As I tried to comprehend the tragedy in Newtown, my thoughts were with the victims and their families. The horror I feel is nothing compared to what they have been required to experience and absorb. Understanding what happened seems impossible — but attempt to understand it we must, if we are to reduce the occurrence of these devastating shooting tragedies in the future. As I wondered along with the rest of America “how could this happen?”, my thoughts were led to ancient philosophy — specifically, to the teachings of Aristotle and what he said about causation.
Any act that has a cause, he said, actually has four different kinds of causes: material, efficient, final, formal.
The efficient cause of gun violence is a shooter who intends to kill. The material cause of gun violence is the gun. If you want to prevent school shootings, it makes sense to keep shooters and guns from coming together anywhere near a school. Focusing on these easy-to-see causes leads to calls for various kinds of gun control, for profiling of potential mass murderers, for pre-emptive arrests, metal detectors, and locked-down schools as prisons for kids — not to keep students in but to keep violence out. And these are the kinds of solutions that some people are going to say — are already saying — we need.
But we’re not going to solve the problem of gun violence until we get at the deeper causes that Aristotle called final and formal. The search for final causes leads us to ask questions like, “what was the shooter’s motivation? What could he possibly have hoped to accomplish?” The search for formal causes has us ask “what were the social dynamics, the social context, that shaped this event?”
The United States has the highest level of gun violence among supposedly developed nations in the world, a rate exceeded only by some impoverished countries and some that are host to rival factions that are at war. Since 1962, there have been at least 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country. We need to ask: Why have “going postal” and “school shooting” become such common terms in America? What are the deeper causes that give ourculture tragedy after tragedy of this kind?
The answers to those questions are complex. But one avenue of causation might be found in this correlation: besides having the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world, the United States also has the world’s fullest expression of free-market consumerist ideology. Thinking about Aristotle’s categories, I suspect that there may be a connection.
Free-market consumerist ideology, supported by billions of dollars of advertising, has given us a society in which people are too often disconnected individuals who think that their satisfactions and the means of obtaining them are completely their own. Americans have been encouraged to think of themselves first and foremost as consumers — not as citizens, as neighbors, as family members — and to think that as consumers we deserve to be satisfied. It’s a fairly small step from that to thinking that if we aren’t satisfied then we must have a grievance against someone who’s preventing it. The United States has become the richest, most commodious, most powerful nation the earth has ever seen. In such a bountiful place, it’s all too easy for someone who is unsatisfied with their life to think that the reason must be that someone else has done or is doing something to block the way.
Most Americans accept that with our right to keep and bear arms come certain essentially civic responsibilities, including the responsibility to respect the rights and prerogatives of others. In the traditional version of the AmericanDream, people are led by their longings and dissatisfactions to work harder to get what they need and want, and that’s good, as long as “working harder” doesn’t also mean “cranking through the planet’s finite resources faster and faster in order to have more and more stuff.” Few Americans stop to reflect that their longings and dissatisfactions have been shaped by a private enterprise system in which corporations profit by creating unhappiness and then by offering us the chance to assuage that unhappiness through consumption — consumption that has to grow to survive, which means it has to use the finite resources of the planet at ever-increasing rates.
Our addiction tocheap energy and automobiles plays a role as well. When you’re in a car, your fellow citizens aren’t fellow citizens anymore, they’re people who get in your way, annoying you and making it harder to do what you want to do. And when you live in a landscape that’s been shaped by car culture, the networks of family and neighborly connection that grow naturally among humans in communities aren’t as strong as they could be. Thanks to the efforts of environmentalists to control sprawl, Vermont has retained many of its village centers, and even if our rural lives mean that many of our neighborhoods aren’t walkable, we retain a higher level of the kinds of neighborly trust, mutual aid and common courtesy that strong communities have. These networks of connection blunt the cumulative psychological effect of consumerism by keeping us grounded. They help to restrain individual actors, keeping them more thoroughly embedded in social reality (which includes the basic principles that other people deserve to live and breathe and that schools should be the safest of places).
To prevent future Newtowns and Columbines, I personally think that yes, we’ll need to address the efficient and material causes of gun violence.
We’ll need to make it harder for shooters to get hold of assault weapons and make it harder for them to walk unopposed into our civic and public spaces — our schools, our movie theaters and shopping malls. Others will of course disagree, but I think action on these fronts is long overdue.
But we also need toget at the final and formal causes. Thatmeans that America needs to rebuild the sustainable communities that once held us in their supportive embrace, communities that were spun apart by cheap energy and the ease of automotive transport. Wecan recover them by demanding walkable neighborhoods; by refusing to participate in the infinite-planet economy of Mall and Sprawl America with its big boxes and anonymous spaces; by choosing instead to live, think, breathe, laugh, love, shop, own, create, recreate, educate, and be politically active locally, with people we know and can see face to face. Ultimately, it’s impossible to take care of each other, our public spaces, our landscapes and our children on any other scale.
Re-localizing ourlives in these ways won’t solve every problem and it’s unlikely to eliminate gun violence completely. There are always going to be people whose mental imbalances make them a challenge to society and sometimes a danger to others. But inregrounding our collective lives in post-petroleum, sustainable neighborhoods lies one avenue of positive change, a change we must make if we are to reduce our levels of interpersonal violence to those that other developed nations have.
This much seems clear: cheap energy and a physical and social world designed for cars and consumers aren’t ecologically sustainable.
Neither is the perpetual-growth economy thatproduced them. We seem to be discoveringthat they aren’t socially sustainable either.
Eric Zencey is the author of “The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy” and (with Elizabeth Courtney) of “Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State.”MORE IN Commentary
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