Image: Iurii Bakhmat, via Flickr.

For the time being, the headlines have changed. The news of international conflict has been overtaken by an analysis of global existential threat, the sort of calamity—like epidemics and environmental degradation—that threatens us all. The world is going to hell, but maybe there is some saving grace in what seems like its imminent apocalypse. According to the 19th century American pragmatist William James, this transition gives us the chance to refocus our energies away from traditionally narrow patriotic concerns epitomized in wartime, and sublimate them in broader and much more productive efforts. In his words, at times like these, there is the possibility to realize a “moral equivalent of war.”

In February 1906, James delivered a lecture of this title to a large Stanford audience. “The Moral Equivalent of War,” presented before a pacifist league, largely heralded the moral merits of warfare: war brings soldiers together, establishes a common cause, encourages bravery and self-sacrifice, and underpins the fabric of the modern nation-state. If James had stopped there, he would have been run out of the lecture hall for obvious reasons. Straight-up bellicosity wouldn’t sell well to these people. Instead, James noted that the moral effects of traditional warfare are so pervasive and durable to a national population that expunging them thoroughly, for the sake of peace, will be remarkably difficult. In his words, the “war against war will be no holiday excursion or camping party.”

According to James, the desire to fight something together does seem written into our biology, if not our patriarchal society. In either case, the desire is not easily quieted. Thankfully, at certain moments—like the one that we are currently facing, with environmental crisis and the threat of pandemic—we have the ability, according to James, to reroute this desire to productive ends.

James concludes “The Moral Equivalent of War” by proposing such a solution. If warring instincts are not to be extinguished, they might at least be transferred in the waging of a war against nature. His is a call for arms, but arms that would be put to peaceful use. According to James, young men (and let’s not be sexist, James, women) might be conscripted into civil service and put to work in collective projects: “To the coal mines and iron mines, to freight trains…to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundaries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off… ”

Or, we might add, send the educated youth to the hospitals, to infectious-disease centers, to those regions immediately affected by global warming. Instead of controlling other people and other nations, James suggests, the citizens of the developed world could undertake the perpetual project of controlling nature—an enemy much more difficult to master. Moreover, this conscription would require the “gilded youth” to perform the most pointed form of self-mastery, the act of getting over themselves.

I know the idea sounds suspect: scholars have criticized James’s idea of a conscripted work force in a variety of ways. James’s suggestion that only socially elite young people be drafted into this heroic service caused Jane Roland Martin to claim that he only reinstantiated the paradigm of imperialism and the prejudice that has historically accompanied it. More damning, perhaps, is the related criticism that fitting nature (lumber and other resources for example) into the frames of capital and trade only perpetuates the warrior ethos and sets the groundwork for larger international conflicts.

Here we might think of a critique that runs along the lines of the postmodern reversal of the Clausewitz’s doctrine, that war is merely the implementation of politics by other means. In this reversal, authors such as Michel Foucault suggest that modern society—its political and economic workings—is merely the continuation of war by other means. It remains unclear how victories in a war against nature, often framed in terms of technological or economic progress, might not serve as the preparatory steps in future military campaigns. Today, the nation’s defensive posture and military-industrial complex seems to lend credence to these remarks.

This being said, James might have been able to respond to these critical remarks along pragmatic lines by directing us back to the latter half of his 1906 address. On the point that such conscription would apply only to young people of the upper class, a few comments seem warranted. James experienced, firsthand, the way in which the ease of a privileged background could produce a type of moral degeneracy characterized by a set of seemingly disparate dispositions—namely, ambivalence, rashness, romantic idealism, and alienation.

James notes, for this reason, that the moral equivalent of war, embodied in civic service, would be particularly difficult for (but also particularly advantageous to) the “Boston Brahmins,” with whom James had a lifetime of experience. John Dewey would later deride the moral equivalent of war as an aristocrat’s lame attempt to “keep up the battling nerve” in decadent conditions. This derision, however, seems somewhat misplaced if we reexamine James’s stance. He states explicitly that the conscription of “the gilded youth” would “get the childishness knocked out of them and have them come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideals.” That, at least, is the hope.

James was calling the gilded youth to return to their societies. He was calling them to sacrifice their private concerns and to embrace the risky, but meaningful, world of communal and global relations. A social and economic gap had developed between the American populace and the “gilded youth” of the early 1900s—a fact that sheds light on both their feelings of alienation and the difficulties they faced in leading their respective communities. This social and economic disparity came hand in hand with the inability of privileged individuals to face, much less genuinely understand, the circumstances of disadvantaged persons. This is a fact that begins to explain why such disadvantaged persons are the first to be committed and sacrificed to military conflict. They are, of course, the last to be asked to contribute to the decision-making process concerning their fate.

James had long criticized the less-than-sober ideals that had motivated US imperialism. While the economically underprivileged fought in military conflict, it was the ideals of the elite that initiated ill-advised campaigns. “Extravagant ambitions,” according to James, “will have to be replaced by reasonable claims.” He cautioned against ideals—liberal or expansionist—that ran unchecked by the social and political realities of the day. This seems to serve as a type of diminution of the warrior ideals that James appears to laud throughout the opening moments of his address. These are quickly tempered when James turns to the possibility of fighting a natural foe—disease, natural catastrophe, famine—for the sake of a wider human community.

An issue still remains, however, concerning the tactics that might be used and the “foe” that might be confronted in such a conflict. Ecologists and environmentalists have dismissed out of hand James’s reference to the “immemorial human warfare against nature,” claiming that the antagonistic relationship that he cites is the product of a bourgeois and capitalist mindset. James is portrayed as an intellectual godfather of federally organized labor movements that often pitted the demands of US industry against increasingly scarce environmental supplies.

I believe that this interpretation is partially misguided. In the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, James suggests that the relationship between finite individuals and nature need not be antagonistic, but is indisputably precarious. He states, “I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying ‘no play.’…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, but it may win through.”

It is in this world that human work and human play are to be done. It is in this sense that nature beckons communities to strive with her, to battle “with her.” This odd statement discloses an abiding current of James’s thought—namely, that we are to be alive to the challenges and the opportunities that only nature can afford. This current carries the twofold meaning of “striving with nature.” Ours is a relationship with nature that is both partnership and struggle. We are invited by James to situate ourselves in a meaningful, albeit painfully temporary, relation with our natural surroundings. That is also to say that James encourages us to face the challenge of maintaining this difficult and perennial relation and, in the spirit of hardihood, to value rather than ignore this continual difficulty.

James’s proposal concerning a war against nature bears marked similarities to the federally-organized labor programs such as Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (1933), John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps (1961), and Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” (1964). All of these programs stemmed from the idea that political unity might be engendered to address the deficiencies and vulnerabilities experienced in the US domestic sphere. In these cases, the nation was not vulnerable to enemy attack, but rather suffered from its own inability to balance precious natural resources and physical threats with the needs of its citizens. In addressing poverty, hunger, and unemployment—and now an epidemic—as real and dangerous foes, these policy measures began to undertake a Jamesian war against nature. How could these principles be applied in the age of coronavirus or exponential global warming? That time is upon us.

Let us return, in conclusion, to the most famous use of James’s phrase, “the moral equivalent of war.” In 1977, the energy crisis had reached what seemed like an apex (oh, hindsight!) and President Jimmy Carter claimed in public address, “Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war—except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not to destroy.” If only we had a leader at this moment who could articulate this message.

In the absence of such a leader, Carter’s use of “the moral equivalent of war” still seems oddly and beautifully appropriate. Instead of ignoring the difficulty of environmental sustainability, he encourages citizens to face this difficulty together and equally, and hopes that, in so doing, they might find a lasting and meaningful answer to the question of political unity. Carter’s is pointedly a war against nature—or, more accurately, a war with nature—that galvanizes a community by underscoring the precarious relationship between its members and their natural surroundings. He describes an imminent threat, the most imminent threat: the threat that these communities pose to their members by way of their short-sighted and destructive policies.

John Kaag

John Kaag is professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute. He is the author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (Princeton, March 17).

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