Peace on Earth, seemingly unattainable, figures prominently this time of year. We see it displayed on holiday cards and gift wraps, writ large in light displays, sung by choirs and carolers. For over six decades, I’ve watched the classics of the season without tire: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger in the 1952 film adaptation of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Boris Karloff’s inimitable narration of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, animated for TV in 1966; A Charlie Brown Christmas from Charles Schulz’ comic strip Peanuts, which first graced television sets the year before. Each traditional telecast has a moment or two which tugs the heart strings. Even Schulz’ contribution gets tear-jerky about the time Linus makes reference to peace and good will before affectionately wrapping his security blanket around the diminutive fir tree to support it. Best of the lot, if you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend watching the Warner Bros. short, Star in the Night (1946), recently colorized on YouTube. In the closing sequence, character actor J. Carrol Naish, giving one of his best performances, stares tearfully into the night sky next to a calendar captioned “peace and good will.” It’s a pity Hollywood can’t script a comparable ending to bloodshed in Myanmar, Ukraine and the Middle East.
Peace on Earth. Surely, at a time of overwrought gift-giving and commercialism, no material present can surpass it, transcending even violence-laden religious and political differences and sought by every creature on the planet. And yet, New York City sees no contradiction in choosing this time each year to destroy a massive evergreen to kick-off sales and merchandizing at Rockefeller Center. This year’s coniferous sacrifice was an 80-foot tall Norway spruce from upper state Vestal, approximately 85 years old, the prime of its life, having sequestered atmospheric carbon in its biomass since the Great Depression. In fact, perhaps 50 percent or more of the plant’s structural make-up is tropospheric carbon reconfigured day after day, year after year by photosynthesis. Only that didn’t factor into the Big Apple’s holiday season decorative calculus. It’s axiomatic that capitalism produces a few big winners and mostly losers, and the Norway spruce felled for 30 Rock is on the red side of the ceremonial ledger. Politically and ecologically, obstructions to Peace on Earth, like the rhetoric that supports them, are not organic, but fomented on purpose.
In a recent special edition of Popular Science devoted to memory, Pamela Weintraub interviews Northwestern University personality psychologist Dan McAdams, who pioneered the life-story model of human identity. McAdams, building on the eight stages of development from infancy to adulthood described by psychologist Erik Erikson and pretty much compulsory inclusions in psychology and sociology textbooks, goes on to describe his concept of narrative identity. Over the years, we develop an internalized and evolving story about ourselves based on our reconstructed past and future expectations. In the last five years, McAdams says, research psychopathologists have started applying narrative identity to diagnoses of personality disorders such as narcissism. McAdams, whose book The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning provides greater detail on the former president’s narcissistic, authoritarian bents, goes on to explain how Trump’s narrative identity is nonexistent. According to McAdams, Trump has no concept of time and virtually no memories of childhood. He’s practically non-prospective in the sense that he doesn’t look ahead as other presidents have done, wondering about consequences of their actions or how history and future generations will judge them. McAdams calls him an “episodic man,” who lives in the moment and treats every moment as a separate winner-take-all conflict. Eventually, the moments don’t add up, meaning Trump has no semblance of a narrative arc. That perpetual disconnect with future consequences and responsibility for one’s actions (plus undoing Barach Obama’s policies because Obama bested him in the 2012 election) is why Trump vindictively withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord. It also explains Trump’s compulsive disregard for facts.
Anthropocentric myopia and anti-knowledge leanings of the far right aren’t conducive to Peace on Earth. With global average temperatures soaring to new records this year, ecological models project an estimated 50 percent of all species capable of migration ─ from frogs and moose to bears, squirrels and humans ─ are leaving their usual habitats. To cope with global warming and anthropogenic climate change extremes, those that can are seeking cooler northern latitudes and higher elevations. Pika and many other alpine animals are already at the end of their ropes. Running out of montane real estate, they can’t climb any higher to avoid the heat. These mass movements add another level of risk for biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse in years to come. Already, the Earth’s biosphere is losing its resilience to environmental changes. Safe operational limits for us myriad species are being exceeded in major 6 areas: climate, biodiversity, land, freshwater, nutrient pollution and novel (i.e. man-made) chemical releases. As carbon pollution heats the planet beyond plant and animal tolerance levels, domino effects of exceeded “tipping points,” accelerating climate change even faster, could come into play. Five important thresholds are already at risk of being crossed (collapse of big ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, widespread thawing of permafrost, death of coral reefs in warm waters, and the collapse of a weather-determinant atmospheric current in the North Atlantic). If the world heats on average another 1.5C (2.7F) degrees above pre-industrial temps, scientists conclude three more could be reached in the next decade. Yet, 1.1% more greenhouse/heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions were released into the atmosphere in 2023 than last year, aviation and cement manufacturing among the major contributors. Peace on Earth?
Our education gap has become our greatest nemesis to rational (and national) unity and consolidated purpose, splitting voters into two increasingly hostile camps. As far back as Plato, earliest democracies understood that rule by “have-nots” would mean the wealthy had to ante-up for general welfare. Giving the less fortunate a vote also meant the rich and powerful would resist doing so. Plato also felt democracy would suffer from putting decision-making equally into the hands of each and every citizen, who (as Walter Lippmann would warn in the 1920s) lacked the intellectual resources and accumulated knowledge to make well-reasoned, evidence-based decisions. To Lippmann, the original dogma of democracy seemed shaky given 20th century challenges and political machinations because people cast their votes for selfish, non-priority issues sieved and sifted by deep prejudices, not preponderance of evidence or reasoned argument. Lippmann concluded that democracy could only be saved by the guiding influences and principles of experts, whose job it was to steer politicians away from constituents’ worst instincts towards overarching issues and crises and what facts prescribed to resolve them. After all, Lippmann had worked in American propaganda during World War I and saw firsthand how easily public opinion was manipulated, perhaps explaining the intellectual regressions we’ve seen in some of our candidates since then. Satirist Andy Borowitz calling Sarah Palin the “gateway idiot who led to Donald Trump” sounds harsh. But clearly the last 20 years or so of American history has been adversely impacted by unwarranted political ascendances and celebrity statuses the devolution of which seem explained by Borowitz’ 3 Stages of Ignorance ─ Ridicule, Acceptance, and Celebration.
During the 1960 presidential debates, people who listened to radio broadcasts insisted Richard Nixon was the winner, based on his command of facts and issues, convincing arguments and debating skills. Those who watched TV telecasts concluded JFK had won because his appearance and delivery were polished. Kennedy looked calm, likeable and trustworthy. Despite Addison’s disease, osteoporosis, colitis, prostatitis and a bad back, he projected confidence and charisma. Nixon had eschewed make-up, perspired under stage lights and shifted his eyes when Kennedy was speaking. Nixon seemed unaware that the network was interspersing shots of him while JFK was talking. Kennedy, meanwhile, had been well-coached, staying in character and maintaining poise throughout. Certainly, Kennedy was no dummy, even if Nixon may have been better prepared for the White House. But the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates portended how, in the 21st century, flash and bluster, vitriol and ineptitude would supplant competency and substance, civility and intelligence in U.S. politics. Ignorance has become synonymous with authenticity and voter commonality, actually preferred over the expertise Lippmann had prescribed to keep our democracy afloat. Now, with consent of some voters, democracy is under attack and experts distrusted. We find believers in arrogant, vengeful gods indifferent to suffering coalescing around extremist candidates, who similarly demand fealty from faithful, who lionize and extol them for the same flaws they falsely project on others. Years ago, those candidates would have been eliminated from the get-go as unfit for office. Now, their promises of fascism get normalized, and voters become desensitized to the menace in their rants. Peace on Earth?
On August 23, 1971, Justice Lewis F. Powell, a Richmond attorney, drafted a confidential memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce describing a strategy for corporate takeover of America’s public institutions and general undoing of the social, environmental and philosophical advances of the 1960s. Powell had been, among other things, a board member of Philip Morris tobacco and sought to retaliate against criticisms directed at corporations and Big Business by college campuses, the media and new environmental, labor and consumer protection laws. Regulations raising awareness about and restricting corporate pollution and unsafe working conditions were beginning to take hold, largely inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). President Nixon signed the National Environmental Act (January 1970), established the White House Council on Environmental Quality, signed an executive order creating EPA, added tough amendments to the Clean Air Act, and announced the first air pollution standards. Shortly thereafter, lead paint was restricted for the first time, DDT was banned, OSHA was formed to take aim at occupational health threats, and colossal Earth Day events took place around the world. Not yet hamstrung by Watergate, Nixon signed the Marine Mammals Protection Act into law December 21, 1972.
The Nixon administration accomplished so much to protect ecological communities, natural resources, endangered species and workers, Powell insisted corporations had to reshape the political debate. That included monitoring television shows for plotlines unsympathetic to business, intense lobbying and massive infusions of corporate money into American politics to advance their agenda. Not only was Powell’s blueprint for corporate domination of democracy effective. His “assiduously cultivated” political power became realized. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has become the most powerful lobby in Washington, DC, spending nearly $800 million since 1998 to buy political influence. Furthermore, at levels unseen since the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890, corporations have consolidated to form monopolies that drive-up inflation and keep prices high by eliminating competition. Union-busting, wage stagnation and decades of whittling away employee benefits (such as sick leave and pensions) have continued to widen gaps between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Bill Clinton’s presidency, marked by financial deregulation in exchange for two consecutive terms, further concentrated wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, in particular, allowed investment banks to over-leverage depositors’ money, setting the stage for America’s Great Recession of 2008-2009 and global aftermaths. Repercussions of Clinton’s betrayal of liberalism using Lewis Powell’s playbook, have corporate political power at a high, democracy a ramshackle and most Americans weary from trying to get by.
In this accelerated, unpredictable techno-scientific age, we have wider ranges of choices but also vastly greater dimensions of risk and responsibilities that accompany them. We’re addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining when confined to sports but dangerous when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious and ideological clashes exacerbated by biases. The cruel and ill-informed among us are too self-absorbed to protect other forms of life or to preserve habitat and other environmental conditions necessary for their survival, let alone our own. We grapple with the conundrum that selfishness within groups has competitive advantages, paying dividends of genetic fitness for the individual but generally threatening the group as a whole. Yet, narcissists, extremists and would-be dictators are never asked by media to prove their assumptions or provide hard evidence for their beliefs. Scientific knowledge grows exponentially, doubling every decade or two depending on discipline, but far too many citizens resist learning it or adhering to advice of those who do. These are big obstacles to Peace on Earth. But, if NASA can stream a video of a cat named Tater 19 million miles from deep space using a laser, anything is possible. Fear and ignorance need not speak louder than our dreams of Peace on Earth. We need only diagnose the etiology of irrational beliefs and suspension of reason that divide us to plot a truer course for mutual understanding. Harmony can still be more than something written in a card, sung by children on a stage or illuminated on a winter solstice night sky. Peace on Earth!
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.