11/16/2014 10:50 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2015

50 Years Later, Peter Yarrow Still Asks, 'When Will They Ever Learn?'

Peter Yarrow has every right to be disappointed with our war-torn world. At 76, however, he remains hopeful that things can improve and that he, and music, can still be the catalyst for change.

Yarrow is now promoting his new book, Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, which documents the group's musical career and political activism through pages of archival photos.

In an interview with me, Yarrow reflected on the world as he sees it today:

I see us bouncing from one policy to the next, based on our refusal to look at the mess that we've gotten ourselves into -- specifically the killing, the misery, and the devastation that we caused years ago in Vietnam and repeated in Afghanistan and Iraq. A great person doesn't run away from taking responsibility for mistakes or reprehensible acts. The question we need to face in America today is this: How can we acknowledge our responsibility? You look at these military interventions and you ask yourself, what if we'd put all that money not into wars but instead gave people in those countries something to live for? There are unintended consequences from our military interventions that turn out to be more powerful than the issues we were addressing in the first place.

Yarrow credits his half-century of performing with Peter, Paul and Mary for giving him a platform that allows him to address global issues -- the Middle East and climate change, among others -- at the highest levels. At least as important, his musical legacy affords him credibility with kids.

His two latest initiatives, Operation Respect, which counters school bullying, and DLAM ("Don't Laugh At Me"), addressing teasing and cruel behavior among young children, have two purposes, Yarrow says.

First, the groups promote harmony (a perfect goal for a musician like Yarrow). Second, the groups are preparing youths to become peace-seeking and peace-loving adults.

Yarrow asks:

Are we going to raise another generation of kids who buy into the cycle of mean-spiritedness and cruelty and bullying? Or are we going to teach children to become adults who will be peace-builders? Our role models today for our kids and ourselves are the Kardashians. It's just vulgar.

But music still has the power to transform society, Yarrow contends:

Music doesn't come from just a rational, intellectual place.  It's a chemistry of the soul and the heart that can bypass intellectual obstacles. For so many years, Peter, Paul & Mary sang to people who didn't agree with us, on Vietnam for example. But people responded to our sincerity, and they responded by thinking about the humanity surrounding the issues we addressed.

Yarrow points to race relations and gender equity as areas that have seen drastic improvement since Peter, Paul & Mary first came together back in 1960. He believes that music can still affect the way people view their role in society.

The ethos of the '60s wasn't about beating the opponent. It was about inspiration and love. That's the only way the civil rights movement could have succeeded. We need to create enough of an energy to build a strong enough consensus to halt the further breakdown of a caring society. And that's not an easy process because we're swimming upstream in many ways today. We have to look at our priorities, and not just on an intellectual basis. We have to find ways to move forward that are parallel to what was done in the 60s, but to bring things forward and do it in today's terms. Where we started in the early 1960s is unimaginable now. As the lyrics of Light One Candle say, don't let the light go out.