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National Insecurity

Just as conventional doctors mistakenly think of health as the absence of disease, military strategists think of peace as the absence of war. Heres the case for radically rethinking the myth of national security.


Fritjof Capra


THE THREAT of nuclear war is the most dramatic symptom of a multifaceted, global crisis that touches every aspect of our lives: our health and livelihood, the quality of our environment and our social relationships, our economy, technology, our politicsour very survival on this planet.

Conventional politicians no longer know where to turn to minimize the damage. They argue about priorities and about the relative merits of short-term technological and economic fixes without realizing that the major problems of our time are simply different facets of a single systematic crisis. They are closely interconnected and interdependent and cannot be understood through the fragmented approaches pursued by our academic disciplines and government agencies. Rather than solving any of the difficulties, such approaches merely shift them around in the complex web of social and ecological relations. A resolution can be found only if the structure of the web itself is changed, and this will involve profound transformations of our social and political institutions, values, and ideas.

The first step in overcoming the crisis, in my view, is to recognize that the required profound cultural transformation is, in fact, already beginning to take place. This transformation has many aspects. At its core is a dramatic shift of world views; a shift from a mechanistic to a holistic and ecological vision of reality. The paradigm that is now beginning to recede has dominated our culture for several hundred years, during which it has significantly influenced the rest of the world. This world view consists of a number of ideas and values, among them the belief that the universe is a mechanical system composed of elementary material building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of life in a society as a competitive struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth, and the belief that a society in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a basic law of nature. During recent decades all of these assumptions have been found severely limited and in need of radical revision.

The mechanistic world view was formulated most succinctly in seventeenth-century science by Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Bacon, and several others. During the subsequent three hundred years it was extremely successful and dominated all scientific thought. Today, however, its limitations have become clearly visible, and scientists and nonscientists alike will have to change their underlying philosophies in profound ways in order to participate in the current cultural transformation.

I would like to illustrate the limitations of Cartesian-Newtonian thinking with two exampleshealth and peaceexamples that will turn out to show some striking parallels. The mechanistic view of health still dominates our medical institutions and the mechanistic view of peace dominates the thinking of our politicians and the military. In both cases, we have to realize, of course, that the mechanistic view and the engineering approach, as I shall call it, are of great value. But they are limited and must be integrated into a larger holistic framework.

Descartes compared the human organism to a clockwork. I consider the

human body as a machine, he wrote. My thought compares a sick man and an ill-made clock with my idea of a healthy man and a well-made clock. Many characteristics of current medical theory and practice can be traced back to this Cartesian imagery. Health is often defined as the absence of disease, and disease is seen as a malfunctioning of biological mechanisms which are studied from the points of view of cellular and molecular biology. The doctors role is to intervene, using medical technology to correct the malfunctioning of a specific mechanism, different parts of the body being treated by different specialists.

As medical scientists define health as the absence of disease, so military strategists define peace as the absence of war, and the engineering approach to health has its counterpart in the engineering approach to peace. Politicians and military men tend to perceive all problems of defense as problems of technology. The idea that social and psychological considerationslet alone philosophy or poetrycould also be relevant is not entertained. Moreover, questions of security and defense are analyzed predominantly in Newtonian termspower blocks, action and reaction, the political vacuum, and so on.

In contemporary health care the human organism is generally dissociated from the natural and social environment in which it is embedded, and the large network of phenomena that influence health is reduced to its physiological and biochemical aspects. In very similar ways, the conventional approach to defense reduces the large network of phenomena that influence peace to its strategic and technological aspects. And even those aspects are further reduced as politicians and the military continue to talk about national security without recognizing the dangerous fallacy of this simplistic and fragmented notion. Most of our politicians still seem to think that we can increase our own security by making others feel insecure. Since the threats made with todays nuclear weapons threaten to extinguish life on the entire planet, the new thinking about peace must necessarily be global thinking. In the nuclear age, the entire concept of national security has become outdated: there can only be global security.

In conventional medical thinking, the therapy involves technological intervention. The self-organizing and self-healing potential of the patient is not taken into account. Similarly, conventional military thinking holds that conflicts are best resolved by technological intervention and does not take into account the self-organizing potential of people, communities, and nationssee Afghanistan, Grenada, Poland, Nicaragua, and many other examples.

The conceptual problem at the center of contemporary health care is the confusion between disease processes and disease origins. Instead of asking why an illness occurs and trying to remove the conditions that lead to it, medical researchers try to understand the mechanisms through which the disease operates, so that they can then interfere with them. Very often, their research is guided by the idea of a single mechanism that dominates all the others and can be corrected by technological intervention. Similarly, politicians tend to he blind to the origins of conflict and concentrate instead on the external processes: for example, on the visible acts of individual violence rather than the hidden structural and institutional violence.

The mechanistic world view has been complemented by a value system that is much older than Cartesian-Newtonian science. The values, attitudes, and behavior patterns which dominate our culture and are embodied in our social institutions are typical traits of patriarchal culture. Like all patriarchal societies, our society tends to favor self-assertion over integration, analysis over synthesis, rational knowledge over intuitive wisdom, competition over cooperation, expansion over conservation.

None of these values and attitudes is intrinsically good or bad, hut the imbalance that is characteristic of our society today is unhealthy and dangerous. The most severe consequence of this imbalance is the ever-increasing threat of nuclear war, brought about by an overemphasis on self-assertion, control and power, excessive competition, and a pathological obsession with winning in a situation where the whole concept of winning has lost its meaning, because there can be no winners in a nuclear war.

There is now a rich feminist literature on the roots of militarism and war in patriarchal values and patriarchal thinking. Patriarchy, these authors point out, operates within the context of dominance/submission. Thus parity of nuclear weapons is not enough for American generals: they want superiority. This macho competition in the arms race extends to the size of missiles. During one administration, military lobbyists persuaded politicians to spend more money on defense by showing them upright models of Soviet and American missiles, in which the Soviet missiles were larger, although it was known that the larger missiles were technically inferior. The phallic shape of these missiles makes the sexual connotation of this competition in missile size obvious. Patriarchy equates aggression and dominance with masculinity, and warfare is held to be the ultimate initiation into true manhood.

To conclude my illustration of the parallels between concepts of health and concepts of peace within the old paradigm, I should mention that in both areas the mechanistic views are perpetrated not only by scientists, politicians, and generals, hut alsoand perhaps even more forcefullyby the pharmaceutical and military industries, which have invested heavily in the old paradigm. The scientific establishment and the corporate community match each other perfectly, since the outdated Cartesian world view underlies both the theoretical framework of the former and the technologies and economic motives of the latter. To change this situation is now absolutely vital for our well-being and survival, and change is possible if we are able, as a society, to shift to the new holistic and ecological models.

The systems view of living organisms seems to provide an ideal basis for a holistic approach to health, an approach that is profoundly ecological and thus in harmony with the Hippocratic tradition which lies at the roots of Western medicine. At the same time, the parallels between health and peace can be carried further: Corresponding to the systems view of health there is also a systems view of peace.

At the core of the systems view of health lies the notion of dynamic balance. Health is an experience of well-being resulting from a dynamic balance that involves the physical and psychological aspects of the organism, as well as its interactions with its natural and social environment. The natural balance of living organisms includes, in particular, the balance between their self-assertive and integrative tendencies. To be healthy, an organism has to preserve its individual autonomy, but at the same time it has to be able to integrate itself harmoniously into larger systems. Imbalance manifests itself as stress, and excessive stress is harmful, often leading to illness.

A holistic approach to peace will consist largely in finding healthy, nonviolent ways of conflict resolution. This will mean, first of all, developing a holistic view of the network of economic, social, and political patterns out of which conflicts arise. Once these patterns have been understood, a wide range of methods may he used to resolve the conflicts Humanistic psychologists, family therapists, and social workers have spent the last two decades studying group dynamics and have developed a whole spectrum of techniques of stress management and conflict resolution. It is now time to apply these techniques at the political levelnationally, between nations, and globally.

New Age Journal, March/April, 1988



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