There is nothing more emblematic of humanity’s ills and ability to avoid truth than the many thousands of Somalis who are already “dying for our sins”. A proper analysis of what is happening there, both ecologically and politically, would give mankind all the information it needs to begin solving some of the planet’s most pressing problems. The prophets of science and education have spoken, but we would much prefer the workings of a savior than to take any action of our own.
“Someone should have seen this coming.” A familiar refrain. Calamity and catastrophe initially engender fear, horror, and a sense of helplessness. We become all too cognizant of mans’ fragile existence on a small planet fraught with hazard and uncertainty. Initially, wether it’s a part of our genetic makeup to insure survival of the species or a moral propensity for human compassion, we come together in extraordinary displays of community to offer aid and comfort to the victims. But in the days, weeks and months that ensue, our initial response often turns into anger. The general sense is that the devastating event could have been avoided, that the response plans weren’t adequate, or that there was some sort of malfeasance, ineptitude or even fraud involved. Our unease cries for a scapegoat. We need someone to blame.
But in a large number of calamitous events, if blame is truly in order, we need only look at ourselves. In such cases there are normally a good number of experts who have in fact “seen it coming”. From climatological disasters like Katrina, droughts, tsunamis and floods, technological meltdowns like Fukushima and interruptions to the electrical grid, to breakdowns in financial markets and economies, the possibilities of disaster have been forewarned to us all.
But collective denial is a force more powerful than reason. It plays to our selfish egocentric sense of invincibility. Reason requires one to consider all information that may be available, even that which we find uncomfortable or displeasing. We all have the tendency to accept only information that reinforces a preconceived notion, one that falls in line with our own individual needs and desires. Therein lies the root of our inability to preempt or effectively deal with possible disasters.
We continue our love/hate relationship with science, maintaining an unrealistic faith that it will somehow save us from peril despite our own injurious or negligent behavior, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing its well defined warnings. Our on again, off again relationship with the stewards of education serves as a stark display of our need to learn only that which we find supportive of our current course or political entrenchments. Today’s heroes become tomorrow’s villains and vise versa. We approve only of solutions to complex problems that require no personal sacrifice or infringement on our lifestyle, much preferring a miracle in the eleventh hour to well-thought progress.
What’s more, living in a culture of scarcity we have come to accept that there are the unfortunates who will not survive, a defacto admission on our part that we DO live on a planet with limited resource. This point is all too glaring in the face of the estimated 30,000 children who, as of this writing, have not survived the famine in Somalia. It is much easier to change the channel than to face the predictions of scientists that there aren’t enough resources to go around and that almost half of human beings don’t have the basic necessities. We exonerate ourselves of responsibility for their plight by vilifying their governments, or worse yet, by laying the blame on the deity by saying that it must be “gods’ will”. We refuse to accept that the “haves” play any role in the condition of the “have nots”, nor have we seemed to draw the connection between most wars and poverty. The war on poverty has, for most of the world, been a dismal failure by any measure and by any reasonable assessment the global system of capital economies has proven it has no moral compass. While many compassionate individuals give charitably and deserve thanks, the much more difficult task of effecting long term positive change is starkly lacking.
Our globe faces a good number of crises. In the short run many will effect our way of life in fairly substantial ways, and in the longer term perhaps even our survival. But there is hope for us all if we can get past our denial and use reason as a basis for our choices rather than self serving ideas that only forestall the inevitable. A realization that we live on a finite planet with finite resources would be a good place to start. A crisis could and should be recognized as an opportunity in disguise. We should begin to realize that a world based on unbridled consumerism is very likely a broken model. Will more “stuff” really make us happier? Perhaps we should find better ways to quantify the progress of man than GDP growth figures.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should abandon our economic model or the core principles of humanity and democracy. On the contrary it is time to assert them. Much of what we do does work and works well. But I think some adjustments are in order. We need to take a closer look and give a fair hearing to those knowledgeable persons who may have ideas with which we are uncomfortable. We need to stop alternately putting scientists, researchers and educators on pedestals and then demonizing them when their data disturbs us. A fair and honest measurement of our condition and our response to it can only improve the outcome for us all. Let’s do more of the things we do well, and less of the things that we don’t. And consider that we are all citizens of the same planet. The fate of one ultimately affects us all.