As I said in Part 1 of The State of the Human, looked at from a biological point of view, humans have had all of the success a species could dream of. From a big-picture, top-down point of view, we’ve multiplied, we’ve prospered, we’ve thrived. But looked at from an inside-the-human point of view, from the subjective perspective of humans living in this world, the picture is murkier, vaguer, the conclusions more obscure.
In our ongoing scanning of the world, our efforts to see and know it, we becomes aware of a vast amount of disturbing phenomenon woven into the fabric of human reality. In the phenomenology of being human, the world presents itself to us as replete with suffering, suffering of a diverse array and great magnitude.
Further, we see that much of this suffering seems avoidable. And worse, much is even human produced. While some of this represents either unforeseen consequences or collateral damage of other purposes, some it is actually the deliberate product of human intention.
We even find that this suffering is widely tolerated, even that which might be avoidable. There is a deep indifference to this suffering, until it comes to pay us a personal visit.These trials and tribulations of the world are pervasive, extending from the overall structure of the world down deep into our inner psyches
Violence is embedded in the world-system of nation states in our perpetual preparedness for war, our ongoing cultivation of the military option. We live with much of the planet’s physical and mental energy devoted to the possibility of war – producing weapons, training soldiers, strategizing war scenarios.
You can look at the whole enterprise of war as a contingency of the historical process of human aggregations sorting themselves out. Once spread across the planet, as our numbers grew and our interconnections became more intensive, we settled our differences by the violence game. Our population and our military technology increased faster than our ability to peacefully co-exist.
According to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) in 2012, global military expenditure was $1.76 trillion. That equals 2.5% of world GDP or appx. $250 for each person on earth. It is almost 60 times the current spending of the United Nations and all of its funds and agencies ($30 billion). An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline provides a tour of some recent hotspots, examing their impact on human lives.
And, of course, we must not forget the thousands of nuclear warheads, nestled in their silos or slumbering in the bellies of bombers and submarines. They keep their silent vigils, seeds of destruction awaiting the opportunity to realize their annihilatory potential, missionaries ready to deliver their blessings of death.
Beyond their direct toll of violence, a side-effect of wars are the tides of refugees they produce, the beleaguered human flotsam of the world. According to Refugees International, currently “there are 45.2 million refugees and internally displaced people and 12 million stateless people living in limbo without citizenship rights.” And refugees are just one set of that modern phenomenon of humans whose lives are superfluous in this world, like the Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives or Kevin Bales’ Disposable People.
Wars might be considered as part of the broader issue of suffering due to how some groups of humans relate to other groups of humans. This involves one group seeing those outside the group as “the other”, as less worthy or even less human than themselves. This is one of the factors causing war and related types of violent conflict. Or it can manifest as domination of one group by another (racism, caste systems, patriarchism).
Along with violence between societies, there is a great amount of violence within societies, everything from the media spectacles of mass shootings to the gang warfare on city streets to murder, assaults and rapes to the common place intimate violence of battered wives and children. In response to this, in America we created a booming prison industry which only breeds more violence.
There are many ways to consider this violence, including biological and evolutionary perspectives, all of which shed light (The Biology of Violence by Debra Niehoff is one interesting book in this area) . But, I think a careful consideration makes it clear that there are structural elements to violence, that violence is embedded in society. Two books that I’ve read recently cover this in detail: Violence and Society: A Reader, and Violence, Inequality, and Human Freedom.
In addition to the suffering of physical violence there is what I call economic suffering. This includes economic crime ranging from the robbery of muggers and swindling of con men to the manipulations of Bernie Madoff and Enron and the corrupt invisible realms of tax havens, money laundering & organized crime. And encompassing the entire economic world is the great postmodern casino of the financial markets, levitated by the alchemical conjuring of central banks.
Beyond this is the greater issue of the vast inequality of wealth in the world both between and within societies. This suffering of inequality includes the great sufferings of poverty, squalor, destitution and hunger in the world that continues to pervade many lives across the planet. As in most of post-agrarian history, the world seems to exist for the benefit of the favored (or self-favoring) few.
As I indicated earlier, the suffering that exists between societies and within societies penetrates down to the intimate world of our daily lives. It reaches inside our personal existence, our family life, our working life. Further, it reaches inside the interior life of our psyches, into the fabric of our thoughts and emotions. Here, it manifests in things like alcholism, drug abuse, gambling addiction and mental illness, all reflections of forms of inner suffering.
Beyond all this intra-human suffering, there is the suffering of our relationship to the planet and the rest of life. Human activity is causing a potential mass extinction of species. This would be the 6th mass extinction on the planet and the first for which a species is responsible; our very success is proving a hazard for other forms of life and for the biosphere itself.
Though, we’ve been showing some improvement in environmental consciousness in recent years, we continue polluting the air and water, creating radioactive waste with huge lifespans and minimal plans for their safekeeping, we’ve been destroying the rainforests, depleting the ocean’s fish, the earth’s soil and the reserves of drinking water and even seem to be changing the climate.
This directory of suffering isn’t meant to imply that the world is a bleak, despairing landscape full of nothing but suffering and despair. Rather that, in spite of our unprecedented flourishing, that a pervasive suffering continues to haunt the human species.
We have grown dramatically in numbers, capabilities and knowledge but we still have great difficulties living with ourselves, each other, the rest of our fellow creatures and the overarching dominion of life from which we sprang from and continue to be embedded.
While the human story is fascinating, amazing and profound, it is also laced with dark and disturbing themes. Our path hasn’t yet taken us to a state of nirvanic existence. But, perhaps at this moment of our human unfolding arises a stirring of utopian urges, a notion to nudge us homo sapiens towards a more harmonious co-existence with each other and with the whole living world.
- The State of the Human – Part 1: The Bright Side
- How Shall We Live?