THERE IS STRENGTH in numbers but the essence of such strength lies not in the numbers alone, but in the common values around which many people align themselves, providing a sense of shared vision.

Might it be that many progressive movements around the world are less effective than they might otherwise be because they have not articulated a common core value that unites them?

Nonviolence might be such a core value. If nonviolence is understood in its broadest sense, both in terms of avoiding harm and enhancing the general wellbeing of all, then it could serve as a core value for a wide range of seemingly unconnected movements. This sense of nonviolence involves understanding violence in all its forms: not just the direct physical violence of war, genocide, murder and sexual abuse, but also structural and cultural violence. These forms of violence can be as deadly as direct violence, and actually account for more death and destruction than direct physical violence.

Structural violence is the harm caused by the normal operations of the structures of our society, our businesses, our banks, our media, our government institutions, our inter-governmental bodies. One example is the poverty created by economic and political systems and by policies such as the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Another form of structural violence is committed by the World Trade Organization when it prohibits nations from legislating for the protection of workers or the environment if such legislation interferes with ‘free’ trade. A global trade system which destroys local food production and cultural practices is surely a form of structural violence. Poverty per se should be considered a form of structural violence.

Cultural violence involves those pervasive systems of beliefs which reinforce the direct and structural violence that occurs in our society. Examples include the belief system that allows economic growth and globalisation to be regarded as more important than maintaining climate stability; or the set of beliefs that lead to the imposition of democracy on a nation by military intervention.

Extending the concept of nonviolence beyond humans is an important step in broadening our understanding of this core value. If we understand wellbeing in terms of thriving, then it applies to every living thing; to each creature which seeks to thrive in the unique way its nature directs. Any human action that interferes with the thriving of living things is thus a form of violence, regardless of whether or not such harm is intentional. Not only human rights but the right of all living beings to live unharmed have to become a core value and a common aspiration of us all if we are to come as close as humanly possible to our ideal of nonviolence.

As the living world depends on the non-living world around it, we can understand the importance of the delicate interactions and interdependencies between the animate and inanimate. When they are not in balance, it is difficult for the living to thrive. Disrupting the balance which living things depend on is thus a form of violence, resulting in their decline and extinction in far too many examples. As we learn more about the impact of human activities such as ‘free’ trade, mining and forestry and expansion of industrial infrastructures, it becomes harder to ignore these violent consequences of ‘business as usual’.

Unfortunately, understanding of the violence inherent in such realities as poverty, racism, sexism, hunger, disease and environmental degradation is scant. Our media may focus on these stories, but often they do little to expose the underlying structural and cultural violence they represent. All too often these ‘problems of the human condition’ or ‘costs of doing business’ are not understood as examples of violence; as examples of harms done by our mainstream institutions. Too often we blame the victims as bringing these maladies on themselves, or as unfortunate consequences of ‘progress’.

The range of issues encompassed by this perspective on violence is broad indeed. It links movements concerned with peace and conflict, social justice, human rights, poverty and development, racism, sexism, over-consumption, environmental causes, democratic and economic reforms, civil liberties, and many more. Violence of one form or another underlies all of these challenges to the wellbeing of people and the planet. Thought of in this way, nonviolence can be viewed as a core value that underlies many of these movements. Yet the concepts of nonviolence are rarely referred to in all but a few of these struggles.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES it make? Should all these movements refocus their efforts on nonviolence and abandon the particular issues they care about?

No, this is not what I am suggesting. My proposition is that when various and currently unconnected movements come to appreciate a shared core value, then new and creative opportunities emerge. The benefits of a core value can be many and varied, and they certainly do not require or involve uniformity of focus. In fact, diversity of activities is an essential component of a broadly based movement united by a core value. What the core value does is to bring unity in this diversity, generate energy and enthusiasm, and elicit collaboration and co-ordination.

Sharing a core value can go beyond the conceptual level and influence how various parts of a broad-based movement co-ordinate their activities. There have been many examples where peace and conflict groups have engaged in joint campaigns with social justice groups. We are just beginning to see the co-ordination of environmental, energy and peace groups as the roles of oil and other fossil fuels are emerging as sources of violence. When we realise that the unequal distribution of energy is as unjust as the distribution of money, we make yet another connection for the network of the nonviolent movements that cover the planet.

The wellbeing of all (sarvodaya) is a way of expressing the essence of nonviolence. It is both a goal and a means of achieving that goal. It provides us not only with a guiding light to direct our energies, but also with pathways to that shining light. Another practical result of a shared value and vision among many progressive movements is that it helps us to design common strategies that are more effective. By co-ordinating our nonviolent strategies, we collectively become a force more powerful than if we act alone.

Jack Santa Barbara is Director of the Sustainable Scale Project, member of Transcend, and Associate of the Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University.