I am not a historian who gives a lot of complimentary adjectives for the accomplishments of the 20th Century, I am not a big fan of “10 Best Lists” or “Greatest This-Or-That.” The standard political-scientific-entertainment figures of the American/European 20th Century did some things well, yet glossed over or never knew their errors and omissions. Nevertheless, I will unreservedly award the adjective” Great” to the three Great Leaders of creative, people-powered “liberation” movements in 20th Century politics, Mahatma Gandhi in India in the 1910s to ’40s, Dr. Martin Luther King in America in the 1950s-60’s, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the 1980s-90s.
We are extremely lucky, in our otherwise violent, ruthless, grasping history of so-called civilized nations in the 20th Century of the Christian era, to have had these creative, solution-seeking leaders giving us lessons in moral force, the power of non-violence, and the possibilities of breaking through man-made political/institutional barriers. If we are to be smart in our own coming struggles, we should be studying their challenges and how they overcame them, to be the best we can be when our time of challenge arrives.
Nelson Mandela in 1937
Yet we must be clear. We can’t wait for the next Nelson Mandela to free us. We can’t wait for the next Mahatma Gandhi, we can’t wait for the next Dr. Martin Luther King. We can’t wait for generations of suffering and protest to “produce” a leader (and always remember that none of our three great leaders was ever known to be a “great leader” at the beginning of their journeys, their greatness was much more apparent in retrospect and from a distance). Our inter-knotted, inter-connected world requires an even more difficult task than producing one creative, non-violent leader, in just one time and place. Our world and our times require that we consciously build a worldwide socio-political culture that unabashedly promotes peace, love and understanding among all peoples, as sappy as that may sound, and it must be, as well, a culture in which we will all be active leaders in creating political and economic systems that will allow us and our children to survive with some health, dignity and values intact.
For me the evidence is very strong: our time of challenge is now, and it is likely to last the rest of our days. Our 20th Century civilization has dumped quite a lot of all types of waste in all the nooks and crannies of the earth’s geologic, aquatic, biological and atmospheric realms, and the atmosphere problem seems quite ready to bite us quite hard, quite soon, in our comfortable political and economic arrangements. No one knows today how, exactly, the crisis of a forthcoming tomorrow will present itself — yet again, it is likely to be something that seriously affects our daily lives, and which requires solutions which are inconceivable to the general cultural understanding of “how things should be.”
If these goals of mine, to “survive with some health, dignity and values intact” seem very modest, yes they are. As 2013 turns to 2014, I find it very hard to see good times ahead — please spare me your fantasies of driverless cars and infinitely productive nanobots, perhaps some of these things may achieve a version of truth in a small area of our global future. I am contemplating the extreme weather already occurring and wondering about future problems of basic food production, I am wondering how and where “people power” might ever emerge when faced with governments that are simultaneously too strong to be opposed by disorganized individuals and yet too elitist, selfish, corrupt and cowardly to allow any changes for the better. The trends are nearly all bad, I do fear unforeseeable breakdowns of current economic systems that will severely affect our current urban life/work cultures in extremely damaging ways, there are just too many “ifs” and worries and “unknowns” to leave me comfortable about the coming years. If anyone needs any more evidence that the very air we breathe is potentially close to becoming our most feared enemy force, Juan Cole and various contributors on his Informed Comment blog have been collecting and summarizing the science (and politics) of climate change, and I personally do support the work of the activist organization 350.org and other activists.
Our challenge is much harder than the challenges faced by the popular movements led by Gandhi, King and Mandela in one important respect. In each of their cases, an identifiable population was being held powerless by another identifiable population group, (which was nationally/ethnically different than the first population). In our case, the population being held powerless is, potentially, the entire future population of the 21st Century and beyond … and the identifiable population group holding them powerless is … ourselves, our current political arrangements and economic institutions. That includes all of us who hold in our heads all the reasons these political and economic arrangements can’t be immediately changed !!
The scientific fact that we are also being held powerless by the sheer volume of waste that has already been dumped into our air and oceans, again by ourselves and our immediate ancestors is yet another complicating, challenging aspect of the struggles we face. The struggles we will face will be a different kind of struggle than Dr. King’s faithful confronting Bull O’Connor’s police lines, and it will require new kinds of tactics and strategies that we will need to invent.
It is very likely that our coming challenges will require us to re-assess basic structures in our most fundamental, personal foundations of our own personalities. It is just about absolutely certain that our coming challenges will require new and better explanations of who we are, what we’re doing here, and why we should keep doing it, than our current sciences, philosophies and religions seem to be providing. And our current political and economic institutions — which I do define widely enough to include everything from the inner conscience that prevents us from running traffic lights even when no one else is around, to the hundreds of personality choices and preferences that define and organize our most basic social actions, like getting up and getting dressed and going to work each day — all our ordinary ways of life will likely be challenged in all sorts of ironic, tragic and completely unforeseeable ways.
Getting our heads around the fact that we can’t do X any more because the biological systems that made X possible have been wiped out by climate change, is fairly certain to be something that affects large portions of our current comfortable habits. The problems of creating organizations that empower people for productive action have still not been totally solved by anyone, and we will have to face these organizational challenges as well. My suggestions for better organization in American political work are here, if we can’t work together for better futures globally and economically as well as in our local politics, our grandchildren likely won’t have many successes.
We can’t wait to get to work on the very many necessary changes, if some type of pleasant human society is to survive for our grandchildren. We have to be our own Gandhi, our own Martin Luther King, our own Nelson Mandela, if we are to change the petroleum industry and the coal industry and the socio-political arrangements that give these industries much more political power than ordinary people seem to have. All the evidence points to very pessimistic conclusions for the health of our grandchildren; the prospect that the morally corrupt oil-industry shill Senator Mary Landrieu will have a controlling power over American energy legislation seems very much like a death sentence to any practical hope for positive change in American energy policies.
Nevertheless, my intellectual life has been dedicated to showing how ordinary people can and do create significant change, in their everyday actions — and as a matter of personal psychology and social balance, it is necessary to keep our optimism strong and unwavering. We have to keep our optimism, if only because giving in to despair makes us part of the problem. Again, there won’t be a Mandela to lead us out of the environmental/political/economic conundrums our wasteful habits have created. We have to be our own leaders for creative change, we have to find a way of creating a global culture of positive change and mutual leadership, and we have to start now.