“I believe in world peace. I believe it is possible.”
– Every politician or beauty pageant contestant ever.
Highly unlikely. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be desirable. It’s just not going to happen. Even in an idealistic world where everyone had enough food, followed the Golden Rule, did not covet status, wealth or luxury, politicians weren’t corrupt, organized religions did not divide us, and everyone was perfectly honest, rational and considerate of the opinions of everyone else, and moreover, everyone knew that everyone else was being as morally upstanding as they could be, world peace would not happen.
Why not? In short, a lack of resources tomorrow, and irreconcilable disagreements on what is moral and best for society.
So why am I bringing up resources? I specifically said that there was enough food. I’m not being facetious. If there is enough food, space, water and so on for today, you can bet that there won’t be tomorrow. Why? Because a primary population limiting factor is access to life-sustaining resources. If there is enough of that to go around, more offspring will be had until the struggle for survival is reinstated. This is a well-demonstrated ecological outcome.
Ecology. The study of organisms in their environment. Animals. Plants. Little crawly things. All the other forms of life. Ecology isn’t about people, right? Ecology is about non-humans; politics, economics, sociology, anthropology and psychology are for humans. The rules of the wild don’t apply to us. Humans are special. Sure, animal populations will expand until they begin butting their heads on the ceiling of food and space availability, and plants will expand until they can’t find more land, pollinators, and/or access to sun, water and minerals. But humans, we have reason and culture and the ability to work together and learn. And birth control! How well have these things worked for us thus far in terms of putting the breaks on global population expansion? And does anyone really expect to see UNICEF or any other organization raise the “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner declaring an end to the war on hunger? The human population is just a few months away from reaching 7 billion. While, the rate of growth is now slowing as we come to increasingly bang our heads on the ecological ceiling, we are nevertheless expected to hit 8 billion in 14 years and 9 billion in about 35.
But what if there was better international collaboration in working with the people of poorer nations to jointly solve this humanitarian crisis? What if the Catholic Church would stop telling Africans and anyone else who will listen that condoms and birth control are evil and ineffective with regard to protecting against disease? And what if we kept becoming more efficient at procuring resources from the environment? Then we’d be good, right? Doubtful. Why? For one, we’d be asking a few generations – including our own – to really take one for the team. Secondly, people would butt heads over irreconcilable moral disagreements. Lastly, no matter how efficient you get, there is only so much juice in an orange.
Taking One For The Team
People in poorer nations would be required to accept profound and permanent changes to their way of life that would generally be far more substantial than those endured by people of wealthier nations. Aspects of their culture that may have evolved over decades, centuries or longer will have to be altered or supplanted in the name of cooperation and efficiency. In terms of imposed lifestyle changes, among the most imposing would be the fundamental directive to
HAVE FEWER KIDS.
Way fewer. And what if abortions were to be encouraged or even required by governments for accidental second or third pregnancies? That would go over well… And could you imagine how much worse that pill would go down if people in wealthier nations were not required to curb their birthing? If we want to avoid war I suspect that people of more affluent nations may have to play by the new rules, too.
People in developed nations would have to make significant concessions of their own if they wish to secure the peaceful cooperation of those in poorer parts of the world. Among these concessions would be allowing increased immigration and accommodation of people from from poorer nations (something that in our non-ideal world would be very unpopular), making the development of autonomy of poorer people’s and nations a bigger priority (something that would be unpopular in our non-ideal world among big business communities and many tax-payers, particularly conservatives), and the like. Furthermore, as a result of all of the above all of us would incur higher prices on many purchases, higher taxes to fund this global project, and greater competition in labour markets due to an influx in immigrants.
“It’s hard not to expect increasing taxes and decreasing quality of healthcare for everyone.”
Just as there are negative consequences for failing to curb birthrates, there are pitfalls to succeeding. In the US in 1960, for every retiree there were 5.1 workers. As of 2007 the ratio was down to 3.1. It has been predicted that by 2035 there will only be 2.1 workers for every retired person. With such a drop in the ratio of workers to retirees, it is hard not to expect both increasing taxes and decreasing quality of healthcare for everyone. Immigration may help offset some of this difference, but researchers at the United Nations have significant doubts that it will provide more than a partial solution.
Addressing problems associated with resource shortages without resorting to war would require billions of people to take a big one for the team for at least a few generations.
What if a critical mass of people in favour of collectively addressing our population crisis organized? What if everyone was willing to be as considerate of the well-being of other current and future citizens as they are of their own? This would still not suffice to usher in an economically, environmentally and politically sustainable world. The reason for this is that honest, rational, well-intended people can strongly disagree on issues of morality. Sometimes people have disagreements on religious grounds. But even if the entire world shared a single religion or were atheistic, new “secular religions” would form. As it is, there are liberal Christians and conservative Christians. Ditto atheists, Muslims, Jews, and so on.
Within a particular belief community there will be significant differences with respect to fundamental values. For example, while both liberals and conservatives care deeply about freedom and justice, they have different beliefs with regard to what constitutes freedom and justice and the relative priorities of different considerations. Both groups care about equality of opportunity, but liberals care more than conservatives about equality of outcome (e.g., distributive justice). Hence, liberals are more favourable toward tax-payer funded social programs. Conservatives aren’t against helping those in need; they’re against being forced to. Conservatives understandably perceive that a government is acting tyrannically when it forces citizens to forfeit a portion of their resources to others. Meanwhile, a liberal may regard a society as unjust if it allows some people to suffer from health problems, lack of opportunity for advancement, malnutrition and so on, often through no fault of their own (perhaps next time they’ll choose to be born to wealthier parents…), while others live in grandiose excess. While liberals and conservatives may be able to see where the other is coming from – though they often don’t – at the end of the day disagreement on core principles of morality and the good society persist.
And if you doubt that secular ethical worldviews like progressivism or libertarianism are fundamentally religious, consider a few questions. On what purely objective grounds could the tenets of either value system be proven, or at least be shown to be superior to the other? Without invoking value judgments, can you justify or even bolster a value system? If a system makes people happier, is that inherently good if you don’t assume that happiness is good? If a practice promotes survival of an organism, a community, a species, or the world, does that not depend on the assumption that it would be good to save these things? How could you prove any of this?
When honest, well-intended people disagree on issues of morality and how society should be, how do you resolve things peacefully? Would a pro-lifer (be they religious or not; there are non-religious pro-lifers) be satisfied with a pro-choicer’s proposal of only having an abortion if you’re comfortable with it? Would a liberal be satisfied by conservative’s suggestion of a purely voluntary social safety net supporting tax collection system? In both cases the answer is clearly “No”. In both cases, in order to be morally satisfied each party needs the other to agree to something it fundamentally disagrees with.
Irreconcilable moral differences exist, but decisions have to be made. When decisions need to be made and conversation and compromise are no longer possible, what then?
There is only so much juice in an orange.
The most famous doomsday sayer with regard to overpopulation and resource depletion is probably Thomas Malthus. Some generations ago he asserted that our population will outstrip its resources by virtue of the fact that while our population was increasing exponentially (e.g., 2, 4, 16, 32..), our food supply was only increasing in modest steps (e.g., 2, 3, 4, 5..). The Malthusian crunch has thus far been evaded to a degree that would have impressed Malthus greatly. Through decentralized capitalist economic systems and increasingly connected social and information networks, humans have continually found new sources of resources and more efficient means of harvesting them. However, as this has happened our population has continued to expand, as ecology would have predicted. As we’ve increased our supply we’ve increased our demand. Our orange may not go bone dry, but no matter how good we get at juicing it – and we’ve proven to be incredibly good – there’s only so much to extract. And when the flow slows to a trickle bad things happen.
So does the inevitability of war imply that there is no point even trying to promote peace, well-being and positive relations among people of different moral worldviews? No. It doesn’t imply that any more than the certainty of death implies that one should not try to live healthily. In fact, amidst the admittedly grim picture painted in this post is some positivity. Most notably, it is highlighted that people can disagree on moral grounds without at least one of the parties being dense, irrational, biased, or heartless. While, at the end of the day a progressive and a conservative may not come to agree with each other, they might come to see where the other person is coming from. In-so-doing, they can understand how a person can be good, reasonable and caring and still hold a stance that appeared to be abhorrent. Anything that decreases our tendency to polarize into us-them, good-evil type dichotomies is a good thing – to me, at least. If you found the ideas expressed here interesting, I strongly recommend the books of Daniel Quinn, beginning with Ishmael.
We are humans. We are imperfect. But even in our imperfection, most of us don’t want to harm or be harmed. But when the stakes are high enough – when lives are on the line, or when we cannot agree on moral issues – sometimes, there will be war.