Saturday, June 30, 2012

Production, reproduction, and consumption

Historian William Hardy McNeill (1984) noted that when humankind formed the first standing armies in the prehistoric Middle East we saw the first class of macroparasite, since the armed forces produce nothing and simply consume (and when military hawks then become politicians, the phenomenon compounds, as we see when John McCain leads the charge against reduction of Pentagon oil consumption). However, some claim now that the aggression of warriors makes them reproduce more effectively than the rest of us males. The aggressors, they assert, are better at attracting women, siring children, and out-populating the peace-oriented males (Ghiglieri, 1999).

As someone who tried to think about this 44 years ago when the Ehrlichs' book, The Population Bomb, was published and when I read it at the ripe old age of 17, I will say that trying to outreproduce anyone seems particularly insane, given our stressed out resource base and scarcity of so much in the near future. Some of us would love to see the ancient forests remain and a bit of clean water remain drinkable.

Nonetheless, it is of interest to respond to these claims, backed up by 'research' done with highly flawed methodology in at least some cases. For instance, a world-famous study on the Yanomamo tribespeople--a particularly warlike hunter-gatherer society in Amazonia--purports to show that violence-committing males have more children than those who neglect to murder others. The astonishing omission from the discussion of validity of the study is that, on average, those males who hadn't committed murder were approximately a decade younger than the males who had killed someone. In any random population of human males younger than old age, obviously, a cohort of males some 10 years older will have more children. The Yanomamo study proves nothing about killing as a reproductive strategy (Fry, 2005).

This question is really only important insofar as the myth that war is inevitable and even desirable because we are driven to it by the evolutionary success of warring societies. There is just enough truth in that to be very dangerous indeed. It is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's anecdote about another author asking him if Slaughterhouse Five was an antiwar novel (Ringler, 1993). When Vonnegut said yes, the fellow said, well, you might as well write an anti-glacier novel, by which he meant that war was just a force of nature, absolutely unavoidable (and now that a consuming war machine has helped to produce the global warming that is eradicating glaciers the irony is hard to miss).
The US is better at making war than any other culture ever has been in human history and we flatter ourselves constantly that we are the most successful culture on Earth too. As with most factors that relate to war, this is true in a narrow sense and for a short time.

We are in fact the best ever at amassing material goods, consumer items, and we have the huge homes, credit card debt, and storage facilities to prove it. We are awash in junk, degrading in every way. That, presumably, is success.

Here comes China. They manufacture everything and now finally outproduce the US in greenhouse gas, though the US still consumes more oil than any nation. Even though China has not been at war nearly as much as the US has, they certainly have out-reproduced the US, with almost four times the population. That is smart evolutionary strategy?

So what the war anthropologists are saying, presumably, is, have more war, have more children, and you have out-evolved those stupid peaceful ones. Thank goodness for the social scientists and peace researchers who have looked more deeply at these issues. Peace will prevail, as one organizer once told me, or it won't matter anyhow, because no one will be around to worry about it. Some day, in the not-so-distant future, we are going to have to relearn what the peaceful Stone Age tribes knew thousands of years ago, about how to live happily rather than so competitively, about how to relax and enjoy simple, beautiful pleasures rather than strive to make enough money to purchase the perennially elusive material possession that brings happiness, an illusion that endangers all of us, and being more warlike won't get anyone success in solving those problems.


 Fry, D. P. (2005). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ghiglieri, M. P. (1999). The dark side of man: Tracing the origins of male violence. Reading, MA: Perseus.

McNeill, W. H. (1984). The pursuit of power. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ringler, Dick (Ed.) (1993). Dilemmas of war and peace: A sourcebook. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fake fight! Health care for insurance corporations' profits

Chief Justice John Roberts is a liberal, all lined up with the most progressive Obama goals, including health care for all? There is new hope for the egalitarian future of the Roberts court?

Oh please. Obamacare was always just another boondoggle massive gift to corporations. The insurance companies are the primary profiteers with this law, who will gain 20-23 million new forced customers, but all the pundits wax on about some great victory for Obama. Maybe so, but Obama is hardly a hero for pushing through a law that once again benefits an industry that contributes nothing, produces nothing, and lives off the misery of people who simply need and deserve universally available health care. We regard US military assassination and child-killing drone strikes in other peoples' sovereign nations as our right, but health care is a privilege that must result in private profiteering. From the now mostly privatized (read corporate war profiteering) war system to the profiteering health insurance system, the one percent tries quite successfully to present staged fights that make it seem like politicians are substantively and principally divided. It is a ruse.

Politics is rapidly becoming professional wrestling; it looks like a fight, some contestants get hurt, but it's all orchestrated and the 'athletes' are actors. Stentorian tones and ersatz sincerity notwithstanding, most of these 'fights' give heavy profits to corporations no matter who 'wins.' The Miles family peace band at Anathoth Farm in Wisconsin sings about this sort of fixed fight with their song No Matter Who Wins, We Win, attributed to Hermann Goering as he laughed at the descent of morals amongst the Allied powers as WWII dragged on. Goering was reported to have said that exact thing, that no matter who wins, we [Nazis] win. The military contractors laugh too as they watch Congress argue about whether to cut Social Security or education. No matter who wins, they win. And the insurance companies got a big guffaw out of the pitched "battle" over Obamacare. Ask 'em if they give a fig.

In the health care economy we have created, the river runs toward corporate profits no matter what ephemeral wind is whipping up surface waves moving here and there. Can we start to look at this? Can we begin to investigate these profiteers and reconstruct politics to offer actual choices? Our economy and our democracy depend upon it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

We are the rainbow 99 percent

Historian Lawrence S. Wittner spent decades as an international peace and justice scholar/practitioner, researching movements and participating in them. One of the sums of his life, as he wrote in his 2012 illuminating memoir, is, as he reflected on his long career of "involvement in movements to change the world, I found my own community--not only friends and lovers but also millions of good people in nations around the world" (p. 251).

Indeed, writes anthropologist Douglas P. Fry (2005), unlike the lugubrious assumption that most of humanity has engaged in war most of the time for most of our history and prehistory, we all actually usually get along pretty well, with plenty of conflict that is normally managed nonviolently. Fry observes that the archeological record shows war becoming more prevalent in modern times than it was ever before, contrary to more assumptions about humanity red in fang and claw, just another animal on the bloody prowl.

This is an important question. Probably the most immediate and pervasive declaration by the average pundit and the average citizen who lives in a war system is that "war is inevitable; it's just human nature." Well, says Fry, not so fast. Violence is only a part of human nature; nonviolent conflict management is just as natural, probably much more. Why is this so important?

If violence and nonviolence are both a part of human nature we have the essential human situation: choice. Humans do tend toward path dependency--whatever social norms and infrastructures we have constructed tend to dominate--so if we want peace instead of war, we may need to blaze a new trail.

But the good news it's a natural trail, a path much like that which other societies have taken. For a nation that says it values peace, we have not practiced it enough, but Americans are getting war weary. It is possible for us to reach out to those millions of good-hearted people everywhere and do the natural thing--end war.


Fry, D. P. (2005). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (2012). Working for peace and justice: Memoirs of an activist intellectual. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.