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Our Tragic Flaw

Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World

Parke Burgess

Second Edition, 2018




Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World

Copyright: © 2018 by Parke Burgess

This book carries a Creative Commons License.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License. To view a copy of this license, visit by/4.0/legalcode.

Cover design by Valerie Brewster, Scribe Typography

ISBN: 978-1-387-96240-2





List of Figures and Tables   




Alarm    3

Part One: Violence



Problem    25


Polarity    45


Prehistory    71


History    89

Part Two: Peace



Being    105


Imagining    127


Confronting    139


Healing    163


(R)evolution    189


Acceptance    205


Appendix: A Word on Statistics










Table 1: The Logic of Violence in Five Propositions    30   


Table 2: The Logic of Peace in Five Propositions    107


Table 3: The Five Key Strategies    174




Figure 1: The relation of peace and violence to three significant polarities    53


Figure 2: Being in relation to the paradox of existence    54


Figure 3: The two main axes of maladaptive shame and resulting quadrants    62


Figure 4: Two contrasting shame patterns    64


Figure 5: The changing balance of existential to conditional work over the course of the healing process    166


Figure 6: Chances of survival in Russian roulette    220




















This book begins with an alarm: We live in a time of unprecedented peril, on the brink of our ruin as a civilization and perhaps as a species. Climate change is only the most prominent of a growing array of threats to our collective survival, part of a convergent trend that makes ecological and social collapse increasingly likely over time. If we should fail to avert this outcome, our generation will have played a leading role in the greatest tragedy ever to befall humankind. Like the tragedies of literature, a deep flaw lies near the heart of our prospective doom. An attribute that once seemed a source of strength would now emerge as the cause of our demise. That flaw is the subject of this book.

But our ruin is far from certain. A sustainable way of life, one that is not only lasting but also deeply ethical and joyful, remains possible. A tragic flaw only becomes fatal when its ruinous aspect remains too long concealed behind its heroic glow. Once we can see the flaw plainly and clarify its tragic implications, we open the possibility of acting differently in the world to different results. This book purports to look our tragic flaw full in the face—literally, to confront it—not only so that we may understand what has driven us to this perilous point, but how to avert its worst consequences while there is still time.

This book proposes that our tragic flaw is violence—not only violent acts in themselves, but the logic that motivates and justifies those acts. This logic entails certain structural properties that, especially over the long term, have truly catastrophic effects. The logic of violence is cyclical—one act of violence tends to provoke another; as the well-worn phrase has it, violence begets violence. Moreover, the logic of violence is escalatory—the cycle of violence tends toward greater brutality and injury over time. But worst of all, and most important for the argument of this book, the logic of violence is ultimately self-destructive. I argue that, so long as the logic of violence predominates in a given society, that society will move relentlessly toward its own self-destruction and, in the fullness of time, achieve it.

This lends deeper meaning to the injunction, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”[i] No longer do we understand merely that I am more likely to die a violent death if I am out in the streets skewering my neighbors left and right. The deeper meaning suggests that anyone who depends on violence to survive will surely one day commit suicide. It is not my enemy’s sword that will kill me, but my own—he who lives by the sword dies by his own sword. This understanding captures the defining dynamic of tragic flaws mentioned earlier: the means by which I have secured my success becomes the very cause of my downfall. Humankind’s relationship to violence follows this trajectory over the broadest sweep of history.

This book further proposes that violence, as embedded as it may be in our genes and culture, admits of transformation. And not only this, our moment in history may offer the most auspicious conditions ever to occur under which our tragic flaw might be so transformed. In short, we live in a moment of unprecedented endangerment and possibility. To realize this possibility, however, will require profound change at both the global and personal scales. This book argues that these changes, while extremely challenging, lie within reach, and it sketches out some key features of the process of transformation. I will consider this book successful to the extent that I persuade you to take seriously two basic assertions: 1) violence is always prohibitively expensive; and 2) each of us alone and all of us collectively are capable not only of surviving but thriving without violence. The first assertion runs against the grain of mainstream thought, and much else, in our culture. As long as we continue to condone the use of violence we have no hope of averting our own self-destruction. We must confront the seductions of violence, see the implications of its logic, and reject it once and for all. Our future depends on it.

The first assertion is meaningless, however, if the second is not also accepted to some degree. We must be convinced that a life without violence is possible before we can seriously contemplate breaking our commitment to it. To be sure, designing and maintaining a world without violence would represent a daunting if monumental achievement, perhaps the greatest feat in the whole history of humankind. On the other hand, I’d like to suggest that only the tiniest gap separates us from a bright and peaceful future. If every one of us were to go to bed tonight mindful of what really matters in life and full of resolve to put that knowledge into practice tomorrow, I think we would wake up to a peaceful world, simply because we would all make our best effort to be peaceful. We are violent because we expect others to be. And they are violent because they expect us to be. All we really have to do is to start trusting one another and being trustworthy.

Naturally, we will not all rise tomorrow morning with a common understanding and a shared resolve. The matter of becoming trusting and trustworthy is riddled with traps and trials. No, the passage to a better world will not come so easily. This book aims to explore the complexities of trust, as well as many other facets of the path of nonviolence, in a rigorous but positive way. My grit and confidence that humankind can master this challenge is founded in my daily experience as a psychotherapist working with distressed couples embarked upon a similar journey. I have discovered over and over again the power of our yearning for peace, our resilience in the face of disappointment, and our capacity to rebuild where trust had been shattered.

In my analysis of violence and its remedies throughout this book, I do not limit myself to “the art of the possible,” as the classic description of politics goes. Instead, I am interested in what lies at the root of our situation, whether it seems politically expedient to deal with it or not. In this sense, I take a radical approach to the problem: the purer and deeper, the better. Further, I take a holistic view. I examine our current dilemma and its solution at various levels at once, from the global scale all the way down to the inner turmoil that seethes within our individual hearts and minds. I take a dynamical systems perspective, where all these levels are seen to interact with one another in multiple overlapping feedback loops. Accordingly, both our analysis and our solutions must involve the whole system, from the top down to the bottom up and the inside out.

This book is ultimately about what lies within us all. You are undoubtedly shaped by the experience of living in an endangered world, as I am; and your very presence, in turn, shapes that world. This endows you both with a terrifying burden and an awesome opportunity. The modern crisis calls us all to grow into our situation, to meet it with nothing less than the whole of ourselves. As daunting as that may seem, in the end the promise of this book is that you are enough. Indeed, the root cause of our current woes lies in a distrust of our own claim on existence that has accrued across the past ten millennia or so, as I explain later on.

My journey toward this book began at a young age, when I first noticed that I was especially sensitive to cruelty and always bewildered by it. I saw the meanness of some boys to others as early as kindergarten, and watched with increasing dismay as this treatment continued throughout the years that followed. I witnessed my own parents attack one another emotionally, and felt torn apart when they would each try to recruit my allegiance against the other. Nor was I exempt from my own impulses toward violence. To my deep shame, I sometimes gave vent to a streak of resentment toward my younger brother, who suffers from severe autism. None of these cases were violent in the usual sense; rarely did I see even so much as a schoolyard brawl. I was lucky. But the stomach-clenching, fearsome energy of violence would sometimes impress itself upon me nevertheless, and I was duly horrified.

Only in the past decade or so has it become clear to me how I have, from the beginning, devoted my adulthood to the problem of violence and the promise of peace. Early on this impulse led me to study political science as an undergraduate at Yale; and it led me to abandon that in order to immerse myself in the relatively idyllic world of classical music for about 15 years. In both fields I was seeking to grasp the basic outline of the human condition—macrocosmically in the intercourse of nations and microcosmically in the subtlest possible nuances of feeling, respectively. In both domains, I was driven by a strong sense of idealism. My interest in politics centered on how we could organize a society that everyone would agree was fair. As for music, I wanted to understand, revel in, and become intimate with the human urge to beauty, our stunning capacity to convert the whole range of human experience into art. Long before I had the words for this, I had intuited that making art was the diametric opposite of making violence. Where violence hardens the heart, art melts it.

One fine day I stumbled across an out-of-print edition of the Tao Te Ching in a dusty old bookshop and thrilled to its intimations of something greater and deeper than we normally know. This led to a formal study of Zen that has persisted these past 20-plus years. Somewhere along the line, I picked up Gandhi and was lit aflame with his moral purity, forthrightness, and courage. Later I read Martin Luther King, Adrienne Rich, Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Thomas Merton, Voltairine de Cleyre, Gary Snyder, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Carl Rogers. All of these passionate voices proclaimed, in their various ways, what it means to be human; what it means to be oppressed and to oppress; what kind of thing liberation might be.

On that day in 2001 when the Twin Towers fell, the heat of the world’s violence, always hot, totally engulfed me. After a pregnant pause of some weeks, during which I dared to hope that the United States would respond nonviolently, the decision to wage a fullscale war on Afghanistan left me in despair. Not long after, I made plans to leave my job at a sustainability think tank in Seattle, sell most of my belongings, and take up residence in a Zen monastery near Providence, Rhode Island. There I spent seven months training to become a monk with every intention of permanently ‘leaving the world,’ a world I felt I could no longer tolerate.

While at the monastery I had the opportunity to sit for seven weeks in an intensive retreat. We meditated more than ten hours a day, ate our meals according to strict and ancient rules, and maintained silence. Though I had previously sat many shorter retreats, this was a daunting undertaking. It proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. After several weeks of silence throughout a hot, sultry summer peppered with violent thunderstorms, I was struck all at once by a different sort of lightning. I am not speaking of enlightenment, alas, but still a deep truth about life that lies at the heart of this book.

During the retreat I had been struggling with some ‘teaching words,’ as they are called in this lineage of Zen—pithy phrases that aim straight for the center of a teaching. In this case, the words were: “Don’t make anything!” One day, all at once, I clearly understood really for the first time that our situation, whatever it may be, is already enough. It is already complete. There is no need to add anything to it. And when we do add something to it, we invariably bring suffering into the world. Immediately I intuited that this had something to do with my lifelong puzzle, my personal koan, if you like. I knew this had something to do with violence.

I left the monastery a few months later, and probably rather too soon, for a number of reasons. I was struck by how sad many of its inhabitants seemed and I, too, was desperately lonely. I also left, as I can now see, because this book was awakened in me, and it didn’t seem possible for me to write such a book as a monk, at least the kind of monk I felt I was expected to become there. After all, I felt compelled to make something—this book—even if its deep message was to be, ‘don’t make anything.’ Moreover, despite my revulsion after 9/11, I discovered that I needed to be more in the world, to be a part of the messiness of a broken, beautiful, maddening world, right in the thick of it. And so, I resolved to become a secular monk—leaving that term tantalizingly undefined.

As the book was germinating, I took up residence in a politically radical, income-sharing house back in Seattle, got involved in the communities movement, rejoined the team at Sightline Institute, the organization I had left the year before, and eventually found my life partner (and her three precious children) with whom I have practiced the art of deep intimacy ever since. After completing an earlier version of this book, I finally succumbed to something that had been obvious since childhood to astute observers, but not to me—psychotherapy is my natural habitat. So, I went back to school, added a masters degree on top of two graduate degrees in music, and opened a private psychotherapy practice. Although I rarely use the words with my clients, I have the privilege to work with them regularly on the challenges of nonviolence and the seductions of violence. I find myself in the trenches of daily life with ordinary people (actually, each one is extraordinary) as they struggle with their own fears, doubts, grief, and rage. Each one of my clients is making art of their lives and, as they struggle to change and adapt, they are making revolution, too—for to look into ourselves and our circumstances deeply and unflinchingly, with honesty and compassion, is truly revolutionary. It reconfigures the psyche and it changes the world.

You will find that this book is mostly silent on topics like race and gender. When I wrote the earlier version of this text, this silence felt less problematic to me than it does now. In the contexts of Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, and the emergence of trans and other issues of sexual and gender identity, and at a time of open cultural warfare, led from the right by the White House itself, it may seem perverse not to bring these critical issues into a text on violence, peace, and nonviolence. And yet, after much reflection, I have elected to remain mostly silent on these questions, and this for two reasons.

To begin, I am a person of enormous privilege. The whole endeavor of this book is reasonably suspect on that basis alone. How can a white, middle aged, over-educated, heterosexual cis-male possibly hold forth on such issues as violence and nonviolence, so relevant and intensely felt as they are by the oppressed? What can he possibly say that would not be an apologetics for his own privilege? Even if he intends to speak without bias, a fool’s errand in the best of circumstances, he will be affected by his own privilege and self-interest in myriad, and mostly unconscious, ways. This is undoubtedly true. So why write this book at all? Because it is in me; because this is what I was made to do.[ii] You don’t have to read it, and you certainly don’t have to agree with it. I wrote the book not because I think I have a corner on the truth, or because I think anyone else needs to agree with me, and certainly not because I want to tell anyone, least of all the oppressed, what to think or do. This book is sheer self-expression—an act of joy (if sometimes in a dark kind of way). To the extent that it has any fire in it, and any truth to it, it is because it comes from my own experiences of violence, where I felt the horror and terror of oppression first hand. I do not claim this makes me an expert on anyone else’s oppression; it certainly doesn’t. But this book is my expression of what limited bit I think I can think.

This brings me to the first reason I do not say much about race, gender, and other vectors of oppression in this book. These are topics I cannot possibly know very much about. So my omission does not, I hope, constitute a failure to recognize these oppressions, a kind of silence of complicity, but is motivated instead by my profound respect for those who suffer from them. My hope is that those who know certain forms of oppression first hand will interrogate this text from their particular life experience, perhaps connect with what seems meaningful to them in it, and improve the text with their engagement. Secondly, I am trying to talk about oppression in a more general way. I believe most violence is oppressive and all oppression is violent. I believe that all the specific strands of oppression—racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on—weave together to form the hangman’s rope of violence. I aim to describe the rope and not so much the strands of which it is comprised. This has given me enough to do. It is already a very long book.

Good News, Bad News

Revolutions that change the world, as we all know, are dicey affairs. You are likely to end up with your head on a pike or toiling away in a gulag somewhere if you choose the wrong side of history. Given such risks, you may be forgiven for asking whether the world really needs changing. As I evaluate this question, I see some very good news and some very bad news. The revolution I am talking about is mostly joyful. It helps us to come more fully into ourselves, to feel more at home in the larger world, and feel more secure in our intimate relationships. This revolution brings out the best in us and cultivates the best in others. It is a revolution less bent on the outcome and more intent on the process, so that every moment can be understood as liberating and life-affirming. The struggle is not of one against another, or the oppressed against the oppressor, but the struggle for each of us to resolve inwardly and outwardly our own conflicting impulses in order to co-create with all a world in which all might thrive. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that our backs are up against the wall. We may have only a short window of time to achieve a substantially more peaceful and just world. I believe any clear-eyed assessment of our current situation forces us to the conclusion that nothing less than revolutionary social change is necessary if the human race is to survive with any dignity, or survive at all. In case you need convincing, I briefly sketch out my own analysis of the present crisis here. But allow me first to say a few words about predicting the future and sounding the alarms of imminent catastrophe.

No one knows what will happen next, much less what will happen a century from now. I don’t know; you don’t know; scientists in their ivory towers don’t know; and those who reassure us that all is well don’t know. Even if we assume that ecological and social collapse is to occur at some time in the future, no one knows how far into the future, exactly how it will all come to pass, how quickly circumstances will devolve, or to what grim end. Given all this uncertainty, when should one take the plunge and pull at the cords of alarm? More likely than not, some will go too soon and look foolish, and others will go too late and look doomed, like sheep already headlong in the slaughterhouse.

Thus, if there is good evidence to suspect that we may be headed for catastrophe, even if that evidence is far from conclusive, and even if we cannot predict how soon it might become critical, it seems prudent to take the threat seriously. The existence of massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War was an arresting fact, and the pace and potential risks of climate change offer scant comfort today. When we are looking at scenarios as dire as nuclear winter or historically unprecedented shifts in global climate, perhaps we can be forgiven if we err on the side of caution. I, for one, would rather look foolish than extinct. Especially given the stakes, it would be absurd and morally irresponsible to ignore credible evidence of imminent peril in favor of complacency or profit in the short term.

Furthermore, the important question is not whether catastrophe is imminent but whether we are moving toward it or away from it. If we are moving toward it, then it is only a matter of time before it occurs. To allow such a condition to persist simply defers the problem to our children or grandchildren. I assume no one feels good about assigning chaos and violent death to our own descendants just to avoid making difficult choices now. Thus, to justify radical social change I don’t need to prove that our current way of life will soon devolve into chaos, but only that it contains ingredients that trend strongly in the direction of ecological and social collapse. Our responsibility, if we find such trends, is to work to reverse them or, at least, slow them way, way down.

Of course, we do find such trends.[iii] This is the bad news. The trends to which I refer are global in nature. They are processes that have the capacity to reach most of the surface area of the planet, affect nearly all humans, and a great many other species of life besides. Any one of these processes alone, but especially some combination of them together, have the potential to induce the collapse of human civilization as we know it, or even precipitate the extinction of the human race. More remotely, but still within the realm of possibility, these dangers could culminate in global ecocide—the termination of all life on Earth.

Let us examine this collection of threats through an ecological lens. Our planet has a finite capacity to support human life, the logic goes, because of limited resources such as clean air, freshwater, arable land, micronutrients in the soil, and so on. Human bodies require energy to function, for instance, and we extract this energy from the environment, which has limited means to produce it in forms we can absorb (such as amino acids). If we collectively require more resources to survive than the planet can provide, we ultimately do not survive. This way of thinking invokes the notion of carrying capacity, a useful measure of environmental health and risk.[iv] All of the threats that we can see converging toward catastrophe can be formulated in relation to this concept of carrying capacity.

The Earth’s carrying capacity is vulnerable in two ways. First, because it is finite, any given carrying capacity can always be exceeded, which would eventually result in a cascade of collapsing infrastructure and plummeting population. Second, damage directly to the system can reduce its carrying capacity, which in turn exacerbates the system’s vulnerability to being exceeded. Indeed, if either of these two pathways toward collapse is triggered, each can quickly reinforce the other in a fierce positive feedback loop. Overshoot of carrying capacity damages the infrastructure of the system, which enables it to carry less capacity, which intensifies the problem of overshoot, and so on. This phenomenon, the syndrome of ecosystem collapse, has been studied intensively in biology and legions of local examples have been documented.[v] There is no structural reason why the same principles would not apply just as well at the global level.

At present, the most likely pathway to global ecosystem collapse and a sharp or total loss of human life begins with the convergence of accelerating population growth, lifestyles that require historically unprecedented levels of resources and energy, and rapid climate change. A large global population plus patterns of excessive consumption demands more of the planet’s carrying capacity than ever before, running the risk that we will exceed it.[vi] At the same time, the many forms of ecological degradation that modern life has caused, most prominently climate change, threaten to reduce that capacity significantly by damaging the systems that support life.

These converging trends are on a collision course, as if we were playing a giant game of chicken with the biosphere. If we don’t pull out in time, both sides lose. Very likely, the social consequences of ecosystem failure will involve a massive climate refugee crisis, both from encroaching seas and failed food security systems, exacerbated by crop failures and dwindling freshwater supplies.[vii] Because the impacts of climate are projected to affect the poor disproportionately, social unrest is likely, with the probable result that violent strife will erupt and civil society will break down. As remote as this scenario may seem, history shows many examples of societies falling apart in exactly this way—and the decline is often unexpected, precipitous, and extremely violent.[viii] Again, there is no structural reason why this same dynamic would not unfold at a global scale.

Other pathways to collapse are possible. Not long ago, we all assumed nuclear winter offered the most likely doomsday scenario. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many analysts stopped worrying about this possibility. That may be unwise, for a number of reasons. Many of the warheads that once threatened the planet still exist.[ix] A recent report has uncovered 13 cases since 1945 of “near misses,” during which nuclear weapons came perilously close to deployment, including four (31%) since the end of the Cold War.[x] Though the number of warheads has come down since the height of the arms race, some scientists believe that even a relatively small number—less than 100—could cause a devastating global nuclear winter.[xi] Nuclear technology is no longer the secret province of a small number of highly advanced nations, but rather is becoming increasingly diffuse.[xii] And lastly, the currents of history are always shifting. At present, the United States holds the enviable—and unsustainable—position of lone superpower. But this will change, and no one can predict just how. It is not only possible but likely that a future configuration of political power will emerge in which the prospect of a nuclear arms race will once again arise, replete with its perverse mathematics of mutually assured destruction and multiples of overkill.[xiii]

If nuclear weapons are used, and especially if the number deployed approaches a certain threshold, the carrying capacity of the planet may be seriously or fatally depleted. Under a nuclear winter scenario, those of us not killed by the blasts or radiation would die slowly of starvation because of compromised agricultural production, or from disease as a result of other ecological impacts. Conversely, the global climate change pathway could trigger the use of nuclear weapons. States might take up arms to secure dwindling natural resources, and nuclear states might find it more palatable to use their arsenals to maintain their primacy in a context of global economic free-fall. In a scenario of failed states and violent social collapse, previously secured nuclear arsenals could come into the possession of rogue military units or terrorist groups. The use of nuclear weapons would only hasten the collapse of the global ecosystem and exacerbate chaotic social conditions.

The number of pathways to ecological and social collapse have proliferated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and probably at an accelerating rate. Since the development of nuclear weapons in the 1930s, we have added global climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, now reaching crisis proportions less than a century later. Over the same period, the world population has nearly quadrupled, and is set to peak at ten billion by 2050,[xiv] putting an enormous strain on the planet’s steadily diminishing carrying capacity. At the same time, the momentum of technological innovation has spawned a large variety of entirely novel potential sources of disaster, either through error or malice.

Technological innovation often gets lifted up as the panacea that will get us through. But the record of technology is not altogether comforting. Most of our current troubles can be linked to technological innovation, either in the form of outrightly lethal machines like atom bombs and fighter jets, or because technology has built vast systems that carry unexpectedly high ecological costs, like the burning of fossil fuels, massive deforestation, or industrial monocropping. Technological solutions often carry unintended and counterproductive consequences, so that we end up building fixes of fixes of fixes, working our way ever deeper into the hole of ecological degradation. Finally, the social-political system that produces technology is such that innovation tends to accrue disproportionately to those in power. As a result, technology more often than not secures the future of the wealthy as its first priority, often—indeed, systematically—at the expense of the poor. Moreover, many technologies, even if initially developed for peaceful purposes, carry the potential to be weaponized. As a result, we are at risk of lethal forms of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, nanotechnology, and novel chemical compounds. For all these reasons, I submit that we should regard technology embedded in a violent system as more the problem than the solution, even if it is part of both.

Taking all of these concerns together, we can discern three dimensions of threat that converge and amplify the risk of ecological and social collapse over time. First, for any given threat, such as climate change, the probability that it will play a role in triggering collapse increases with each passing year because it continues to intensify over time. All of the threats enumerated above share this characteristic. Second, more and more potential pathways to collapse become available over time, and these various pathways sometimes reinforce one another. This magnifies the probability of disaster from any one of these sources of risk. Third, the historical trajectory of technological innovation moves predictably toward more potency, lower cost, and greater access over time. Accordingly, the threats to our survival are each becoming more lethal and more broadly available with each passing decade. These three intertwined trends all move convergently in the direction of increasing risk over time, eventually tipping the rising probability of catastrophe into exponential territory. Once that happens, our window to avert the worst possible outcomes will have closed, and in short order a relentless and merciless descent into extinction will be fully upon us.

If my doomsday scenario is mistaken, then of course we have nothing to fear. But how much are you willing to bet on that? Are you willing to risk that your children or grandchildren might find themselves living in a world of barbaric violence, disease, and impoverishment? The stakes are high, the future uncertain, and the probability of a bleak unraveling of our current way of life is growing. I submit that it becomes increasingly evident with each passing year that a radical response may be the only response commensurate to the mounting challenge of our times. It is from here that this book departs.


This book proposes a psychological understanding of our imperilment. I am interested in how the mind develops in an endangered world, what it is like to experience such a world, and how we therefore act on it, extending to increasingly elaborate social forms, right up to international organizations. But I am also committed to our embeddedness in a found world—a world we did not make but into which we have been thrown. What kind of universe is this? How did we come to enter into it? What is given and immutable and what is malleable and co-created by us?

This book frames the modern crisis as a function of violence, and its resolution as a function of nonviolence. I choose this frame because, as we will see, it focuses our attention sharply on what goes on at the root of our situation. This frame also allows us to tap into the rich legacy of spiritual, philosophical, and political work that has been done in the name of nonviolence by such figures as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama. At the same time, I take an unusually broad view of what constitutes violence. I approach it as a kind of logic, a psychological sequence of steps—a process—that results in behaviors and events that we would all immediately recognize as violent.

I define violence and develop its underlying logic in the next chapter. For now, perhaps it is enough to say that I am interested in the whole pattern of thoughts, feelings, words, and actions that lead with a certain logical inexorability toward physical harm. This logic flows from our very genes, develops deep within the human psyche at a very early age, and expresses itself throughout our lives in various ways, many of which we may not consciously recognize as violence. The logic of violence does not end there. It goes on to permeate our social, political, and economic forms as well. Thus, a line runs from the deepest recesses of our minds, through our social forms, to the broadest expanses of history. So long as we continue to follow this violent line, we are bound to commit, eventually, the ultimate atrocity: ecocide.

The logic of violence implicates us all. Perhaps the most challenging feature of my approach is that we cannot push the problem of violence onto our enemies or relegate it to a category of social deviancy. To be sure, violence at the extremes has its own properties and issues, but the vast majority of violence does not occur at the extremes, but closer to the peak of the bell curve—right where you and I live and work. Moreover, once we fully grasp the nature of violence as a logic embedded in the human condition, it becomes clear that the extreme cases are often simply the same logic taken to a further point. We begin to see that there is no structural reason why we, too, could not be driven to such a point given sufficiently dire conditions.[xv]

Nonviolence, as I employ the term, offers a quite specific and peculiar response to the problem of violence. Taken literally, the word can be understood to mean ‘where there would otherwise be violence, there is no violence.’ This understanding suggests the erasure of violence, an act of subtraction. This may be expressed mathematically:

V + (-V) à E

This equation reads, “violence (V) plus nonviolence (-V) yields our existential situation (E),” or more loosely, “after subtracting violence what remains is our existential situation as it actually is.” Violence is additional to our true existential situation, and nonviolence subtracts it. The promise of this book is that we can enact this subtraction, and the urgency of this book is that we must. Nonviolence promotes a moment of genuine encounter with what is. This is very Zen, of course. Don’t make anything. The world is already complete. You are already enough. Anything additional creates unnecessary suffering, and so the equation of nonviolence aims to return us to the ground of being. This equation expresses the foundational idea of this book and is elaborated, in one way or another, throughout all the pages that follow.


[i] The phrase belongs to Jesus, in Matthew 26:52.

[ii] I say this quite aware that it is a function of my privilege that I feel that I can express what is in me—that this very fact alone somehow justifies my expression. It is with deep sorrow that I consider that other people have been, and continue to be, forced to suppress what is within them, and have been killed for who they are and what they think. This sorrow is an important part of what calls me to write this book.

[iii] For the opposite view, see Pinker, 2011. Pinker argues that the trends across world history and over recent decades all show less violence and greater security across time, such that we are living at the happiest and safest moment in human history. Pinker’s argument has a number of weaknesses, but even if we accept his data wholesale, we can reasonably reach the opposite conclusion—that violence has not declined in toto, but has simply shifted into new forms in the modern period, some of which Pinker fails to recognize as violence. These include the many assaults on the global ecosystem that have accumulated since the Industrial Revolution, most prominently global greenhouse gas emissions, and the economic violence that has resulted from the globalization of capitalism. Two examples: Pinker ignores the human-induced Sixth Extinction already underway (see Kolbert, 2014) as if it had no relation to violence, which is patently absurd; nor does Pinker recognize poverty as itself a form of violence, but only as a possible factor in other forms of violence, such as homicides or civil wars.

[iv] For more on global carrying capacity, see Catton & Dunlap, 1980.

[v] For one model of ecosystem collapse related to human factors, see Rodriguez et al., 2015.

[vi] According to Wackernagel, et al. (2002), we had already achieved 120% of the Earth’s carrying capacity by 1999. Since then, it can only have gotten worse as global population, consumption rates, and ecological impacts have continued to increase unabated.

[vii] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014.

[viii] Diamond, 2011.

[ix] See, retrieved on July 12, 2015, aggregated from various reports published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

[x] Clatham House, 2014.

[xi] Baum, 2015.

[xii] In a letter to the Wall Street Journal in 2011, George Schulz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn opined, “With the spread of nuclear weapons, technology, materials and know-how, there is an increasing risk that nuclear weapons will be used.” Reprinted in Shultz et al, 2011.

[xiii] This passage was written before the election of Donald Trump and, especially, his saber-rattling with North Korea, which has only made the situation more perilous.

[xiv] United Nations, 2014.

[xv] See Milgram, 1975 and Zimbardo, 2007.