John Mack – Toward a Constructive Vision

By Bari Boyer

An interview with John Mack originally published in the journal On Beyond War, Sept 1990

Dr. John E. Mack is professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and founding director of the Cambridge Hospital Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Some current projects of the Center include: the study of corporate leadership and global concerns; the role of the scientific community in tile formulation of nuclear policy; children’s political world; political discourse; enemy images; promoting effective dialogue across ideologies; peace researchers’ perceptions of the present and future state of the world.

Dr. Mack was recently interviewed by Beyond War volunteer Bari Boyer who lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Bari Boyer: You have written about the need for what you call a “psychology of the environment” that deals with humankind’s interconnectedness with the Earth. Are you saying it is wrong to have any identity other than one that regards human beings as interconnected with the whole Earth?

John Mack: That would be the ultimate value, the ultimate vision. But you can’t expect people to be aware of their interconnectedness with the Earth all the time in everything they do. When you walk down the street you’re going to be stepping on insects! You can take this to an absurd degree such as one person who wrote that she could identify with birds and fish, but not with insects. What I’m really talking about is a vision of preserving life. We must take only what we need, going softly in nature.

But how does one balance sustaining the resources of the planet with the interest of self preservation? One thing for sure is that it would be easier to balance our survival with the preservation of nature if there were less people, or at least these who co reside here treated the Earth with respect, as one among many thousands of living species. Human beings consume an awful lot of resources. We need to transform the way we operate and reduce our destructive impact.

Boyer: You talk about the “psychology of evil.” How do you perceive this in the environmental sense?

Mack: Evil is blindness to the dark side, a structure of lies – not necessarily a person deliberately lying. Evil is a combination not just of hostility or of destructiveness, but a way of thinking that provides a support structure of evil. In other words, it can be a rationale of destructiveness with a good motive. As far as the environment is concerned, first of all, we have to value the world around us. Environmental evil becomes something we experience when we treasure the natural world. Then, the destruction of the environment becomes evil. even if the destruction is not destruction for its own sake. Evil is not, “I hate trees, so I’m going to go cut down trees.” Evil is, “We need to make nice teak furniture to make a profit for our lumber company, so we destroy the environment and we explain that we really are environmentalists.” That would be speaking to one set of values and destroying at the same time what is totally consistent with those values.

Evil is where you fail to see the interests of 99 percent of humanity, and of our devout connection with the planet, and you override that for the narrow interests of a few people.

Boyer: How could we change this “destruction rationale with a good motive”? How can we create a human community that is fully integrated with the environment?

Mack: There is a lot of lip service out there to be a global village, interconnected with the whole Earth. But we don’t live that way. We live in terms of self-interest. We have to understand that the way we conduct ourselves has an impact on the environment. We need to have a global vision, a sense of community, a spiritual purpose, a vision of human connectedness for transcendence and for new possibilities that involves enough trust so that people are not scurrying to develop fancy new weapons to protect us from the other guy because we have the right vision and they don’t. The vision has to be universalized enough so that we don’t suddenly decide that we are okay and the others are the bad guys.

We now have communication technologies that could network a whole alternative to the war system. Technologies that can facilitate economic enterprises devoted to health care and nonpolluting, environmentally sound transportation systems, buildings, new food and health methods.

Boyer: How could ordinary people advocate an alternative to the war system? How could this nation reduce military expenditures and use the money to meet pressing needs?

Mack: First, we need to understand the war machine more deeply than we do. It is an enterprise that involves the best brains, the most advanced technologies, the most sophisticated forms of scientific investigation, enormous corporate money and power, millions of careers, huge institutions including our military forces, installations, testing grounds, weapons, laboratories and university departments, entire branches of government, waste disposal facilities. It is a vast multi-billion dollar enterprise that reaches into every town in the United States. This huge economic investment has also become an intellectual, psychological, ideological, and political investment … so intense that it is almost spiritual. One imagines that one is creating or preserving some great value of peace, some value of defending the motherland against an enemy by all this. But people are deeply committed to this whole war enterprise, and it’s not just some bad guys. It is all of us.

Right now, there is an unjustified complacency based on the easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. People think things are better. What they don’t appreciate, however, is that the war system is perpetuating itself into new directions.

One new direction is what I call the anticipatory or the “what if” approach to the war system. It consists of justifying the development of sophisticated information or nuclear space technologies because some new enemy or new leadership in the Soviet Union (or perhaps in a country that is not now regarded as an enemy) might develop a technology that we will need to offset. So, on those grounds, we have to be the best, we have to be the most advanced. And so we perpetuate the war system by using our brains, money, and political muscle for weapons research and development, instead of creating peaceful or constructive technologies.

The second way we perpetuate the war system is through the exporting of war to developing countries, through the international trade in arms. The United States, France, the Soviet Union, and Japan—forbidden to supply arms to the developing nations directly—send new weapons related technologies indirectly, selling to adversaries in various ethnic and regional conflicts. As the regional conflicts begin to draw blood, as the enmities rise and the ideological polarization deepens, we say, “Hey, this conflict is a threat to our security. Therefore, we must have new weapons, technologies, and systems to protect us from the spill over of these Third World conflicts into ‘our’ region.” Or, we take sides in ideological conflicts. The Third World becomes a new arena for perpetuating the war system.

Unless we can harness these wasted energies, there cannot be the essential political or economic will for taking even the first small steps. Groups like Beyond War can help by understanding the social, political, and economic forces that keep the war system in place, so we can act upon that knowledge. We need international psychopolitical leverage groups. Practical projects can grow out of understanding the system.

Boyer: What would be a positive myth or identification that we might hold up in our mind’s eye, without an enemy defining us from the outside?

Mack: I almost think you need if not an enemy, an external challenge that unites people, a certain amount of anxiety to get us started. Our focus has been too material, full of images of physical conquests, of rugged individualists subduing the Earth, riding out into the West, settling, using the resources for our own good.

We don’t have myths that embody the danger of environmental destruction in some way. We need a myth of purification of environmental poisons, cleaning with some kind of heroic power, turning back the evil destructive dimensions of industrialization going berserk. We need myths that would direct energy toward recognizing the aberrations and destructiveness of industrialization.

We could put our energy and technology into creating much smaller industries that are humanly related, industries that support agricultural development and that are neither toxic nor polluting. The challenge is to make that a vision and a myth for a better life, to create heroic figures with whom people can identify, heroes who can confront the obstacles to change and overcome them.

  • Bari Boyer was a volunteer for Beyond War. She was a graduate of Cornell University.

© 1990 Bari Boyer
Originally published in
On Beyond War
Sept 1990, issue 62, pp. 6-7