In a Time of Crisis, how Can Science for Peace Be Effective?

Updated: Nov 23

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of Toronto and the Vice-President of Science for Peace.

Contributed fact sheet for the Working Group on Nonviolent Resistance

Humanity faces the gravest crisis in our short history. Our governmental leaders are unwilling or unable to grapple effectively with two looming catastrophes: escalating climatic disasters and growing arsenals of increasingly deadlier nuclear arsenals, combined with rising tensions among nuclear powers. Authoritarian tendencies throughout the world make matters worse, as far-right deniers and conspiracy theorists rise to the fore.

Grappling effectively with these problems certainly benefit from scientific analyses of why the problems exist and of what might serve as technically sufficient policy or programmatic solutions. But what is often lacking is an answer to the crucial how question: How, realistically, will the solution be implemented? By whom? With what coalition, ideology and set of tactics? Without rough answers to the political question, we are engaging merely in dreaming about desirable worlds.

The dangers are now so acute that only drastic action can avert catastrophe. Even holding global warming to a disastrous 2 degrees Celsius this century will require emergency action akin to mobilization for war. Preventing an accidental or intentional exchange of nuclear weapons requires a transformation of the dominant, military and nationally based conception of “national security.” With the proliferation of both nuclear-armed countries and the number and destructiveness of nuclear weapons, we are all becoming increasingly insecure. Avoiding the real possibility of civilizational collapse means rocking the boat, disrupting the status quo.

The challenges are urgent and complex; who will lead the way in confronting them?

Where Are the Universities? Think Tanks?

You might think that such emergencies would galvanize universities and colleges to prepare their students and the public to understand and transform this dangerous world. But universities are reluctant to take on this role. Of course, we can name commendable exceptions and scattered units within universities dedicated to environmental and peace and conflict studies. Dependent on financial contributions from governments, corporations and rich individuals, universities and colleges do not confront power structures and ingrained beliefs that buttress a dysfunctional system. This reluctance places a burden on independent think tanks in civil society.

Science for Peace, the Canadian voluntary organization to which I belong, is similar with independent thank tanks elsewhere striving to apply scientific knowledge to resolve crises. The value of a think tank lies in taking the longer view. Although it may engage in campaigns on immediate conflicts, its vocation lies in presenting a comprehensive and integrated vision of what should and can be done to remedy wicked problems.

Canada’s Fraser Institute, like similar right-wing think tanks elsewhere such as the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs and the US’s Cato Institute, is effective for three reasons. All its research and public education not only focus on promoting free-market solutions, but also reflects the vision. ingrained individualism, and paradigmatic policies of neoliberalism. Obviously, the massive funding that this viewpoint garners from corporations and the rick augments the Institute’s influence.

Science for Peace and other NGOs think tanks will never match the Fraser Institute (or the other two) in highly paid consultants, salaried professional managers, access to key policy-makers, and slick presentations. However, the positive side of our reliance on committed volunteers and shoe-string budgets is independence from both government and corporations. We can voice the uncomfortable truths about what needs to be done, and how.

Thinking Strategically

We “can,” but do we?

Not as well as we might like. If we are taking the longer view – if that is our goal – then what is the coherent message? As for Science for Peace, our “Peace/Ecological Manifesto” does integrate our thinking by linking the ecological crisis to the nuclear/militarist challenge and by offering a theoretical alternative to the current order, namely, “human security”. We do not propose, however, a plausible pathway to the new order. And our webinars, lectures, statements, petitions, and articles address disparate, albeit important, topics. We have elaborated the severity of the nuclear and climate crises, though too much emphasis on the scope of the emergency can induce paralysis rather than action. We have probed the nature and origins of instances of human suffering, such as the war in Ukraine. Lately, we have focused on the promise and tactics of nonviolent resistance, especially in the context of authoritarian tendencies. And we have taken principled stands in petitions and statements on a range of peace and climate issues. Principles are important; however, sometimes the message is received by those already converted. In short, our offerings are pertinent, though not informed by a coherent strategy. Science for Peace is typical in this respect.

Independent think tanks can be more effective if they have a consistent and reasonable message, which they relay through all means of influence. Yes, we need a luminescent vision of a peaceful and sustainable world. However, the harder part is imagining and forging the feasible pathways for surmounting our predicament. Our research and education should reflect an integrated perspective.

A “pathway” is akin to a strategy in the broad sense. A strategy involves answering three questions:

  • Why does the problem arise? What essential features of the prevailing system lead to the negative outcomes?

  • What needs to be done to remedy this defect and therefore remedy the problem?

  • How will what we need to be done, get done? What is the politics of the transition? Who (what groups) will be the agent of the transition? Using what tactics?

In general, the “why” and “what” questions are easier to answer than the “how” question. The conservative think tanks have answers to all three questions. Independent think tanks emphasize the “what,” with some attention to “why.” Without answering the last question, however, one is engaging only in dreaming. We have enough scientific knowledge to know what to do, but we don’t do it. We need to focus on how what needs to be done, gets done.

Reform, Revolution, or What?

What is the strategy? It doesn’t need to be spelled out in detail; we don’t have all the answers.

We are in the business of helping to avert two looming catastrophes. My view is that we should be explicit about the need for structural/system change, though without mentioning either capitalism or socialism (as both terms are vague and are weapons used in ideological/political warfare). We might use the more neutral term ’market system’: is there any doubt that the market system is obsolete when it is rapidly undermining the ecological basis of all life? We can oppose the market system, which destructively treats nature and labour as commodities, while still accepting the importance of markets in real commodities in adjusting supply to demand. “Human security” and “Postgrowth” are other positive terms to employ.

Too often analysts and activists frame the macro-strategic choices as revolutionary or reformist change. That is a false dichotomy. For one thing, system change does not necessarily mean the end of capitalism. Yes, we cannot continue with endless growth, especially in the rich countries. However, those who propose movement toward a steady-state economy an idea associated with ecological economist Herman Daly, or “postgrowth,” implicitly or explicitly contend that this transition can be made within capitalism. Through-puts of energy and resources remain constant, but competition, entrepreneurship and innovation continue to produce goods more efficiently and invent new products. A steady-state economy or postgrowth is our future.

For another thing, reformism breaks down into two categories: policy reforms that can be implemented within the existing power structures and economic system (usually the position of policy analysis as practised at universities), and radical reforms that will become feasible under foreseeable conditions (that is, human agency can shape the sociopolitical conditions). The last is implicitly, for example, what climate scientists are tending toward in their opaque reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists claim that “holistic and transformative change” is required to hold global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Those changes could only come about via a shift in power structures. In short, the difference between those arguing for system change and those arguing for policy changes is, in some cases, not as deep as it may appear.

What we should aim for is radical reformism with respect both to global warming and to the nuclear threat arising from the international balance of power/terror system. Reforms within neoliberalism are unlikely to resolve the challenges; revolutionary change is not only highly uncertain, but also costly in human suffering. Radical reformism, linked to nonviolent civil resistance, is the only feasible and humane approach in averting catastrophes.

In Conclusion

This advocacy of radical reformism is becoming mainstream. On the issue of postgrowth, for example, consider this project funded by the European Research Council with a budget of €10 million. On the issue of dealing with the threat of nuclear annihilation, refer to this appeal, which is supported by many prominent scholars and activists globally. The manifesto calls for the establishment of a new international order, based on a massive global mobilization of civil societies.

The conclusion is simple. We are in a dangerous era in which boldness is essential in dealing with looming catastrophes. For Science for Peace and other peace and climate organizations to act effectively, we must offer an integrated, reasonable, comprehensive, and radical message.

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