One of the arguments I never see trotted out in the debate over gun control is that guns represent an unwholesome extension of power that ought to be relinquished. This brings to mind how the Japan Shogunate restricted guns and swords in 1587 to samurais because of the recognition that arms destabilize society, granting undue power to better-armed factions. (This lesson was completely lost on the architects of the Cold War.) Even today, Japanese legal restrictions on gun ownership make it so that almost no one owns one. What Japanese society has instead might be interpreted as a level playing field, where everyone is limited to whatever harm they can do through small-scale violence and force. No doubt Japan is better equipped to enforce and accept such restriction because it’s a homogeneous society, whereas most of the rest of the world is heterogeneous and thrives on power imbalance.
If one adopts a slightly different lens, the ability to accomplish work through the focused application of energy (power) provides considerable advantages in productivity and efficiency, such as moving more earth to plant and harvest crops. Large structures can now be built with less manpower and with far greater speed than, say, medieval castles and cathedrals that took generations to complete. Mining can now be done above ground and across huge swaths of land compared to the past, though damaging overburden has grown exponentially. And commercial fishing is now characterized by quite literally vacuuming up the ocean floor without regard for bycatch or ecological degradation.
Over time, all of humanity’s collective effort at increased production and efficiency has proven to be a boon in terms of standard of living and sheer population growth. Pockets of difficulty may have slowed this trend but have not altered its basic trajectory. Now that we possess so much power to engineer and transform the world to suit our singular demands, however, we are caught in a trap: the power tools we created will be the instruments of our own destruction. It’s as if the Frankenstein monster (Mary Shelley’s warning of the peril of science run amok) became Icarus (the mythological admonition against hubris), acquiring too much power and flying too near the sun (mythologically becoming gods ourselves). But for a time, dull Frankarus did soar awfully high, and maybe gloriously, too, before being foiled.
It takes considerable restraint to forswear power-granting tools such as guns or nuclear energy. If only the Japanese (and the rest of us) had been so prescient with regard to the latter. The U.S. and Russia suffered their own nuclear catastrophes before Fukushima blew two years ago, but they were limited in comparison. Fukushima has not yet been contained and faces extremely dangerous clean-up later this month. I cannot referee the veracity of alarmist reports, but credible claims that the Pacific Ocean and West Coast of North America are slowly being fried have me spooked that we may have killed ourselves even sooner than thought. It may not even require things to go badly in the clean-up effort if we’re already the proverbial frog being boiled alive. Yet the mainstream media distracts us with frivolous reports of the early kick-off of the Xmas shopping season because, ya know, Thanksgiving comes late this year and we hardly have time to fit in our annual engorgement.