes.

Being Realistic

Demilitarization – reducing the budgets and roles of the armed forces – is a critical goal in today’s world. We face the rising probability of a nuclear holocaust resulting from accident, miscalculation, or escalation arising from a war like that in Ukraine. We are also very close to runaway global warming. The military, in the United States and increasingly elsewhere, is one of the largest institutional emitters of greenhouse gases. In addition, massive defence budgets are dedicated to waste – contributing neither to production not higher living standards – whereas we need to reallocate these resources to fighting climate change. Nonviolent defence, together with a renewed commitment to nuclear disarmament, is a potential way of achieving demilitarization.

Besides bolstering demilitarization, civilian defence has other positive outcomes. It reinforces civil society, builds democracy, discourages would-be tyrants and enemies, and extends norms of non-violent conflict resolution.

How then can we promote CBD? Civilian defence may proceed as a gradual process. Initially, it may be seen as only a supplement to military defence. Realism suggests that this approach is the most viable option. If popular enthusiasm grows and civilian capabilities advance, the military may be gradually reduced to a border control agency. But such a harmonious process is likely to be blocked at an early stage. Apolitical gradualism has severe limits.

Authoritarian states, for one thing, would balk at empowering their subjects. Civilian defence reveals the acute dependence of government on the assent of the ruled, together with the non-violent acts of omission and commission that withdraw that assent and paralyze rulership.

Nonetheless, in authoritarian systems, citizens have often improvised effective non-violent tactics. Consider the revolts of the people in eastern Europe and republics of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the “Arab Spring” of the early 2010s, which featured in many cases massive street protests; the “colour revolutions” beginning in 2004 in the post-Soviet countries of Eurasia, including Ukraine; and the non-violent revolts against military rule in Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere. Indeed, nonviolent protest reached its apogee in the period 2010-19, inhibited eventually by the pandemic.

Nonviolence, at a minimal level, is just common sense for people with grievances but without deadly weapons.

Partisan divides and power structures also hinder the expansion of nonviolent resistance at the expense of the military. “The people united will never be defeated,” yes. But the people are rarely united, and vested interests are powerful. Partisan and other cleavages allow those who govern to divide and rule their subjects. Social cohesion, together with democracy, is a key ingredient of success with non-violence. Unfortunately, many societies today are riven by partisan loyalties and authoritarian tendencies. What to do?

Accept the reality: civilian defence, in its full manifestation where the military’s role considerably shrinks, is a radical proposal. It will probably be advocated only by a progressive movement, along with measures to9 achieve democratization,  equity, and a Green New Deal for a just transition. Civilian defence, as a radical project of democratization and demilitarization, is the missing link in the programs of the left.

What sort of states are the best candidates for CBD? Nuclear-armed states are unlikely candidates. From the strategic viewpoint, it is assumed nuclear weapons deter attacks. We know the logic is strong. How else could a nuclear power such as Russia, without the deterrent, get away with attacking and devastating Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe? States will be reluctant to surrender their nuclear weapons.

Non-violent defence can still play a supplementary role in the US, the UK, France, India and Israel, acting as a major deterrent to domestic usurpers of power and building civil society for the longer run. In addition, the more states adopting CBD, the lower the international threats; the lower the tensions, the more likely are agreements on limiting and eventually abolishing nuclear weapons. There is an indirect benefit of civilian defence.

Clearly, CBD would be easiest to introduce in small democratic countries and territories that lack a military. Cases that come to mind include Costa Rica, Mauritius and Iceland.

Countries bordering on a Great Power could also benefit from civilian defence. These countries could not hope to defeat an invading force from the superpower – or at least not without inflicting enormous damage and casualties upon themselves. Besides training the population in the principles and methods of nonviolent defence, civil society organizations would need to build strong links with peace groups internationally and with dissident groups within the superpower. The aim would be to precipitate internal dissent in the aggressor’s country and international condemnation of the invader, together with sanctions, in the event of a conflict. This strategy would proceed along with a willingness to negotiate to resolve conflicts with the great-power neighbour. Ukraine would have been a major candidate for such an approach. Smaller countries would be in a more dangerous position with CBD. They would face the prospect of forced assimilation to the dominant ethnic group of the superpower, as has happened in Tibet and the western regions of China.

Democratic middle powers, especially the Nordic countries, also offer an opportunity. Sweden is an exemplar. They would begin with civilian defence as a supplement to military defence. As CBD is a dynamic process, it might expand over a decade as it demonstrates its viability. Given catastrophic climate change, civilian and military defence would both expand to encompass preparation and training in handling “natural” disasters (extreme heat and storms, floods and forest fires). The body in charge might be termed a “civilian protection agency.”

Nonviolent defence is one element in a broader program to allow humans to live and thrive in an increasingly dangerous world. Politics is key.


Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace.

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a large crowd engaged in nonviolent resistance

Demilitarization: Is It Time for Civilian-Based Defence?

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Albert Einstein’s famous comment is more profoundly true today than when he uttered it in 1946. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explained in 2015, Einstein’s understanding of this old mode of thinking still defined the prevailing national security doctrine of all major states. It’s time for a change in thinking.

Old Thinking

National-security doctrine includes the typical belief “that the best defense is a good offense; that any military buildup by an enemy must be matched or exceeded; that wars can—indeed, must—be fought against hateful and dangerous concepts such as terrorism and communism; and that nuclear bombs are like conventional ones, just more powerful.” The basic idea mirrors fistfights between school children: you need to be bigger and tougher than your opponent.

But in today’s world of nuclear proliferation and deadlier nuclear weapons, this old thinking threatens our survival. By calculation or inadvertence, a nuclear exchange, even if limited, will kill tens of millions, stunt the lives of many more, induce widespread famines, and accelerate global warming.

We still await the new thinking that will release us from the existing balance of terror among nuclear-armed states. Nuclear disarmament is an ever more distant prospect. Human nature remains unchanged. Disputes among nations will always emerge. And we need international cooperation to avert the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. What shall we do? Part of the answer may lie in an old idea that is still new.

New Thinking: For the 1980s and Today

Gene Sharp, in the 1980s, offered bold, thinking, that remains fresh today. This thinking departed markedly from national-security doctrine. Supported by the Albert Einstein Institution, Sharp advocated a complex nonviolent defence system – “civilian-based defense.” He summarized this concept in an article in 1980, illustrated it in a book on Making Europe Unconquerable in 1983, and elaborated it in a theoretical volume in 1990. Sharp offers a hard-headed scheme to supplement and (eventually) replace military weapons systems with a nonviolent weapons system based in civil society.

Unfortunately, discussion of this innovative approach receded with the end of the Cold War. The ascendant meme of “an end of history,” an idealized liberal-democratic order supervised by the sole superpower, seemed to render this alternative irrelevant.

However, the end of history was short-lived. With the rise of multi-polarity, authoritarianism, climate crisis, and more murderous nuclear weapons, it may be time to revisit the idea of civilian-based defence (CBD).

Civilian-Based Defence: What Is It?

Summarizing this approach is not easy. Sharp’s 1990 book – Civilian-Based Defense – is heavy going. The reader begins with mastering Sharp’s ideas on nonviolent action, which he presented in their fullest form in a massive three-volume work in 1973. (He identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, organized in three categories, while warning that the list was not comprehensive.) The reader then proceeds to the intricacies of applying this analysis to national defence. CBD aims to prevent internal usurpation of power, deter potential aggressors, and defeat invaders, all in the context of nuclear-armed states and the primacy of national-security doctrine.

Here, is Sharp’s own summary from his 1990 book. Civilian-based defense

is a policy [whereby] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries. (pp.2-3)

In sum, Sharp contends that the power of society and its institutions can (in most cases, and at some point) displace military weapons in defence, even in the context of nuclear-armed states. CBD is not insurrection, if insurgency involves “a violent uprising against authority or government” (Oxford dictionary). Indeed, an armed insurgency will, according to Sharp, undermine the effectiveness of civilian defense. Instead, nonviolent action works through non-cooperation and obstruction nationally, through rallying international support, and through eroding the morale and loyalty of the usurper/aggressor’s home base, troops; and functionaries. Nonviolent defence makes starkly evident  who is responsible for brutality and repression – and who courageously and unthreateningly resists illegitimate domination.

You may, by now, judge that Sharp’s idea is indeed bold, but also outrageous in its impracticability. To allay this understandable reaction, I summarize some of Sharp’s qualifications and provisos, scattered here and there in his works:

  • CBD is not a philosophy like pacifism. It is a realistic strategic alternative to war in thwarting internal usurpers, deterring potential aggressors and defeating attackers. It is a method of struggle to deny an opponent his goals. But it is not a panacea. CBD may fail. Even if it succeeds, it may involve many casualties – though many fewer than would result from a conventional or nuclear war.
  • CBD, for many countries, would supplement their military capability, not displace it. Military commanders might regard CBD as an added deterrent to would-be aggressors. Over time, as CBD proves itself viable through training of the populace, as its popularity grows, and as detailed research on its effectiveness expands, the military capability may shrink. Incrementalism is key.
  • CBD is best suited to small and medium countries, especially small countries that have never developed a military. Superpowers are more problematical, as they derive leverage and prestige from military might. But even nuclear powers might accept CBD as a supplement, especially if it is demanded by a public out of patriotism and concern to defend their way of life. For many countries – for example, those that belong to NATO – treaty obligations hinder CBD. Such countries will need to withdraw from formal alliances;  military budgets will decline. International support, however, is an important prop of CBD, so the withdrawal will require careful preparation.
  • Although ideal social conditions are not prerequisites for CBD, both social harmony and strong democratic institutions are conducive to its success. CBD is a non-partisan, “all-of-society” approach. It is therefore difficult to introduce into societies with deep partisan divisions, such as the United States today. In addition, CBD is intrinsically democratic. Citizens of both sexes and all ages participate. The process empowers people by giving them the tools to resist tyranny and injustice. People reinforce democratic institutions by taking direct, collective responsibility for defending themselves against usurpers and foreign threats.
  • No blueprint of an effective nonviolent campaign exists or could exist. Circumstances matter. Strategies vary with circumstances. Therefore, people and leaders must be trained in the variety and stages of nonviolent resistance. These stages are basically three: the initial warnings through all communications media of the society’s willingness to fight, followed if necessary by “nonviolent blitzkrieg”, and then “programmed general resistance”. Leaders must be not only skilled in strategy and tactics, but also courageous and resolute. The practitioners of CBD will encounter repression, including imprisonment, torture and death. Regardless, the resistance must persist, even if tactical retreats are made. Although there is no guarantee of success, persistence bolsters internal morale, attracts international sympathy and support, and may undermine the loyalty of the aggressor’s support base. Collaborators, troops, functionaries and even the home population are repelled when unarmed protesters are brutally suppressed. But a major challenge is to maintain nonviolent discipline; resorts to violence resulting in deaths foment fear and revenge in opponents.

Even this summary may, I hope, demonstrate that CBD, whether it succeeds or not, is a serious form of struggle, not simply a utopian yearning.

What Are the Benefits?

If it is feasible to introduce CBD, what are the potential benefits?  What follows is a paraphrase of Sharp’s responses, supplemented as indicated by additional benefits in today’s peculiar circumstances:

  • The reduction of offensive weapons that accompanies the expansion of civil defense renders war, and especially nuclear war, less likely. The wider the acceptance of CBD, the less war remains an option. As national societies render themselves “indigestible” (Sharp’s word) through the adoption of CBD, armed invasions become unpalatable. Getting bogged down in an interminable occupation among a uniformly hostile population trained in nonviolent action is a debilitating prospect. Invasions, if they do occur, will cause fewer casualties and less damage than military warfare. Moreover, the reduction of lethal military threats allows for the growth of international cooperation. Holding nuclear arsenals becomes less important when the threat of nuclear strikes diminishes. Nuclear disarmament becomes possible.
  • Although Sharp did not address global warming, CBD would enhance the possibility of successfully tackling this looming threat. Solving the climate crisis requires global cooperation, which is more likely to emerge when the major carbon emitters are not armed to the teeth. Furthermore, as CBD develops, it will allow for the redirection of substantial resources – financial, intellectual and technological – from military defense to fighting global warming (and poverty). CBD might evolve into Civilian Protection Corps, in which citizens of a certain age (say, 20-50) are expected to receive occasional training not only in nonviolent action, but also in responding to “natural” emergencies and disasters. As the incidence of floods, forest fires, devastating storms and extreme heat mounts, the curriculum of CBD might shift to accommodate emergency services. Switzerland, Norway and Sweden have long had civil protection systems; CBD in the current era would build on this experience.
  • Internal, as well as interstate, wars are less likely as CBD expands. When facing a society that is forearmed to defeat usurpers, would-be dictators will think twice. Moreover, the spread of nonviolent norms to resolve conflicts shapes the rules of the political game; consequently, disaffected groups are less likely to resort to violence to achieve their goals. The citizens of fragile state would thus also benefit from CBD.
  • CBD is “intrinsically democratic”, according to Sharp. CBD reinforces pluralism by strengthening civil society. The shared knowledge and practice of nonviolent action empowers people by building their self-reliance. People learn that freedom is not free – it comes at a price. But the price is not high when the training and curriculum changes associated with CBD enhance societal solidarity and mutual protection in a dangerous world.

If the benefits are this plentiful, what are we waiting for?

The Possibilities

Civilian-based defense remains a challenging proposal. It flies in the face of the conventional wisdom on national security (unless CBD is viewed only as a supplement to military force). Both the military-industrial-intellectual complex and insecure or would-be authoritarian leaders will regard the idea as absurd or dangerous. CBD has no place in mainstream textbooks on international relations (as far as I can determine). Is it then just a marginal, if courageous, initiative, best dismissed even by peace activists?

I think a dismissive approach is mistaken, or at least, premature. We have instances of successful CBD. Furthermore, we confront inter-related and devastating threats whose resolution seems to require intervention by an aroused citizenry. Governments. trapped by old thinking and vested interests, have been unable to limit ever-more deadly weapons of mass destruction, to halt an out-of-control climate crisis, to overcome vast and growing inequalities, and to reverse authoritarian tendencies. To preserve and deepen democracy while creating a world worth living in, nonviolent action may prove to be an essential tool.

In fact, CBD has worked effectively in the past, and thus presumably may do so again. Sharp draws on 16 country examples in his 1990 book. These cases involve anti-colonial struggles (4), revolts against Communist rule (4), struggle against domination by a powerful neighbour (2), and resistance to internal oppression/human-rights violations (6). The degree of effective struggle varies widely; some failed while others achieved much success (eg. the Gandhian movement in India and the civil rights movement in the USA).

Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution offers more recent examples of nonviolent resistance, mostly to defeat internal usurpers. He also updates Sharp’s strategy and tactics, especially for youth in the digital age He  includes an entertaining section on “laughtivism”. Popovic and his colleagues now coach resistance movements worldwide on the strategy and tactics of nonviolence. How much more effective might Sharp’s exemplary resistance movements have been if they had the benefit of this accumulated wisdom? Instead, the resisters had to invent nonviolence in the moment?

In assessing possibilities, we should recall that  this is the age of nonviolent protest. Such widespread use of nonviolent action may prepare the soli for CBD.

Scattered protests prior to the 2007‒09 world-financial crash were followed by a staggering array of non-violent protests worldwide in 2010‒20. In 2019, the most extensive wave of rebellion since 1968 erupted, curtailed only by the onset of the pandemic in 2021. As Wright records, the latter protests erupted in six continents and 114 countries, affecting liberal democracies as well as dictatorships:

Movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale — from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, and even Moscow. Taken together, the protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization.

In 2020 the United States experienced the most extensive civil unrest since the 1960s’ civil rights and anti-war protests. Social learning about effective civil disobedience through social media had a lot to do with the unrest, together with the erosion of democracy under the aegis of Trump and other nativist-populist leaders.

Popular rebellions signaled the need to reconstruct broken social contracts. Local irritants and injustices, from hikes in transit fares, to corruption, authoritarian tendencies and racist incidents, provided the spark. Yet whatever precipitated them, protests manifested a deeper anger with the prevailing order. A common theme was that self-serving elites had seized too much power and wealth. But the ongoing polarization between nativist-populists and left-liberals leaves open the question of how the social contract will be reconstituted.

Nevertheless, the rise of nonviolent protest worldwide furnishes a propitious environment for reconsideration of the practicability of CBD.

Conclusion

Peace activists have long denounced militarism and supported demilitarization. Yet they lack a strategy for achieving this goal. Disarmament is not on the horizon. Military budgets increase on all sides. More deadly weapons appear. Tensions between rival powers intensify – tensions involving not only the United States, Russia and China, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. Militarism is on an upswing.

Civilian-based defense is a potential strategy for achieving demilitarization, social solidarity, and the overthrow of tyrants. It provides an antidote to internal wars in fragile states. It can be extended to nonviolent peacekeeping missions in divided countries. A Civilian Protection Corps can supply training not only in nonviolent defence, but also in disaster relief, CBD can redirect resources from military defense to solve the climate, pandemic and poverty issues. Is CBD not the “new” thinking that Albert Einstein called for?

Civilian-based defense is an old but still new idea. But it will never happen without a strong push from organized social movements.

to illustrate devastation of climate change

Climate Emergency: Getting Out Alive

Jim Morrison observed that nobody gets outta here alive. Though Morrison had a point, Kim Stanley Robinson sketches an optimistic scenario in which we – or many of us – do get out of the climate emergency alive. Robinson, in  a book of 530 dense pages entitled The Ministry for the Future, mixes sci-fi with hard science to make his case. It is a tour de force, though a book of such demanding complexity that it is more likely to be talked about than read.

Despite the author’s touching belief in the sanctity of the rule of law, democratic representation and social and ecological justice, the book raises disturbing questions. Success in mastering climate change depends heavily on violence to deter carbon-intensive enterprises and life-styles and on extensive geo-engineering. Is this really what a just transition will entail? If so, how do those committed to non-violence and skeptical of geo-engineering respond?

Fiction….or Non-Fiction?

Taken as a work of fiction, The Ministry for the Future is unconventional. Robinson blithely breaks all the rules of novel-writing. For one thing, very little character development takes place. For another, he stands the maxim, ‘show, don’t tell’ on its head. ”Tell, don’t show” prevails in the form of a series of mini-lectures ranging from the Jevons Paradox and cognitive behavioural therapy to the depredations of rentier capitalism and the promise of Modern Monetary Theory. So be warned: this is not a novel for leisurely reading.

Do enjoy the sheer audacity of the book’s shifting points of view, however. The novel shifts back and forth from third-person omniscient, for narrative and idea-development, to the first-person viewpoint of an amazing array: a photon from the sun, a reindeer, a carbon atom, Gaia, the weather system, and my favourite, the market. This zany approach entices the reader, but also makes us reflect on phenomena far outside our experience. This is, after all, only sci-fi.

Or is it? If it were sci-fi, we might dismiss it as a lark. We cannot dismiss this book, however, because it is heavily based on scientific knowledge and on existing climate trends. The mini-lectures are there not only to inform readers of complex realities, but also to persuade them not to dismiss the dangers he sketches as mere fiction. He harnesses the imaginative power of fiction to alert us to the imminent threat of climate disaster and to a potential pathway to safety and justice.

We begin the book with a searing portrayal of what lies just ahead. It describes in graphic detail a horrendous heat wave in central India that kills 20 million people. It is a horrifying event, yet the risk of such a deadly heat wave occurring in the next few years is high, according to climate scientists. As I was writing this article, NASA and NOAAA issued a report announcing that, in 2019, the earth trapped nearly twice as much heat than in 2005. Already, hundreds of thousands have perished from the heat throughout the world, including hundreds in France in 2003. Today, a headline caught my eye: ‘B.C. Records Hundreds of Deaths Linked to Heat Wave’. If a heat wave can hit Vancouver, where the weather is usually cool, no one is safe. Meanwhile, people in the Persian Gulf and the Indus Valley now regularly experience brief episodes of wet-bulb conditions beyond human endurance. We may know the facts, but Robinson’s fictional account brings home the terror.

So, what does Robinson propose? How do we get out alive?

The Survival Scenario

We observe the climate crisis and the halting response to it mainly through the eyes of Mary Murphy, the thoughtful and committed head of the Ministry for the Future. Established under the Paris Climate Agreement, the Ministry is based in Zurich. Its mandate is exemplary: to work on behalf of children, those yet unborn and animals in pushing for measures to create a just and stable climate Predictably, the Ministry is poorly funded. Its international staff is over-stretched and ineffectual at first. But the ministry has a greater impact following a devastating global depression in the 2030s.

The survival scenario is too complex to summarize. Suffice it to say that there is no integrated program that rallies the world in concerted action. Instead, the world muddles through to the 2040s and 2050s. The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere begins to decline from a dangerously high 450 ppm, half of the world’s surface returns slowly to the wild, and the human population declines to a sustainable level. Robinson offers a decidedly democratic-socialist perspective, though his scenario involves no revolutionary upheaval. Instead, we witness a gradual movement to practical forms of cooperative organization and democratic representation. Strangely enough, the conservative central banks play a key role in this scenario. Mary and others persuade the bankers that, if we fail to conserve the world, worrying about inflation is pointless. Central bankers, tentatively at first, and then enthusiastically, embrace quantitative easing to support a new carbon coin currency, with one ton of sequestered carbon worth one coin. This stable currency persuades even petro-states and energy companies to accept complex compensation for leaving their hydro-carbon assets in the ground. All the parts of the puzzle fit together, though with many false starts.

Is all well that ends well? Not really. The scenario depends for its success on many strands, but two are controversial.

Geo-Engineering?

We may recoil at the geo-engineering, which is undertaken on a massive scale. The Indian government, following India’s devastating heat wave, resorts, without consulting other governments, to ‘solar radiation management’. It seeds the upper atmosphere with sulfur-dioxide dust to emulate the effect of a major volcanic eruption. The experiment reduces global temperatures marginally over three years. A second complex engineering feat, which I will not attempt to explain, is to stabilize glaciers in Antarctica. ‘This effort succeeds in slowing down the movement of glaciers into the sea, thus reducing the rise in ocean levels. Finally, the Russians dye the ice-free areas of the Arctic Ocean yellow to reflect solar radiation and impede oceanic warming. All experiments seem to have a positive effect.

The justification for geo-engineering is that global warming exceeds the point where it is reversible through conventional methods. Will this indeed be our predicament? Most of us harbour strong doubts about geo-engineering. We believe it is impossible, in complex systems, to gauge the unintended, and possibly devastating, effects of major interventions in climate dynamics. We may, however, be forced to rethink our position. Global warming is proceeding much faster than expected. Three or four degrees (Celsius) of warming would be disastrous. How many of us would survive as the tropical and semi-tropical regions become uninhabitable? If we are headed in that direction, we may have little choice but to consider geo-engineering as a last resort.

Violence or Non-Violence?

The second controversy concerns the legitimacy of employing violence to deter carbon-intensive activities and life-styles. In the novel, characters who have earned our respect condone the use of violence.

Attention in the novel focuses on a shadowy international ‘terrorist’ group based in India – the ‘Children of Kali’ – and a ‘black-ops’ group associated with the Ministry for the Future. Mary Murphy stumbles on the secret operations established by her deputy at the Ministry. She struggles with the morality of violence; Mary is depicted as a well-balanced, fair-minded democrat. Eventually, she accepts the necessity: ‘The hidden sheriff, she was ready for that now, that and the hidden prison. The guillotine for that matter. … The gun in the night, the drone from nowhere. Whatever it took. Lose, lose, lose, fuck-it – win!’

What transpires is a cascade of violence. Underground groups commit widespread sabotage of pipelines, polluting power stations, passenger jets (60 crash in a single day) and private passenger planes. Air travel ceases as dirigibles return. The Children of Kali assassinate billionaires who profit from hydro-carbons. Drones sink container ships and factory-fish ships, and pulverize cement factories, Cattle ranching ceases as a bovine fever fatal to humans spreads among cattle and other domestic animals. Direct attacks – such as an operation that kidnaps the rich and famous at an Economic Summit at Davos – strike fear into the hearts of the powerful. And the violence succeeds in lowering emissions. The age of carbon-intensive industry and travel ends, while vast tracks hitherto dedicated to animal agriculture revert to wilderness. As the human population dwindles, the natural world undergoes a renaissance. Consequently, the concentration of carbon dioxide begins a steady decline in the 2040s or 2050s.

Considering the beneficial outcomes, is violence justified in the fight for a just transition?

Those of us committed to non-violence would answer in the negative. Yet, whether we like it or not, violence is likely to come. As extreme weather events multiply, as these events destroy agricultural and other livelihoods, the resulting panic and anger create conditions for extremism and ‘terrorism.’ In fact, adverse climatic trends are already exacerbating violent conflicts in tropical regions; in Syria, Sudan, Mali, and Central America, for instance. Security agencies in the United Kingdom and Canada have already identified such non-violent groups as Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and PETA as potentially subversive. Extreme climate, loss of livelihoods, growing criminality, and collapsing governments are fuelllng a growing stream of climate migrants/refugees. If we do not take decisive action to halt carbon emissions, with dangerous tipping points in the offing, we invite instability, conflict and violence.

What Might Happen, Must not Happen

Combating global warming is thus not just a fight for climate activists; it is a fight for peace and justice activists as well. Kim Stanley Robinson shows as what might happen. But we have agency, and the violence and chaos that might happen, must not happen. Robinson’s final words are not exactly a consolation, but at least ground us in the reality of our situation: “We will keep going, we will keep going because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.”

Artificial Intelligence

Futureproof? Artificial Intelligence and the Human Prospect

New York Times  technology reporter Kevin Roose begins his new book with some good news.

Futureproof: Nine Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, (2021) adopts an upbeat tone in proposing how we might live well in this age of automation. “Artificial intelligence could be unbelievably good for humankind, if we do it right. A world filled with AI could also be filled with human creativity, meaningful work and strong communities.” Furthermore, artificial intelligence and automation “could bring us together, armed with new superpowers, to solve some of our biggest problems.” What problems? Big, big ones: to “eliminate poverty, cure diseases, solve climate change, and fight systemic racism.” Great!

But his repeated use of the conditional verb “could” evokes caution. Is this vision only hypothetical?

It appears to be so: Roose notes that “none of this will happen without us.” Well, that’s not a surprise. What do “we” need to do?

Therein lies the rub. Roose offers no plan because he lacks a problematic. Yes, he is rightfully skeptical “that the private sector will save us.” Yes, he thinks a strong welfare state and extensive retraining programs are needed to handle the disruptions. Yes, he implores us to stop bowling alone and recreate community in order to back “collective action.” But how do we overcome atomization, and for what sort of joint action? No answer, except for a stirring call to “arm the rebels” within the high-tech oligopolies – the usual suspects: Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, Alibaba, Microsoft, and others. Well, that’s something of a political nature.

But very thin gruel. Roose’s idea of arming tech rebels fighting for “ethics and transparency” is to provide them with “tools, data and emotional support.” That doesn’t sound promising, though further revelations of algorithmic manipulations and the unsavoury military contracts of big tech are important.

Not surprisingly, with little to offer, Roose concludes by urging his readers not to get “too discouraged.” If “we” are determined, “we” may still harness technology for the common good.

Am I too harsh in my judgment? You judge. Roose’s approach is emblematic of what we might term a “progressive neoliberal” stance. That stance deplores certain social trends, hopes for good social and ecological outcomes, but it hasn’t a clue how to bring them about. The failure stems from avoiding an analysis of systemic power relations, of which technological development is one pillar. The analyst turns instead to the easier question of how individuals can best accommodate existing trends. The author’s “Nine Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation” enumerate common-sensical ways in which humans can individually adapt to, and perhaps even thrive with, this runaway monster. Believing that another glorious world is possible leads nowhere if you lack a strategy.

But you may ask: is there really a problem with AI that requires a problematic? Can’t we just keep clicking happily away on our phones while hoping for the best? After all, learned economists claim that, in the long run, everyone benefits from automation because more and better jobs are created than are lost. Overall, living standards and satisfactions allegedly rise. Let’s click and be happy!

Sorry, no. The techno-optimists’ view is suspect. Although saying a good word on behalf of the machine-wrecking Luddites is considered a mark of intellectual ineptitude, we may at least understand their anger. The following questions just touch the surface of what is at issue:

  • Why should we assume that what may have happened in the past –new jobs and higher living standards for most – will recur in today’s different circumstances?
  • Is there an ethical case for sacrificing a generation or two for the long-run gain of future generations? What happened in the first industrial revolution in the West, and what is happening now in many countries of the global South, was and is brutal. The “satanic mill” involved exploitation, child labour, shortened life-spans – until the advent of trade unions, labour solidarity and the first stirrings of democratic government. Can we justify sacrificing lives for technological change?
  • Can today’s workers aspire to fill the new and better jobs that are created in this” fourth industrial revolution” powered by AI? In general, no. According to various reports, massive numbers of jobs are being lost – albeit, as Roose suggests, “invisibly.” Currently, the pandemic is providing both motivation and cover for companies to replace disease-prone humans with machines. The job losses are occurring at all levels, though particularly hard hit are the low-income occupations. Most of the new, good jobs involve high-tech/advanced-skills. Can unskilled and semi-skilled workers be retrained to fill these jobs? Probably not, unless exceptional retraining and income-replacement programs .exist, which is not the case except in the Nordic countries. Thus, many displaced workers end up in the insecure and poorly remunerated livelihoods in the gig economy, providing services for the winners of technological change and financialization.
  • If AI is our master rather than our useful servant, do we want it? As Roose points out, AI and automation have not made workers happier. Just the opposite: they suffer more stress than 30-50 years ago. Futureproof tell us why. AI is programmed to squeeze the last bit of productivity out of every worker. The Amazon warehouse is the paradigmatic case. The lot of growing numbers of workers is constant surveillance and monitoring by machines. The aim is “algorithmic management” – machines with the capacity to monitor, assess, reward, and even fire workers. Employees effectively will work for machines. And surveillance does not stop at the factory/warehouse/mine/office door. ”Surveillance capitalism” denotes a society in which advanced surveillance equipment (such as facial recognition and cellphone tracking) allows intelligence agencies to keep tabs on anyone deemed suspicious. Artificial intelligence is generating a cornucopia of tools for monitoring and controlling dissenters and dissidents – a boon for authoritarian leaders worldwide. Not to mention the latter’s new capacity for censorship and online disinformation campaigns. The latter are used to discredit opponents and reinforce extremist political identities. Advanced algorithms using globally networked digital technology spread conspiracy theories and deploy memes to reaffirm the false beliefs of virtual communities. Fascism gains a new lease on life.

Yes, there is a problem with AI. We live in a world faced with destruction from new generations of nuclear weapons, hatred spawned by the manipulated identities of those left behind by technological and social change, and accelerating global warming. All these problems grow worse as companies devote billions of dollars, thousands of PhDs, and millions of hours to perfecting algorithms to control our shopping and political preferences. From a societal viewpoint, it’s mad.

Thus, we return to the issue of a problematic. Lacking a problematic is a debilitating weakness when it comes to harnessing technological development. If you don’t understand the dynamics, you can’t think through feasible means of taming the beast.

So what is the problematic? It is devastatingly simple. I learned this truth years ago when I taught the political economy of technological change. Technological development is not a force of nature; it does not just happen. There are many innovations and inventions that could be harnessed. Those that come to fruition – receive finance and nurture – are the ones that suit the economic and power interests of the dominant elites. This self-evident truth increasingly applies to university-based research as well as commercial research. The incentives make it so.

Strategically, the implication is that if you want to change the pattern of technological development, you have to challenge the power structure. Roose is right: artificial intelligence could be “unbelievably good for humankind.” With enhanced productivity and new ways of interacting, we could solve our major problems and extend the realm of freedom for all. But not by following Roose’s nine rules of individual adaptation. Yes, “none of this will happen without us.” Yet that admonition requires substance.

Can “we” take on power structures? Can we organize a progressive mass movement that avoids the usual problems of sectarianism, identity clashes and schism? Can we develop a program that might have wide appeal, despite the rise of populist-nativism? It is a daunting challenge, especially in this age of surveillance capitalism powered by AI. But we have no other option but to try – if we want to be “futureproof.”

[header image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

the book cover of the novel

The Pandemic Within

Strangely, reading Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) during the pandemic did not depress me (further). Instead, I felt exhilarated. Yes, Camus depicts widespread despair in Oran (Mediterranean city in Algeria) as it undergoes months of quarantine. Fear and unrest rise as bubonic plague kills thousands each month But, as usual with Camus, his ideas are engaging.

Camus has intrigued me since undergraduate days. As a young man, I identified with his defiant attitude in “The Myth of Sisyphus” and L’étranger. Yes, our lives are utterly absurd in the sense of meaningless. But, despite all, including an empty heaven, we live. We may be Sisyphus with his futile unending task of pushing a boulder up a hill. However, we endure, and we can even imagine Sisyphus happy. Why? Because we devise our own meaning.

As an older man re-visiting these works, I found that defiance less satisfying. Perhaps age dulls the sense of possibility. In any case, in The Plague Camus is less defiant, more humble, and distinctly chilling.

The crux of the novel arrives at the beginning, when the narrator (Dr Rieux, as it turns out) observes that people consider themselves free, but “no one will be free as long as there are pestilences.” This observation has both an obvious, and a less obvious, meaning.

Obviously, epidemics and pandemics curb the freedom of everyone. People spend aimless days of high tension, mourn their dead, and are restricted to concentration camps if exposed to the virus. Even so, the experience of the people of Oran is, in some ways, not as dire as ours: people flock to bars, restaurants, cinemas and beaches, despite the contagion. No social distancing there, surprisingly.

People wait to be freed from the pestilence. Religion offers little consolation. Father Paneloux, his own faith in doubt, pleads for people to surrender to “God’s will”, not to question a fate that is all part of His design. Dr Rieux, the good doctor, is unpersuaded. We can count only on ourselves, he thinks. God remains mute in his heaven, in the face of all atrocities. Rieux, the model of an ethical and thoughtful person, acts to heal the afflicted purely out of common decency. That is all one can rely on.

At the less obvious level, the plague represents the propensity within humans for violence and murder. Tarrou, a visitor to Oran of mysterious origins, develops this idea in conversation with Rieux. Other reviewers have represented the plague as  fascism, but I see no evidence for this interpretation. Although the story is deliberately obscure, a youthful Tarrou apparently participated  in a radical left-wing group that assassinated people to advance a Utopian future. He later realizes a bitter truth: not only is killing never justified by any principle, but also, and more unsettling, “we all have the plague, and I have lost my peace.” The virus – the propensity for violence – may remain dormant for a while, but it never disappears. It will become virulent again and the contagion will spread.

So how do we live? Only by being perpetually on guard against the resurgence of the pestilence and taking the side of victims. “While unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence,” we must “strive our utmost to be healers.”

Are we humans worth saving, if our basic natures are so debased? Yes, says Camus, in a carefully balanced judgment . “There are more things to admire in people than despise.” We hope he is right. We hope to encounter many Dr Rieux, to become Dr Rieux. But one thing is certain; indeed, it is the key lesson. To achieve peace, both in the political and the personal sense, we must be true healers. We must be alert to, and act against, the pandemic within.

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace Canada.

Image by Random House.

Making the Impossible Possible: Coalitional Movement Politics in the Decisive Decade

This is the decisive decade for humankind and other species. We tackle dire trends now.  Or we face a bleak future in which our constricted pandemic life now becomes the norm for all but the wealthiest. Our rational and technological prowess, in combination with market-based power structures, has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Can movement politics be part of a solution?

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