19 September 2010

International Day of Peace is a powerful opportunity for growth

Tuesday September 21, 2010 is the International Day of Peace. It is a day devoted to promoting peace in our own lives and on a global scale, not just about war. The official website suggests that you "Take this opportunity to make peace in your own relationships as well as impact the larger conflicts of our time."

Although some people may view the day as frivolous, I think it is a powerful opportunity for growth, both as an individual and a world citizen. I know it's just one day, but honestly, what could possibly deserve an international celebration more than the promotion of peace in a world riddled with conflict?

I hope you take the time to contemplate peace and what it means to you on Tuesday. Perhaps you will discover something that compels you to make a positive change in your life or the lives of others, or maybe it will simply make you more receptive to the world's conflicts and what you can do to begin to resolve them. Whatever the result, I'm confident that the time you spend in meaningful contemplation will only help you to grow-- and maybe make the world a better place.

Below, I would like to share with you a speech I presented last year at my undergraduate university at our 6th Annual Peace Luncheon. I encourage you to leave comments sharing what peace means to you and whether you will be celebrating this day in any particular.

My conception of peace has developed through contemplation on several concepts, which together describe my worldview: atheism, environmental ethics, and vegetarianism.

I don’t know precisely when I became driven to consciously incorporate peace into my life, nor do I recall when I ceased to believe in God. However, I do know that my arrival at atheism allowed me to value life in a way I was never able before. I began to see humans, animals, nature, and the very system of life as intrinsically valuable. Instead of looking to a god or to scripture in order to understand how or why I should value life, I just looked directly at those things I felt were deserving of respect- which, as it turns out, is virtually everything.

After taking an influential course on environmental ethics, I began studying the subject more deeply than I previously thought was necessary. Doing so granted me an opportunity to contemplate life outside the human realm. After reading and thinking and arguing and being altogether confused, I came to the conclusion that life deserved respect simply because it is, because it exists. I disavowed the view that life could or should be valued hierarchically, and by that I mean I refused to see humans as the top, most important species, and ones justified in denying consideration to nature and animals whenever there arose a conflict between their interests. I sought to recognize each organism or collection of beings, from plants to whole ecological systems, as possessing an intrinsic value, one that was entirely independent from human interests.

It’s here that I would like to quote philosopher Paul Taylor. In his book, Respect for Nature, he argues for a biocentric, or life centered, system of ethics. He said, “Our history, our culture, our ways of living, our individual values, are viewed against the wider background of the natural environment and evolutionary change. We come to see how all that gives meaning to human existence is made possible by the surrounding conditions of life and nature.”

His words resonate in my mind; I see myself as a participant in a wider, grander scheme and am compelled to act accordingly.

Naturally, I examined how I could change my life in ways that would promote the values I ascribed to from my religious and ethical contemplation. I embraced a vegetarian, and presently, vegan lifestyle, which is kinder to both animals and the environment. Doing so made me to examine why I ate, bought and used the foods and products I did- it forced me to assess the amount of suffering I could reduce for billions of animals. Instead of contributing to the tremendously inhumane practices of fast food, clothing, and cosmetic industries, I refrained from animal product consumption; discontinued my use of leather and animal fibers; and only purchased products that were not tested on animals.

Thus, in these ways, I began to see human suffering, environmental degradation, and animal suffering more personally, and upon reflection, as forces that were antithetical to peace.

Obstacles that prevent us from respecting other members of our immediate communities, such as neighborhoods, cities, states, also stand in the way of accepting members of our largest community- the one we all share- the planet earth, with all of its members. And in my experience, where these elements are lacking, and where suffering from war and starvation is the standard; where pollution and destruction of the most beautiful, complex and innocent inhabitants of our world are justified simply because it’s better for us; and where abuse and exploitation of our animal counterparts is ignored, peace cannot thrive.

I know that immediate and unilateral societal change is unrealistic, but I also know that when most of us contemplate an ideal world, we envision a peaceful world. I am confident that one day humanity will reach the conclusion of Mahatma Ghandi and we will see that, in his words, it is possible to live in peace.

Becky Rubenstrunk
Becky received a BS in Restoration Ecology in 2010 and is now working on a graduate degree in Environmental Policy. She maintains a vegan lifestyle.

Photo credit: internationaldayofpeace.org