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Opinion: Obedience or Responsibility

Some of us acknowledge that we owe much more than our existence to our prehistoric ancestors. Among many other things, they created languages; accumulated and passed down knowledge about edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants; and developed cuisines that incorporated cooking, food preservation techniques, etc. Some of them also domesticated and selectively bred some of the animal species that we still live with. In addition to many of the difficult and time-consuming things that they did and mastered, we are indebted to them for the many things that they did not do. Whether this was the result of deliberate decisions or not, they certainly did not cause as much harm to this planet in the many prehistoric centuries than what we and our closer ancestors caused since the industrial revolution.

Sadly, no one knows exactly how long our species existed on this planet. One rough estimate that is commonly accepted is that the ‘modern humans’ go back at least 300,000 years. If we assume this to be close to the truth, we are forced to concede (despite several origin myths that millions of people believe today) that the vast majority of our time on our planet involved hunting, gathering, scavenging, fishing, etc. –in other words, a pre-agricultural way of living.

We are often warned of the dangers of not knowing enough about our past, and are exhorted to ‘learn from history’. Those of us who accept that most of our past is ‘prehistoric’ (i.e. before the advent of writing) have no choice but to admit that, as important as it may be to know our past, it will always be beyond our powers to shed light on some of the most important ‘unwritten chapters’ of our past. That said, it is safe to assert that, for one thing, our prehistoric ancestors did not pledge their loyalties to any nation-state or empire.

Recently, people in many parts of the world are threatened by a novel virus; and many political figures and scientists are arguing for the need to have national policies, science-based decision-making, and collective compliance with guidelines that are enforced nationally. While I agree with some of the sentiment behind such arguments, I hazard a guess here that there never was a scientific theory that proved the need for nation-states. Undeniably, at present, most human beings are born to one of close to two hundred ‘states’, and most of them live and die ‘under the original flag’. It is possible that most grown-ups are not actively challenging this fact. As one self-appointed moral agent and a political philosopher, I suggest that their apparent ‘satisfaction’ with this fact does not, and cannot, cancel the dissatisfaction of those who see it as a fait accompli, or even as a crime against humanity.

Before going deeper into my opposition to the nation-state system, I want to make it clear that I was born and raised in Turkey, a relatively new ‘republic’ that has a strong tradition of ‘statism’ (or étatisme), and an official ideology of a form of nationalism. I agree with many foreign observers that most adults in Turkey appear to embrace some kind of multi-ethnic nationalism. Militarism is also more generally embraced in Turkey than in most other countries. After being force-fed official versions of history until my teenage years, I was able to dig deeper through my college years and beyond, and I ended up adopting a historical perspective that incorporates some of the recent ‘wisdom’ that is gained through archaeological, anthropological, and primatological research. I was also privileged to travel widely in Turkey; and I learned about several civilizations that ruled different parts of present-day Turkey in different periods. I feel confident to assert, along with many other scientists, that agriculture, urbanization, nationalism, and industrialization are neither essential nor indispensable for human beings.

Since 1980, I have been thinking and writing about some global issues, and trying to offer proposals based on what I call the ‘science of problem solving’. From the beginning, I argue that nation-states (operating in interstatal anarchy) are often serious obstacles to proper problem solving. Also, sometimes they are too small to solve problems that are global in nature, even when there is political readiness to address such problems. On the other hand, national organizations are sometimes too blunt and unwieldy to deal with problems that are small-scale. I conclude that, in order to be effective and just, competent and able-bodied grown-ups throughout the world must establish supranational organizations to address global issues; and they must make room for nongovernmental organizations, intentional communities, and ad hoc groups to address small-scale problems.

I lived in the U.S. since 1988. It has been painful for me to witness successive U.S. administrations miss many opportunities to help create a climate of collaboration after the end of the Cold War. I have no doubt that what was painful for me was far more painful for some of the people who fought in World War II, and believed that their fallen brothers and sisters were sacrificing to build a more peaceful, less exploitative world. While millions of people throughout the world were disappointed and saddened by the policies of the U.S. and other belligerent countries, millions of men, women, and children were killed, maimed, dispossessed, or otherwise victimized in conflicts and terrorist acts since the end of the Cold War.

It is obvious to me and countless other grown-ups that we have failed to prepare for the present pandemic. We may speak of underpreparedness in view of what we understand to be possible, financially feasible, etc., at a given time. Here, we must admit that some people may be so afraid of legal culpability, or even of self-blame, that they may ‘cook the books’, and declare that what was possible for them to do sometime in the past was indeed impossible to do, or that it would involve too much sacrifice in terms of some other values that they hold dear, or that it would mean neglecting other priorities. This kind of deception and distortion of facts has to be fought against for reasons of personal morality as well as public good.

I suggest that, when we try to assess what is possible for us, we should not limit ourselves to what is legally possible on a national or local level. Nor should we ask ourselves if our existing budgets will suffice to achieve our goals. We should try to imagine what people of learning, dedication, and good-will can achieve by working synergistically, in a network of global collaboration. In order to do so, we must be aware of the many ways in which nation-states are condemned to operate in a system of anarchy where antagonistic behavior is not only allowed, but also rewarded.

As power elites make decisions that are claimed to be in the interest of their respective nation-states, they also maintain a system of rewards and punishment for the officials and servants of the state, as well as many of their adult citizens. Sometimes, even indirectly, they are able to cause distortions of values for the general populace. As a result, many people find that what they recognize to be a ‘righteous path’, a morally justified or sanctioned act appears to be too risky. It may be illegal; it may involve risking death or serious punishment, harm to one’s family and friends; it may involve financial ruin, dispossession, loss of one’s job, etc.

Afraid of such possibilities, many people may end up choosing to obey orders that are likely to cause harm to their fellow citizens, citizens of other countries, or even countless future generations. Unfortunately, this is not just a warning about what might happen hypothetically. Much of our recorded past demonstrates an acceleration in such harmful acts. Also undeniable is widespread obedience on the part of people who are aware of the harm they are causing.

Some of us recognize that our species is, at present, the greatest threat to biodiversity on this planet. That said, the kind of stewardship that some members of our species is capable of cannot be provided by any other species. As many life scientists have long been aware of, in no other time in history have human beings known as much about our planet, while, at the same time, being forced to witness human-made and long-lasting destruction to our planet. Whether armed with sufficient knowledge or not, many moral agents are prepared to challenge their parents, neighbors, and conationals in the interest of other species and future generations.

I, for one, accept the ‘theory’ that no nation-state is destined to exist for millennia. I also accept that some of the things that we are doing today is causing extinction, and other forms of lasting harm. Our knowledge about our corner of the universe offers us sobering scenarios about the destruction of our planet. Even so, I believe that we have to make sure that what we do today does not jeopardize biodiversity or future generations. If such a cosmic destruction comes and ‘brings down the curtain’ for our species, at least the stage should be clean up to that point. Clearly, few of us today are living in such a way to ensure such sustainability and cleanliness. Those of us who feel a stronger sense of responsibility to other living beings, future generations, and natural resources may have no choice but to disobey existing political systems that we find ourselves in. In doing so, we must also demonstrate a readiness to obey and enforce rules based on ever-expanding scientific understanding, precautionary principles, and a diversity of moral systems.

By Seyn Laproyen
October 2020
[Offered free of copyright.]

One Comment

  • Avatar Examine History to Find Surprises says:

    Very interesting article. Most of us do not look at the world through such a wide lens of time. This is truly thought provoking.

    However, I must state that it’s become obvious that there was an advanced civilization on Earth prior to what we consider the beginnings of modern history.

    There are just too many clues pointing to this, not to mention concordance between many of the world’s major religions, and other historical texts taken as myth.

    Saying the world is <10,000 years old is convenient for today's mythologies.

    Humans were not hunter-gatherers so recently as we might think. Apparently, there was a cataclysm, perhaps a meteor strike, and then people were forced to subsist with very little.

    Not to mention that the crustal changes probably sunk a good amount of civilization.

    Why not more artifacts? Perhaps they made everything of stone and wood? Even a stone hammer is technology.

    We don't want to think about this, but life is very delicate.

    I look forward to seeing more articles by this contributor.

    Glad to see another brilliant mind rejecting identity politics. I can't stand that idea set. I can only write about my own experience? I can only play a character that reflects who I am in real life?

    RUBBISH!

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