Trading the World — for a Better One

On the night of September 11, 2001, President Bush said that the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon failed “to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat… Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.” Indeed, it would be foolish to think otherwise. As inconceivably huge as this disaster was, the scale of attack required to bully us into changing our chosen way of life is inconceivably greater than even that. Our government, economy and ideals will continue — and, precisely because they will, the destruction will have been truly, by definition, senseless. Those who perpetrated it will have accomplished, fundamentally, nothing.

But what will we do in response to this disaster?

Find the perpetrators and those who harbored them? Punish them? Indeed, they must be held accountable. Yet what can we do to them that could possibly balance the scales of justice? Tons of rubble, thousands of corpses and two great symbols of a great nation lie on one side of the scale. On the other, we can hope at best to place the feathers of the chicken-hearted perpetrators. Certainly we must hold them accountable. But this will not be enough to make up for the disaster.

And even if we could somehow achieve justice (whatever that could possibly mean in a case like this) would it change the fundamental fact that there will continue to be people out there who will maintain an incredible hatred for this country and all it stands for? No, they aren’t going anywhere. And if some do disappear, others will take their place. Indeed, depending on how we make some disappear, that act itself could cause others to appear.

And so, our false sense of security wrested from us, we turn toward what we can do to prevent future attacks like this.

  • Increase flight security? Our best knowledge right now is that the hijackings were carried out by people with knife-like objects. Rid planes of every firearm, bomb and even knife, and it may still be possible that someone with even a fountain pen — or even someone with no weapon at all other than sheer physical strength — could pull off a similar feat. How much time, effort and money will go into new and improved safety procedures? How much extra time will people have to spend at airports as a result? How much will this translate into in terms of overall economic loss on an ongoing basis? To what extremes will we need to take away people’s freedom in order to ensure the security we so desire? Certainly we must increase security in our airports and airplanes. But this will not be enough to prevent all potential disasters.
  • Increase our intelligence efforts? How much more time, effort and money will have to go into this before we can feel safe? And when we think we’ve got it down, how long before someone is resourceful enough to get around our defenses again? Can every possible threat be known? And might not the level of intelligence required for us to feel safe from foreign threat also be so high that we begin to feel that our own freedoms reduced in other ways? Certainly we must increase our knowledge as much as possible. But this will not be enough to prevent all potential disasters.
  • Perhaps we might consider improving our architectural efforts, making our buildings more invincible? We made our World Trade Centers able to withstand a hit from a Boeing 707. But the very same ideals that had us move from Chrysler Building to Empire State to Twin Towers also had us move to 727, 737, 747, 757, 767. Would we improve our architectural efforts only to tell the airline industry to stop improving itself? And what about threats to targets other than buildings? Certainly we must improve our designs, architectural and otherwise, as much as possible. But this will not be enough to prevent all potential disasters.

Indeed, it’s even possible that a U.S. citizen could set a life course toward destruction, quietly heading down a career path to become a commercial airline pilot precisely to get the opportunity to crash a plane into a target chosen decades earlier. Only reading the minds of every U.S. citizen could prevent such a thing — and I doubt that the best flight security and intelligence efforts could ever come to accomplish that.

There simply comes a point where something’s got to give. This time, it was flight security, intelligence and, finally, the World Trade Center itself, giving way to its own structural weaknesses. Another time, it may be airplane manufacturers, prohibited from building larger planes. Another time, it will be some other disaster, infiltrating us despite our best efforts to infiltrate terrorist groups.

The price of freedom continues to rise, and through it we remain steady in our resolve, never once thinking that perhaps there is something more to be learned from this experience than that we need to strengthen flight security and intelligence efforts. We think, “We’re not going to give up our way of life to appease some bullies. Why should we live the way they want us to?” Never once does it occur to us that our way of life might create such bullies, such terrorists. We fancy the disaster to have been an attack on civilization. In fact, it was an attack within civilization.

I have spent most of the last decade studying the dynamics of civilization. What I am about to tell you is how civilization actually works. These are neither idle nor ideological claims.

It is the very pursuit of the spoils of civilization — power, wealth and the successes they bring — that ensures that others will lack those things, will become resentful. It cannot be otherwise. Many will think there is nothing to be done, that things simply are the way they are. Many will think that there is something to be done. Some will try to improve the situation by doing “nice” things for others. And some will commit acts of violence — be it breaking into a store, committing a rape or steering an airplane into a building. These things are a part of civilization, not some gross aberration from it. Yes, Osama bin Laden and some of his followers were trained by the CIA. Yes, the United States has engaged in acts not much different from other acts classified as terrorism. Indeed, you don’t even need to look to any secret missions — what do you think the American Revolutionary War looked like to England’s King George?

But what I’m talking about is much more fundamental than any of these facts.

For all the good civilization has given us, it has also yielded every large-scale social ill we have — war, genocide, coup d’etat, famine, plague — and terrorism. It has also led to global warming, dangerous reductions in biodiversity and other forms of life-threatening ecological degradation. It has actually caused every massive inequity we know of — between rich and poor classes, between rich and poor countries, between majorities and minorities of every kind, between human and non-human. We may think that these distasteful things are all “uncivilized,” but look through history and you will only ever find them along with civilization itself. All these devastating things are the unfortunate but unavoidable siblings of biotechnology, space exploration, World Trade Centers and all the other fruits of civilization.

The September 11 disasters are not the first of a series of unparalleled disasters that will occur in a dark era we’ve just entered. Nor are they the last disaster of a dark era that we are about to bring to a close. As devastatingly unprecedented as they most certainly are, they are, in a way, just another event in a culture of disaster.

And events like these can do nothing but continue — as long as we continue to pursue business as usual. Yet business as usual is precisely what we will undoubtedly pursue. Increasing security or intelligence or architectural savvy is nothing fundamentally new — it is just the new and improved version of business as usual — and, indeed, the very pursuit of new-and-improved is a big part of our business as usual. The fact is: start off with a good design, a design that works, and no improvements are necessary. But start off with a poor design, and no amount of tweaking will make it a good design — it will forever remain just what it is: a poor design with correction after correction, improvement after improvement, added on in an effort for to make up for its inherent flaws. But inherent flaws cannot, by definition, ever be made up for. You may make it new, you may make it improved, but you will never fix it. You will never make it simply work. Disasters like the September 11 attacks will merely continue, as they have for ages. In the end, we will drive the human species to extinction.

A building’s design can only be so good. It will always be vulnerable to something. No amount of architectural innovation will create a foolproof building design. Likewise, a civilization’s design can only be so good. It will always be vulnerable, and no amount of innovation will remove those weaknesses. The things we build, whether buildings or civilizations, work fine only up to a point. Unfortunately, they are all vulnerable to something. And the bigger and more complicated something is, the more vulnerabilities there will be. We stick with civilization, thinking it is the very thing that will ensure our security, that will make us invulnerable. But where was our security on September 11, 2001? Where was the invulnerability of Fortress America? Of, indeed, Fortress Civilization?

How do we prevent terrorist attacks and other unthinkable disasters? The key word is prevent. If you don’t understand how things work, you can’t possible know how to prevent something bad from happening as a result. But if you do understand how things work, and if you can make things work, then you don’t even need to consider how to prevent something bad from happening — it simply won’t happen in the first place.

And this is why I remain fully — totally — optimistic about humanity’s prospects. Learn about the nature of societies, about how they work (meaning both how they function and how they succeed), and you will know that things don’t have to be the way they are. That, believe it or not, there is at least one way for people to live that is even better than civilization. Learn about how societies change, and you will know that turning our world into something better will be much easier than you ever imagined — if only you know what to do. That it is possible for the world to work as a matter of course, without us constantly struggling to somehow make it do what we want it to do.

We continue to think in black and white. Defend and preserve our way of life or give into cowardly madmen. But what if those weren’t the only options? Indeed, what if this wasn’t even the choice at hand? What if the choice was between clinging to a way of life that generates disasters and madmen or pursuing another way of life entirely, a way that most people don’t even know exists? What if there was another way, something other than business as usual, a way that, though it might not be as flashy as civilization, actually worked for all people? A way that was better than what we have now and yet simultaneously gave nobody on the other side of the world a reason to resent and attack us? A way that those very people on the other side of the world would be happy to pursue themselves? A way that, though subject to vulnerabilities as everything in the world is, is structured so that it can be as resilient as possible in the face of challenges, a way for which challenges simply cannot ever become as large as those that face us now?

That way exists, and yet it is not even a single way, not something that we would impose on our enemies anymore than they would want to impose something on us. It is a way that gives those who participate in it something profound in common even as it allows them to be unique, working for you always on your own terms, whatever they may be. It is a way that can provide us with the things we so desperately want and need — security, community, happiness, fulfillment and freedom. Things at which it is all too clear that civilization continues to fail us.

We are all living through this horrific disaster. To many, it was unthinkable. Understand our civilization, though, and attacks like those of September 11, shocking as they may have been, are all too imaginable. Either way, though, the question is: what happens now when the best case scenario is that we somehow spend enough time, money and effort, every day for the rest of eternity, to give us an increased sense of security which can never, ever be truly certain? Or, worse, when the best case scenario may leave us with a society that is so restrictive that we’d rather not live in it anyway, that compromises the very freedoms we hoped to preserve? And when, either way, we end up clinging to a way of life that, for all the good it brings, cannot help but continue to heap horror after horror upon us?

How do we respond to this disaster?

We must take this as a wake-up call. Not a wake-up call to a vulnerability which requires greater vigilance to protect against, but a wake-up call to vulnerabilities which are fundamental to civilization itself.

We must take this as a learning experience that business as usual creates us on one side and them on the other, the proverbial “them” who will always be there, at odds with us and endangering us when we least expect it — yet that, because we are created by the same thing, it is we who are endangering ourselves, and there is no real “them” at all. And it makes no difference if “them” is the impoverished, the Third World, the criminal, the terrorist, or even non-human threats.

We must take this as an opportunity to look closely at how things really work, allowing us to realize that the choice isn’t simply between giving in and pressing on. There is another choice, if we are only willing to see it.

Whether globalization and ever-increasing power and wealth through world trade will continue in a world that pursues this other option is something I cannot say. What I can say, though, is that it won’t matter either way. Those chips will fall where they may — and let them. It is time to make a world trade — to trade this flawed world we have created for ourselves for another that works for people, a culture in which people won’t even be concerned about where those chips fall.

Fully explaining the nature of our civilization — why it inevitably leads to disaster and, especially, why we cling to it despite its inherent self-destructiveness — cannot be done in a few pages here. Describing this other way of life also cannot be explained here. But these tasks can be done. They have been done.

Our current way of life will only continue to produce disasters like the one that happened on September 11. They will take many forms, and they may not seem related in any way, but they will all be related in the most fundamental way possible. Pursuing a different way of life, we can change from our current way of life without in any way giving into terrorists. Indeed, such a change is the only thing that could genuinely and permanently undermine such terrorists — that could permanently prevent such tragedies. By preventing the existence of terrorists. By preventing people from wanting to become terrorists. This different way of life would create a society in which the events of September 11 would be literally unthinkable. Literally impossible.

Can you imagine a society in which it simply would never occur to anyone to undertake such a disastrous act? I can. It isn’t some pie-in-the-sky utopia. It’s a world in which people will continue to be what people are — mostly friendly, sometimes jerks — yet will be content enough that nobody would ever feel such an act worth doing.

If you were horrified at the September 11 disasters, and if you want to live in a world in which nothing like them could ever happen again, then you will want to find out more about what I’m talking about. I am not preaching a religion, a political stance or even a philosophy. Indeed, our religions, governments and philosophies have thrived for quite some time without making any practical progress toward the elimination of these incredible social ills we still face. What I’m talking about is something else entirely. Something so different from any religious or political or philosophical pitch you’ve ever heard, yet something so mundane as to seem, in some ways, that little change will be required of us at all, even as these changes make all the difference in the world. Something that paradoxically does not preclude the religious, the political, the philosophical or even material wealth or other benefits of civilization, even as it renders impossible the worst detriments of civilization. It is not about giving things up — it is about gaining what we want and need so dearly. Our security is at stake. Our happiness is at stake. Indeed, the very existence of the human species hangs in the balance.

The September 11 attacks rocked our world. But if they didn’t, something else would have. And if we don’t learn from them, our world will continue to rock — until the bough finally breaks.

When will we learn how to prevent these disasters? When will we truly learn from these disasters? The answer is simple: some of us already have, and you can too — whenever you’re ready.

You have nothing to lose. We have everything to gain.

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