Jonathan Schell: A TANGLE OF CRISES

A summary of Schell's essay describing the interconnected crises we face and their commonalities is followed by suggestions for discussion, inquiry, critical thinking and writing.

To the Teacher:

In 1982 Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a riveting account of what nuclear war would mean and what he believes we must do to prevent it. Schell, who continues to write articles and books about the nuclear threat, is now a fellow at The Nation Institute. In his most recent essay, "Obama and the Return of the Real," published in the February 9, 2009 issue of The Nation, Schell offers a compelling overview of the multiple crises in which the United States, and the world, are now entangled.
In his article, Schell argues that we got into this mess because of self-deception, groupthink, and "wholesale manufacture of delusions" at the highest levels of government, industry, the military, and the media. He offers his views on how President Obama might address the crisis.
The student reading below quotes from, paraphrases, and summarizes Schell's article and adds a few examples. High school students can profit from considering what they are experiencing in these turbulent times through discussion, inquiry, and critical thinking and writing based on Schell's article.

Student Reading: 

A Tangle of Crises

Every American knows we are in a deep economic crisis. Millions of us are experiencing it very directly—a job gone, a home foreclosed, healthcare insurance eliminated, a 401K evaporating. Day after day we learn that another well-known business—Home Depot, Microsoft, Caterpillar, Starbucks, IBM—is cutting jobs. Some, like Circuit City, are shutting down entirely. In the financial world, major banks—Citigroup, the Bank of America—are stuck with billions in bad debt and will collapse unless they receive huge injections of taxpayer cash. As the economic crisis worsens, more and more Americans struggle to keep their lives together.
In his article "Obama and the Return of the Real" (The Nation, 2/9/09), author Jonathan Schell writes: "If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go, and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year's crisis is attended by—or embedded in—at least four others of even larger scope."
Schell then provides an overview of each of the five crises, how they are interrelated and characteristics they share. Besides the economic crisis, they include:
  • "the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels." The most significant is oil. Oil production has either peaked or will soon, and so its decline is foreseeable.
  • "the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction." A major problem now is "arms seepage" - leaked weapons that could get into the hands of terrorists. 
  • the ecological crisis, including "global warming, the wholesale human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortage...Like nuclear danger, the planetary ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the natural foundations of life on which humans and all species depend for survival."
  • "the failure of the American bid for global empire and the consequent decline of American influence abroad...The bid has run aground in the sands of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, among other places."

Crises are interconnected

Schell argues that all these crises are interwoven, so we cannot deal with them one after another, but rather must address them all at once. "Consider the relationship of the collapsing economy to the collapsing environment," writes Schell. As effective as the economy was in producing cheap goods and prosperity for some, it was an unsustainable prosperity because it produced a "carbon gushing," oil depleting "environmental catastrophe."
Common characteristics
"In addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common," Schell writes.
1) The crises are human-made.
None of the crises stem from a natural disaster like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. 
The economic disaster was forged in human brains that produced "investment run amok." The shortage of oil happened because "we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls," in the process emitting CO2, the chief driver of climate change and the potential collapse of the global ecosphere.
As for the spread of nuclear weapons: U.S. scientists created these weapons in wartime secrecy. But the knowledge soon became available to anyone and continues to spread and to threaten catastrophe through human accident or design.
Schell describes the invasion of Iraq as "the American empire's self-inflicted wound." Despite its cruel dictator, Iraq was no danger to the U.S. "Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us."
2) The crises are "the result of excess, not scarcity."
Too many smart people on Wall Street did not understand that home prices could not rise forever. Too many people on Main Street drove SUVs and oil prices over a cliff. "The nuclear weapon over-fulfilled the plans for great-power war, making it-and potentially ourselves-obsolete through oversuccess." Rampant consumerism, the engine of our economy, depends on "fragile natural systems" and is unsustainable. Unsustainable also are "the military pretensions of empire" - in which the U.S. was determined to have the capacity to maintain military bases around the world and fight two wars simultaneously.
Taken together, Schell writes, "the crises add up to a new era of limits, which now are pressing in on all sides to correct overreaching."
3) The crises, especially those that endanger the ecosphere, involve "theft by the living" from our children and grandchildren.
We have been "cannibalizing the future to provision the present," writes Schell. The money we have spent is coming "directly out of our children's paychecks. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The nuclear weapons we cling to for a dubious 'security' will burn down their cities. The atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines."
4) All the crises are "characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions."
The United States and other leading nations claim a disproportionate amount of the world's wealth, "a disproportionate right to pollute the environment," and nuclear weapons that other nations may not possess. Instead, other nations must "accept second-class status."
5) All the crises "have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions."
The housing "bubble" was an illusion, but real people lost homes and jobs. "The operative word here is 'bubble,'" Schell writes. A bubble is a mental construct based on fantasies.
The illusion that extensive scientific evidence for global warming was uncertain made no difference to shelves of Greenland ice cascading into the Atlantic Ocean. The illusion that nuclear arms make us safe seems reassuring, "but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy." The weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq were fictitious, but the Iraq war was real. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans are dead and millions of actual human beings, including Americans, who survive are left with ruined lives.
A future study
Schell imagines that some future study will examine how these crises came to be. It will "recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power." The study will end with a quote from a senior Bush advisor. The advisor belittled his interviewer, writer Ronald Suskind, as belonging to "the reality-based community" which believes that "solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." Things no longer work that way, the advisor said, because "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." From this perspective, Schell says, "Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around."
A prescription for President Obama
Obama, Schell writes, must have "a toughness, even a ruthlessness, that has nothing to do with bombing villages in faraway countries. No polls can tell him...what the people of Afghanistan or the carbon molecules are going to do, but he would be wise to let them be his masters. The path of ruling through illusion has been tried and failed...He should figure out what's wrong with America and the world, honestly and directly communicate his findings to the public, do his best to fix things and then let the results speak for themselves. It's a very simple prescription—but light-years away from anything that has been tried in the United States for a very long time."


For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What is the nature of each crisis in the five areas Schell names?
3. Schell writes that the crises are interwoven. What link can you find between any two of the crises, other than the link he describes between the environmental and economic crises?
4. Schell sees the crises as having five common characteristics. What example(s) different from any Schell names can you cite to support his point of view? If you disagree with any element in that point of view, why?
5. Why should or should not a future study conclude with the quote from the senior Bush official?
6. Schell writes that he offers "a very simple prescription" for the president but that it has not "been tried in the United States for a very long time." Certainly, his comment is an implied criticism of President Bush, among others. Do you think it is accurate? If so, why? If not, why not?
7. How appropriate is the advice for President Obama? What other advice, if any, would you offer him?

For critical thinking

Involve students in a critical thinking approach to the Schell position by asking them to do the following:
1. Read the summary of it and then make a conscientious and systematic effort to believe as much of it as possible.
2. Re-read the summary and then make the same kind of effort to doubt his position with critical questions and comments.
3. Integrate their thinking following the experience of both games.
For a detailed description of "the believing game," "the doubting game," and an approach to integration, see "Teaching Critical Thinking." For an approach to teaching students to ask good questions, see also "Thinking Is Questioning."

For inquiry

Engage students individually and/or in small groups for inquiry into some issue Schell raises. For an overview of an inquiry process for students, see "The Plagiarism Perplex."
Sample subjects:
  • The interconnectedness of the five crises
  • A common characteristic of the five crises
  • "Investment run amok"
  • The spread of nuclear weapons
  • The Iraq war: necessary or "a self-inflicted wound"?
  • The housing bubble
  • The argument for human behavior as a major cause of global warming 
  • The American "bid for global empire"

For writing

Write a well-developed paper arguing for or against one of the following statements:
1.  All the crises, especially those that endanger the ecosphere, involve theft by the living from our children and grandchildren.
2.  "All the crises are characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions."
3.  All the crises "have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions."
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: