Science was impartial because its discoveries were verifiable and accurate -- but science was also, through funding and government direction, largely held captive. Its massively destructive capabilities were often seen as stupendous assets. In the case of ultramodern American armaments, the worse they got the better they got. Whatever could be said about “the market,” it was skewed by the buyers; the Pentagon’s routine spending made the nation’s budget for alternative fuels or eco-friendly technologies look like a pittance.
We’re social beings, as evolution seems to substantiate. Blessings and curses revolve largely around the loving and the warlike, the nurturing and the predatory. We’re self-protective for survival, yet we also have “conscience” -- what Darwin described as the characteristic that most distinguishes human beings from other animals. Given the strength of our instincts for individual and small-group survival, we seem to be stingy with more far-reaching conscience.
Our capacities to take humane action are as distinctive of our species as conscience, and no more truly reliable. As people, we are consequences and we also cause them: by what we choose to do and not do. The beneficiaries of economic and military savagery are far from the combat zones. In annual reports, the Pentagon’s prime contractors give an overview of the vast financial rewards for shrewdly making a killing. To surrender the political battlefield to such forces is to self-marginalize and leave more space for those who thrive on plunder.
The inseparable bond of life and death should be healthy antipathy.
We’ve had no way of really knowing how near annihilation might be. But our lives have flashed with scarcely believable human-made lightning -- the evidence of things truly obscene, of officialdom gone mad -- photos and footage of mushroom clouds, and routinely set-aside descriptions starting with Hiroshima. Waiting on the nuclear thunder.
Five decades after Sputnik, such apocalyptic dangers are still present, but from Americans in my generation the most articulated fears have to do with running out of money before breath. The USA is certainly no place to be old, sick, and low on funds. Huge medical bills and hazards of second-class care loom ahead. For people whose childhoods fell between victory over Japan and evacuation from Saigon, the twenty-first century has brought the time-honored and perfectly understandable quest to avoid dying before necessary -- and to avoid living final years or seeing loved ones living final years in misery. Under such circumstances, self obsession may seem unavoidable.
There must be better options. But they’re apt to be obscured, most of all, by our own over-scheduled passivity; by who we figure we are, who we’ve allowed ourselves to become. The very word “options” is likely to have a consumer ring to it (extras on a new car, clauses in a contract). We buy in and consume, mostly selecting from prefab choices -- even though, looking back, the best of life’s changes have usually come from creating options instead of choosing from the ones in stock.
When, in 1969, biologist George Wald said that “we are under repeated pressure to accept things that are presented to us as settled -- decisions that have been made,” the comment had everything to do with his observation that “our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed.” The curtailing of our own sense of real options is a concentric process, encircling our personal lives and our sense of community, national purpose, and global possibilities; circumscribing the ways that we, and the world around us, might change. Four decades after Wald’s anguished speech “A Generation in Search of a Future,” many of the accepted “facts of life” are still “facts of death” -- blotting out horizons, stunting imaginations, holding tongues, limiting capacities to nurture or defend life.