Crises Today, Catastrophe Tomorrow
If one is inclined to make a list of worrisome trouble spots plaguing the world, there would be a lot to choose from: Syria, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Kashmir, Congo, Iran, those pesky disputed islands lying between China, Japan and the Philippines, and of course, the meddlesome behavior of the United States. I apologize if I inadvertently left out anyone’s favorite trouble spot.
It is perhaps little comfort that each of these man-made problems has a finite potential to be disruptive. What I mean by this is that they are localized in both space and time. Yes, I know that some of these problems have been going on for generations, and that thousands upon thousands have lost their homes, been maimed, or been killed. However, the problems represented above will not go on for millennia. It’s likely that all of them (except perhaps Washington’s ability to meddle) will be resolved, for better or worse, within say, the next 25 to 50 years.
There is another category of problems, also man-made, that seem more perennial in nature. These problems manifest themselves as universal social ailments such as crime and poverty. Such problems wax and wane in intensity, but are apparently always with us.
Now we come to a truly unique problem different in nature from those above. This is the issue of global warming. This also is man-made but with extraordinary long-range impact both in space (it is planet-wide) and in time (now we are talking millennia). Yet it is a problem over which we do have control. We know what causes it and we know how to at least ameliorate the situation. That is, if we wanted to, we could begin to get global warming under control and manage its consequences for as long as it takes to minimize the threat.
Here are some particulars about global warming:
Climate scientists are 95% sure that global warming is caused by human activities that began with the industrial revolution in the mid eighteenth century and sped up enormously in the last half of the twentieth century.
The primary causes of global warming are the production of “greenhouse” gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), largely resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
The long-term consequences of global warming will be a reduction in the polar ice caps and a subsequent rise in sea levels as well as a greater incidence in extreme weather patterns bringing on floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes and the like.
There will be disruption in food production and water supplies as the availability of fertile land shrinks.
There will be an increase in the area of the planet covered by desert.
We can bring some of today’s local crises together with the eventual effect of global warming and see where, in the long run, it leaves these trouble spots. For instance, both Jews and Muslims claim the same Israel/Palestine as their sacred God-given land. In a hundred or so years most of that divine patrimony will be unlivable without desalination and irrigation technology that may not be available in a cost-effective manner. The same can be said for much of Syria and North Africa west of the Nile, where the water table shows signs of contamination with salt water from the Mediterranean. A century from now, coastal areas of Yemen, Somalia, lower Egypt, Israel/Palestine, and the U.S. too will all be inundated. Parts of cities such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, Alexandria, Benghazi, Jedda, New York, among many others, are likely to be washed away. Bahrain may be under water altogether.
The Role of Natural Localism
Today much activist energy is being directed toward the disputes of the Middle East and elsewhere, and rightly so. I myself spend a good amount of time and effort writing about U.S. foreign policy toward that region, in an attempt to influence public opinion. How about the issue of global warming? There are, of course, plenty of scientists tracking this growing crisis. There is a world appointed body, the, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), created in 1988, which periodically issues fact-based public reports, highlighting the danger. Considering the potential for global (as against local) catastrophe, have the efforts of the scientists and IPCC resulted in significant movement toward at least ameliorating this problem? Not at all. Things are just steadily getting worse.
Why is it that local problems can often get so much attention and this other problem, the one that threatens the entire planet, get so little? The answer may have to do with a phenomenon I call natural localism. At its simplest, natural localism says that the great majority of people (going beyond activists now) pay attention to what they perceive to impact their lives both in their immediate locale (space) and in the present or relatively near future (time).
The key phrase here is “what they perceive.” The present crises around the world do not get much of a rise out of Americans unless hyped by the media in a way that makes them appear to potentially intrude on their local lives. Headlines about nuclear weapons (re: North Korea, Iran), the travails of “the Holy Land” (ideologically dear to the hearts of American fundamentalist Christians and Zionist Jews), chemical weapons in Syria, WMDs in Iraq seem to be sufficient to get the attention of varying numbers of Americans who identify the problems as actually or potentially, physically or emotionally affecting them locally.
Global warming has not reached that threshold of noticeability yet. The sea levels are not quite high enough, the natural disasters not quite often enough, the temperature levels not quite hot enough and, most significantly, the media hype not intense enough to register local concern.
Take for instance the case of deforestation. According to the Global Canopy Program, or GCP, an alliance of leading rainforest scientists, “deforestation accounts for up to 25% of global emissions of heat-trapping gases.” This is the result of not only cutting down the rain forests of South America, Africa and Indonesia, but also of the burning of much of the felled wood. Why is this happening? Because the immediate local benefit of doing so for the creation of farmland, cattle pasture, gold mining, hardwood production, etc., is seen as much greater than the hazy probability of catastrophe sometime in an indefinite future.
This fact is worth repeating. The latest GCP report declares, quite factually and definitively, “if we lose the forests, we lose the fight against climate change.” Yet, such is the power of natural localism to shape our perceptions and actions that the ruination of the entire planet means little when weighed against the immediate gain possible today. It is not just the poor and uneducated who will act in this way. One of the things grown in the space that used to be Brazil’s Amazon is soybeans. As a consequence, Brazil has become the second-largest exporter of this crop next to the U.S. Brazilian soybeans are bought to, among other things, feed the chickens that go into your fast-food fried-chicken sandwiches. They are also in your tofu and diesel fuel. That means that very large corporations are going for profits now even though they almost certainly know it will mean disaster later.
It is no doubt the large corporate interest in this problem that has held to a minimum mass media attention to global warming. After all, it is such businesses that own of most of our information outlets. Thus, most of the TV, radio, newspapers and news magazines have not elaborated on the assured fate of the world’s grandchildren as the sea levels rise and the grain fields turn to desert. If they did, public concern would almost certainly see this as a problem that is of local import and demand government and corporate attention to it.
Actually, eventual concern might turn out to be so great that global warming could replace the proverbial invasion from outer space. That is, it could be the threat that unites all parties against a common enemy. So, if the United Nations Security Council can’t agree on Syria or Israel, maybe its members can rally together to persuade Brazil and Indonesia to stop deforestation and save the planet.
Natural localism is a universal reality that tells us that the greatest public response will be directed to those events and issues that are perceived to have the greatest immediate impact on local life. The popular reaction will decrease as the situation appears the more distant in both space and time. Of course, as suggested above, distant events or issues can be made to appear immediate and of local import through manipulated presentations by the mass media. No one in Boise, Idaho, Little Rock, Arkansas, or Piscataway, New Jersey, knew that they lived in mortal fear of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction until Condoleezza Rice evoked “mushroom clouds” and every major news outlet repeated the message for weeks on end.
So we will just have to wait until we are told we are in local trouble. In other words, we will wait until things are so bad that the U.S. government and its corporate media cannot avoid the issues involved. By that time it will certainly be too late. The result will not be solutions but rather hand-wringing and finger-pointing. In the meantime hysteria will prevail over such things as those media-hyped (and therefore locally significant) mythical Iranian nuclear warheads, and the Palestinians who are portrayed as terrorists because they refuse to accept that they are occupying land that rightfully belongs to the Jews of Brooklyn, among others.
What a crazy world! In fact it is so crazy that I strongly recommend not making any long-term investments in oceanfront property.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.