by Elise Boulding

Peace culture, neither a fantasy nor accident, is as central to human nature as war culture.

ELISE BOULDING is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Dartmouth College and former Secretary-General of the International Peace Research Association. Among her publications are: Children's Rights and the Wheel of Life, 1979; Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World, 1990; One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections of a Quaker Sociologist on Family Life, 1989; Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time, 1992; and, with Kenneth Boulding, The Future: Images and Processes, 1994. She is currently writing a book on the culture of peace.

The creative management of differences is at the core of peace culture; in other words, it is not a culture without conflict. Since every human individual is different from every other, conflict is a basic part of any social order. Each of us sees, hears, and experiences the world uniquely, and we spend our lives bridging the differences between our perceptions (and the needs and wishes they generate) and the perceptions of others. Even though it is reasonable to ask why we do not fight constantly, given our differences, much of the time we do this work peacefully. The explanation lies in the two opposing needs for bonding and autonomy. Every human being needs to bond with others. We need to be part of a community; we need others to care for us; we need to care for others. Children who do not experience this caring have trouble dealing with others throughout their lives. At the same time, we need autonomy, our own space -- room enough to express our individuality.

A peace culture maintains creative balance among bonding, community closeness, and the need for separate spaces. It can be defined as a mosaic of identities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and patterns that leads people to live nurturingly with one another and the earth itself without the aid of structured power differentials, to deal creatively with their differences, and to share their resources. Although peace cultures exist as separate, identifiable societies, they are not common. They may be found among some, but not all, indigenous peoples, and in faith-based communities totally committed to nonviolence. Purely aggressive cultures, in which everyone is actively defending his/her own space at the expense of others' needs, also exist; they are not common either. Usually, we find coexisting clusters of peaceableness and aggression. Each society develops its own pattern of balancing the needs for bonding and autonomy.

The balance may change over time, with periods of more peaceable behavior following periods of more violent behavior. It cannot be said that humans are innately peaceful or aggressive. Both capacities are there. It is socialization, the process by which society rears its children and shapes the attitudes and behaviors of its members of all ages, that determines how peacefully or violently individuals and institutions handle the problems that every human community faces in the daily work of maintaining itself.

We might think of problem-solving behavior as a continuum. At one end lies war in its various forms: extermination of the other, limited war, threat systems, and deterrence. One then comes to arbitration, mediation, negotiation (exchange), and mutual adaptation. Toward the far end from war is cooperation, integration, and, at the greatest remove from extermination, union. Understanding the wide range of alternative approaches to conflict in this way can help to clarify choices.

The Culture of Peace

Because religious traditions and teachings are important shapers of societies, it is important to identify two contrasting themes in religions: holy war culture and holy peace culture. The holy war culture is a male-warrior construct based on the exercise of power. Often headed by a patriarchal warrior God, it typically demands the subjection of women, children, and the weak to men, the proto-patriarchs. The social structure of patriarchy continues to mold generations of the major religious traditions -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the holy peace culture, by contrast, love is the prime mover of all behavior. It is a gift from the Creator, or Creative Principle. Women and men share with one another, as brothers and sisters, each person equal to every other. The weak are cared for and trouble-makers reconciled. Nonviolent holy peace communities do exist as minority presences in the major religious traditions. In Christianity there are the Anabaptists and in Islam, Sufis -- to mention only two -- but they are minorities.

The holy war culture has tended to encourage the exercise of force at every level, from family to international relations. The holy peace culture might work to restrain the use of force, but historically its voice has often been muted. This century has been characterized by rising, increasingly intrastate, violence that has left little room for the workings of a peace culture. In fact, globally, society is out of balance.


This situation need not be permanent, however. Each society contains in itself resources that can help to shift the balance from a preoccupation with violence toward peaceful problem-solving behavior. These include a perennial, utopian longing for peace, both secular and faith-based peace movements, environmental and alternative-development movements, and women's culture.

A utopian longing for peace shows up in the variety of visions of the Isles of the Blessed, Paradise, and similar havens of delight that inhabit every human tradition. It is remarkable that even the most war-like people can imagine gentle and peaceful ways of living. This ability to imagine a better way of life never disappears. When other social conditions permit, these images of a different future can empower social change movements and produce a new dynamic toward nonviolence.

The holy peace teachings of each religious tradition have generated peace movements over the centuries and continue to do so today. Christian peace fellowships -- Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant -- increasingly collaborate with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist peace groups in interfaith efforts to bring an end to all forms of violence, including war. Their strategies to develop the spiritual awareness of humankind as one family include intensive nonviolence training in local communities and political efforts to delegitimate militarism and support peaceful diplomacy.

Secular peace movements have been multiplying as part of a larger twentieth-century social phenomenon: there has been an encouraging emergence of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide linkages among people's organizations with common social, economic, political, and cultural interests. There are now some twenty thousand such organizations. While the number of NGOs actively dedicated to peace building is modest, the majority of NGOs contributes, to some degree, to the development of an international peace culture because their common concern is human betterment. Their effect is multiplied by the fact that they provide an interface between local householders and communities with otherwise remote regional and national governmental bodies. They also provide means of communication with United Nations and other inter-governmental agencies to facilitate problem-solving and conflict resolution and circumvent rigid governmental bureaucracies.

Today, peace-movement NGOs are building new coalitions to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, as a step toward general disarmament. Their work is substantially amplified by those scientists and professionals whose work is focused on peace and disarmament. The Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs (named for the place in Canada where the group first met in the 1950s) is the oldest and most prestigious group of scientists trying to develop ways of controlling militarism; it has made notable contributions to each of the more limited arms control agreements that have been achieved so far. The International Association of Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, Economists Against the Arms Race, and the new Center for Economic Conversion (in Bonn, Germany) are resource organizations invaluable to the work of peace activists. The International Peace Research Association has played a special role in recent decades in providing policy-oriented research on peace processes and in developing peace-studies programs in universities around the world to train student generations in nonmilitary approaches to international and civil conflicts.

A new set of professional organizations focused on practitioner skills of conflict resolution, mediation, and reconciliation are just beginning to form international NGO networks and to establish peace-building training centers on each continent. Another important development of recent decades has been the creation of NGOs to maintain peace teams on the Gandhian model of the Shanti Sena ("Peace Army"). Peace Brigades International has been the pioneer, and many secular and faith-based NGOs now support their own peace teams.

Women's organizations are an important part of the peace movement. Recent examples include the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's "Great Peace Journey" to heads of state around the world; the women's peace camps established at military bases such as Greenham Common in England; the Women for a Meaningful Summit Group that permits no "big power" summit to take place unquestioned; and the relatively new WEDO, the Women's Environment and Development Organization. The series of U.N. women's conferences is slowly creating a general awareness of the need for the knowledge, skills, and competence of women in the conflict-ridden arena of public decision-making. The international women's movement has also raised public consciousness about the relationship between violence against women, in homes and in communities, and war itself.

Children and youth are all too often ignored in peace movement activity, but their own initiatives are beginning to have public impact; the Voice of Children and Rescue Mission Planet Earth are two such organizations. At the 1995 World Summit of Children in San Francisco, young delegates drafted an impressive proposal for a U.N. Youth Assembly. This proposal is still under consideration in the U.N. system.

The environmental movement's close relationship to the peace movement and the concept of peace culture is evident in the Earth Charter initiative, developed since the U.N. Conference on the Environment at Rio. A document to be signed by peoples everywhere (to be accepted, it is hoped, by the U.N. General Assembly in 2000), it spells out a commitment of humanity to exist in peace with all living things -- living sustainably, sharing resources equitably, and resolving conflicts nonviolently. The Earth Charter also gives a special role to the "ten thousand societies" -- ethnic, racial, and cultural-identity groups that straddle national borders -- in the creation of a culture of peace, drawing on their many time-tested but unrecognized ways of settling disputes peacefully. Overlapping with these groups are the many thousands of grassroots organizations that apply their resources and ingenuity to the creative resolution of local environmental, economic, and social crises. The Chipko "hugging the trees" movement is an example of how such nonviolent action can work -- in this case saving forests from a destruction that would also impoverish local populations. The structural violence of a globalized economy run by megacorporations can be countered nonviolently through local self-help organs, such as the Grameen Bank that assists in pooling local resources to empower the productive capacity of villagers.

All of these movements are helping to create an interconnected but diverse mosaic of peaceful life ways and a new sense of planetary identity in opposition to the global military system that sucks up common resources to maintain the dominion of powerful states and divides the rich from the poor.

Where Peace Culture Can Be Found

The familial household is an important source of peace culture in any society. It is there that women's nurturing culture flourishes. Traditionally, women have been the farmers as well as the bearers and rearers of children, the feeders and healers of the extended family. The kind of responsiveness to growing things -- plants, animals, babies -- that women have had to learn for the human species to survive is central to the development of peaceful behavior.

Through most of human history people have lived in rural settings and in small-scale societies. Just as each familial household develops its own problem-solving behavior, so each social group has developed strategies of conflict resolution rooted in local culture and passed on from generation to generation. Similarly, each society has its own fund of adaptability, built on knowledge of local environment and the historical memory of times of crisis and change. Such knowledge and experience are transmitted through familial households as they are organized into communities. The knowledge is woven into religious teachings, ceremonies, and celebrations; it is present in women's culture, in the world of work and the world of play, in environmental lore, in the songs and stories of each people. These are the hidden peace-building strengths of every society.

The familial household can also be the source of violence. Exercise of power in the patriarchal family model too often leads to wife- and child-abuse. Boys can be gentled by their experience of growing up male when the values of nurturing and sharing exist in the community and women are visible and equal participants in the more public life of the society. If we look at societies that set a high value on nonaggression and noncompetitiveness, and therefore handle conflicts by nonviolent means, we can see how certain distinctive child-rearing patterns produce nurturing adult behavior.

The Twa people in northeastern Zaire (or Congo), now endangered by the civil war that has swept over their country, provide a striking example of how a peaceful society raises its children. The Twa are hunter-gatherers who dwell in the rain forest. The basis for their peacefulness is their relationship to the rain forest, which is mother, father, teacher, and womb. The family hut is also a symbolic womb. Children grow up listening to the trees, learning to climb them at an early age so that they can sit high in their branches. Twa is a listening culture, but also a singing and dancing culture, as adults and children sing to and dance with the trees. Ekima, quietness, is highly valued over akami, disturbance.

Although this preference for quietness and harmony is reinforced at every stage of life, it does not preclude children's rough-and-tumble play. There is also a lot of petty squabbling among adults, which tends to be controlled by ridicule. While children are slapped when they engage in forbidden activities and nuisance behavior, they are also taught interdependence and cooperation. Adults seem to enjoy horseplay and noisy disputes. Semi-humorous "sex wars," in which men and women line up for tugs-of-war, serve as tension-dissipaters; they break up with much laughter. They are also an indication of the companionable equality between women and men. Most groups have a "clown" whose antics also help to keep conflicts from getting out of hand. For all of the squabbling, disagreements rarely get serious.

The contrast between the love of forest silence, on one hand, and the raucous pattern of argument, joking, and ridicule, on the other, is interesting. The Twa place a high value on "letting it all hang out"; they do not let conflicts fester. In this culture there seems to be a nature-based equilibrium based on a combination of listening, singing, dancing, and squabbling that is not easy for Westerners to understand.

Another example of unusual child-rearing practices in a peaceful society is found among the Inuit. Living in the circumpolar North, from eastern Siberia through Greenland and Canada to Alaska, they survive the harsh and unforgiving winter cold through cooperation and social warmth. Violence and aggression are under strong social prohibition. The social values are centered on: (1) isuma, which involves rationality, impulse control, careful problem-solving, and foresight; and (2) nallik, which is love, nurture, protectiveness, concern for others' welfare, and suppression of hostility.

The distinctive child-rearing practices that produce these rational, compassionate, controlled adults revolve around what Jean Briggs, an anthropologist who has studied the Inuit, calls benevolent aggression. This behavior combines an unusual combination of warm affection for infants with a complex form of teasing that creates real fear in children and then induces them to laugh at their fears. The title of one of Briggs' studies, "Why Don't You Kill Your Baby Brother?," suggests the extremes to which the teasing goes, at least from a Western perspective. That this behavior produces adults who exhibit both isuma and nallik (and a remarkably peaceful society) I would ascribe to the fact that young children in general are far more socially perceptive and far more sophisticated in their assessment of social situations than adults usually give them credit for. They can figure out what is going on and learn to respond creatively, when given the chance. Although one can imagine this tricky form of socialization going wrong with some individuals, it does seem to turn children into self-reliant problem-solvers with a well-developed sense of humor, who are affectionate and acutely aware of the disciplined anger-control systems in themselves and others. Girls and boys get the same type of socialization, and Inuit men and women are equally resourceful. They like to fondle infants and baby arctic animals, share food communally, and laugh together. The skill of handling conflict playfully, as in song duels (or drum matches) between offended parties, produces enjoyable public events instead of battles.

The Anabaptist cultures of the historic peace churches, originating in Europe in the late Middle Ages in revolt against the power structures of church and state, live on today in a number of religious communities, among which the best known are the Mennonites, the Brethren, and the Quakers. These communities share with the peaceful societies described above a careful attention to rearing children to become peaceful adults. While each group has its own unique practices, they all live "in the world but not of it," holding to testimonies of simplicity, gender and racial equality, and personal and social nonviolence. In war they refuse military service; their commitment is rather to work for the realization of "the peaceable kingdom." The cultivation of the divine seed in each child makes child-rearing and family life of central importance. Girls and boys are reared in similar ways and are prepared early for participation in decision-making. Explicit training in nonviolent responses to conflict and alternative ways of dealing with conflict are emphasized. At their best, these Anabaptist communities produce adults with imagination and skill in organizing peace-building projects for social betterment.


Celebrations are the play life of a society, and a healthy play life strengthens the peaceableness of any people by reaffirming the best in their social values. Feasting and gift-giving emphasize sharing and reciprocity, the sense of the community as one family. When sharing and gift-giving have a character of spontaneity and exuberance -- and singing and dancing are freely and widely practiced -- then celebration is a powerful reenforcer of peaceful and caring community relations. It becomes an opportunity to let go of grudges, a time of reconciliation among persons whose relations may have become strained. To the extent that there is a clearly articulated basis for the celebration, patterned in ritual, it can also become a way of reconnecting with creation itself, a reminder of the oneness of the cosmos and of all living things. Celebration becomes a time for the making of vows in service to the community; it marks the rites of passage from birth to death, wounding and healing, beginnings and endings, and historical moments from the remembered past.

When celebrations lose their playfulness, when gift-giving becomes carefully calibrated exchange, when performances become competitive, then these rituals lose their replenishing character and cease to be resources of genuine peaceableness. Play itself, by its very nature, performs a serious creative function for each community. Taking place outside of the realm of everyday life, play nonetheless creates boundaries, rules, and roles ("let's play house -- you be the daddy and I'll be the mommy"), and structures spaces in which children can create their own realities. Play can also teach nonviolence and self-control -- when, for example, in the rough-and-tumble of play a child is inadvertently hurt.

That play space is also where children can practice grown-up activities does not take away from the fact that play is done for its own sake, "for fun." Playing can therefore be important for adults as well. Although competitive sports may work against the spontaneity of play for both players and spectators, the rudiments of play survive.

There are other less obvious forms of play. Some are highly developed: the mind at play in science; the muse at play in poetry, music, and art; the body at play in song, dance, and drama. Play goes on at the grassroots level in the folk culture of each society, and it goes on among the elites, although the play of each tends to take separate forms in terms of style, language, and content. Some art, and some sports, have become so violent that they have lost the character of play. The recovery of play as fun, a basic heritage of every society, is the best response to such violence.

Zones of Peace

As far back as the historical record goes, we know of sanctuaries, or safe places, for anyone under threat. Temples and holy sites have become sanctuaries; sometimes the land immediately around a king's palace has been designated as safe for persons fleeing their enemies. Market places have always been treated as zones of peace, since violence would destroy trading activities. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Koran declare croplands and orchards, as well as the women and children who tend them, protected in time of war. The Catholic Church extended this protection through the Pax Dei to pilgrims, merchants, and cattle in the twelfth century, and controlled the violence of war by forbidding soldiers to fight on certain days of the week.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, there have been many grassroots movements to persuade states or regions to declare themselves nuclear-weapon-free zones, and counterpart movements to define individual towns and cities as zones of peace. This combination of traditional sanctuary practice with new peace-movement activity has resulted in a gradual spread of physical areas that have a certain political and social commitment to peace culture.

Today there are twenty-three or twenty-four states that have renounced military defense and have no armies. There are also a growing number of regions that have been declared nuclear-weapon-free zones by a treaty process facilitated by the U.N. and signed by the member states of the region. The treaties of the Antarctic, the Treaty of Tlatelolco (Latin America), the Treaty of Raratongo (the Asian Pacific), and most recently the treaties of Bangkok (Southeast Asia) and of Pelindaba (Africa), all identify these areas as nuclear-weapon-free zones. Clearly, this is a direction in which states would like to go, although the major powers often do their best to hinder this treaty process. The production and transport of materials for nuclear weapons are specifically forbidden in these treaties in all of the states in the regions. Inter-governmental bodies monitor compliance. Peace NGOs in each region have played an important role in getting states to sign these treaties and to uphold them. Outer space and the seabed are also in theory nuclear-weapon-free areas, although they are not so in practice, mainly because the major powers insist on preserving freedom of movement for nuclear materials on the seas and in space.

Indigenous peoples on all continents seek zones of peace for their territories. The World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Inuit Circumpolar North Conference, the International Indian Treaty Council, and the Unrepresented Peoples Organization all seek removal of weapons and environmentally damaging activities from their territories, annually bringing new cases before relevant U.N. bodies.

None of these treaties or zones of peace would have come into being without intensive activity by local NGOs. At the grassroots level, both NGOs and community-based organizations have succeeded in declaring over five thousand towns and cities around the world nuclear-free, or more strongly, zones of peace. Once such a declaration has been officially made, there are all kinds of opportunities for creative community action. Boulder, Colorado, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are two such communities. Both have active nonviolence training and mediation programs in the communities and school systems. Sister City projects link local communities in different world regions. Local projects include economic conversion of military plants, environmental protection (particularly from toxic wastes), local-to-local international trade (with a strong emphasis on human and social development and the infrastructure needed to sustain such development). They also include developing peace education and conflict resolution programs in schools, creating peace parks and public peace sites, and planting peace trees. Local members of the International Federation of Sister Cities, the International League of Cities, the World Congress of Local Authorities, and other NGOs help both with local community education and with the international networking process. As a result, many cities and some state governments have established international affairs offices and have declared "peace policies."

The declaration by local churches and citizens' organizations of violence-free zones in the midst of some of the major metropolises of the Americas and Europe is one more manifestation of this growing international movement. Courageous community groups in war-torn areas from Somalia and Bosnia/Croatia to the Philippines have made pacts with soldiers, guerillas, and rebels to keep their localities free of weapons and fighting.

Another aspect of the zone-of-peace movement can be found in UNESCO's World Cultural and International Heritage Sites. The Zone of Peace Foundation is promoting an expansion of these sites to include more places of sanctuary, refuge, and peace-building in such public arenas as museums and schools around the world. Special national environments that need protection -- waters, forests, mountains, grasslands -- are also included. A feature of all of these zone-of-peace sites is that local managers are to develop training programs in conflict resolution so that visitors will not only experience a violence-free setting, but can learn the skills of peace-making. The Global Land Authority for the Development of Peace Zones (GLADPZ) has actually put peace-building initiatives in place in such conflict areas as Cyprus and the Kuriles. Probably the most experienced peace-builders and protectors of zones of peace are groups like Peace Brigades International and other civilian teams skilled in nonviolent response to conflict and threat.

The U.N. works through many vehicles in the building of zones of peace beyond the U.N.-facilitated treaties already mentioned. These include U.N. peace-keeping (which only works when peace-keeping forces have special training), U.N. observer teams and police forces, and the activities of U.N. agencies, especially UNESCO and UNICEF. An important "new" concept from UNICEF is the declaration of each child to be a Zone of Peace, which can provide the basis for a number of creative initiatives involving not only protection of children but more active peace training in schools. The 1990 U.N. World Summit for Children began this process. One important outcome of that gathering is an ongoing Children's World Summit, through which children and youth are working to create a U.N. Youth Assembly. Children are an important but largely ignored resource in the development of peace culture.

The Future of Peace Culture

In this exploration of peace culture, we have considered the fact that peace, like war, is a social invention. We have noted the sometimes precarious balance between humans' need for bonding and autonomy. If humans did nothing but bond with one another, societies would be dull, lacking in adventure. If they did nothing but claim individual space, societies would be full of action, but it would be aggressive and violent action. Finding the right balance in a complex world in which technology shields us from one another and even from ourselves is difficult. Global corporations weaken local economic and social capacity. The military-industrial system seems beyond the ability of states to control, and the biosphere is losing its capacity to regenerate itself and feed the growing population of humans. Weakened local community and family systems are racked by violence.

How can peace culture grow and flourish, bring us better futures, under such conditions? We have noted the persistence of social images of life at peace, the ineradicable longing for that peace, and the numbers of social movements working for a more just and peaceful world. With the growth of the global civil society in this century, there are linkage systems among peoples and movements that never before existed, making possible unheard-of interfaces between governmental and nongovernmental bodies. We have seen that there are many sites where peace learning can take place, from family and community to international peace-building centers, and noted peaceful micro-societies like the Twa, the Inuit, and the Anabaptist communities. We have seen that the zone-of-peace concept is spreading.

It seems that in spite of the visibility of violence and war, many are able to see past that violence to a different future world. People who cannot imagine peace will not know how to work for it. Those who can imagine it are using that same imagination to devise practices and strategies that will render war obsolete. The importance of the imagination cannot be overestimated.

Peace culture, however, is not just a figment of the imagination. It exists in daily life and habitual interaction as people get on with their lives and work, negotiating differences rather than engaging in interminable battles over just how to solve each problem as it comes up. Aggressive posturing slows down problem-solving. Violence is more visible and gets more attention in our history books and in our media than peace does. But peace culture will take us where we want to go.

Kenneth Boulding always used to say, "What exists is possible." Since peace culture exists in all the social spaces described here, it is possible. If we want the world to be one planetary zone of peace, full of adventure and the excitement of dealing with diversity and difference, without violence, humans can make it so.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.