How ‘Local’ Interests Trump Survival

The future of mankind is at risk from the worsening threat of global warming, but this scientific reality has been put in “doubt” by Tea Party and libertarian activists who profit from oil-industry largesse, just one example of how short-term interests trump the lives of our grandchildren, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

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.

Fierce storms like this “derecho” are expected to become more common due to global warming.

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, gets 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 attention 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 the 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 a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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15 comments on “How ‘Local’ Interests Trump Survival

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    “Limited future time orientation” was a term once used by sociologists and anthropologists to highlight differences between non-literate, literate and technologically advancing societies. It’s difficult to plan a Mars Rover expedition or a Hubble Telescope project if a society lacks an orientation toward dividends which will only be realized decades into the future. By the same token, a hunter-gatherer society in ecological equilibrium with its foraging range rarely considers anything farther ahead than the next rainy season. This framework gained a certain pejorative aroma when some floated the notion that it explained the behavior of minority populations. It was adduced as a rationalization for poverty as a self-inflicted phenomenon. It “explained” why the value of an education might be secondary to the instant gratification afforded to the dropout. In the “hood” or the ghetto, the logic ran, all that mattered was the next fix, the next score or the next bottle of “Train”. Everything was run by pimps, thugs, dealers and gangs. Now that we’ve discarded our space program, cut education spending, off-shored our high tech/high wage jobs and gutted our industrial base, the only thing we have left is a globalized “hood”. Finance is run by international pimps, commerce by multinational dealers, and corporations by transnational thugs. Militarized gangs maintain territorial control. Instead of gutting neighborhoods and exploiting minorities, we rape developing nations and gut their natural resources. Globalization is worldwide ghettoization with its inherent limited future time orientation. Self-inflicted? Not hardly. It’s always the same sense of entitlement, greed and self-righteousness disguised in a new version of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”. Cultural imperialism is making a few people very rich. There’s plenty of time, but the places are running out. Pimps, thugs, dealers and gangs simply eliminate the competition. The global version will eliminate entire populations…and eventually, it will reach equilibrium with its foraging range.

  2. What would trigger action? Theoretically, when the Potomac overflows? But then again, maybe not.

    In the 60′s there was an Outer Limits episode where scientists decided to manufacture an invasion from outer space to get people to collaborate with each other against a common threat. But if the theory in this article is correct, it wouldn’t matter unless people were affected personally.

    Some years ago a friend of mine went to a contractor’s certification class RE transitioning air conditioners from R12 to R134. A chapter in the class had to do with why the transition, which turned out to be something to do with chloroflourocarbons affecting the ozone layer.

    So my friend asked the teacher, what about all that chlorine evaporating from all those swimming pools? The teacher said he might have a point there, but in any case their class was about air conditioners as opposed to pool maintenence.

    My friend told me he still wonders whether we’re making a choice between eroding the ozone layer versus the inconvenience of having swimming pools with green water.

    • WMcMillan on said:

      I remember that episode, Robert Culp was the scientist who volunteered to become the “alien”. As you said, if the article is correct, we don’t respond unless we are directly affected.

  3. Science is not going to save us. I appreciate their warnings on climate change, but the scientific method, an amoral human construct, has enabled the greedy to create the oil based economy that gave us global warming in the first place. Who controls the science? Right now it’s the money worshippers.

  4. rosemerry on said:

    So true. I well remember visiting the USA in 1967 and seeing soldiers all around airports etc, and the only news about the Vietnam War in Peoria, Illinois was the death of a few soldiers hailing from Peoria.

    Miley Cyrus excites more interest than the Syrian conflict and likely US intervention.

    The USA wants to dominate the globe, but is unwilling to curb its local wastefulness in the global interest.

    • WMcMillan on said:

      The biggest issue with climate change is that it will change our way of life. Perhaps there will be a mass exodus humankind off the face of this planet. Perhaps this is the way Mother Earth will seek a new equilibrium that doesn’t include mankind.

      I get a little annoyed when I hear folks getting upset at the demise of the Amazon rainforests and the like and don’t see the connection between the way we organize our economic activity and these outcomes. Let’s face it – capitalism is about profit maximization and growth. The companies/corporations are designed to maximized profits/maximize shareholder value etc. The aren’t designed to take into account the effect of their economic activity on the environment. That is government’s job, based on the values of the society.

      For example, there was a time when it was totally cool to employ children to work in the textile industry in the Western world because you could pay them less money. Worker safety? Get real! If you lost your hand in an industrial accident, better send your younger sibling down to fill your job. Eventually our values changed and our societies said that it was OK to maximize profits/shareholder value subject to the constraint that you can’t use/abuse Child Labor. Laws went into effect and the government(s) enforced the laws and companies/corporations made money.

      My point is that it is our job to get our governments to create and enforce new laws that will protect the environment and our way of life. Otherwise the earth will find a new equilibrium that may not sustain human life.

  5. This article is an outstanding illustration of the problem we are facing as people. We are stuck between the lunatic right and the lunatic left shouting at one another, while actually solvable issues fester.

    There has been no global warming in 16 years now. All models have failed. What will it take for the left to take notice and move on? The planet is actually cooling. We all better pray to whatever god we worship it stops cooling. Otherwise, unpleasantness of all kinds will ensue.

    • Brian Arnold on said:

      Yeah, the fact that the weather in 2013 was relatively normal after the virtually apocalyptic 2012 proves that global warming is over. Why, it’s going the other way now – We all need to start preparing for the next ice age.

      Or it could just be that 2013 was a relatively normal year by comparison with 2012, and the general trend is towards hotter weather, like most of us on the planet have personally observed for the last 20 years. Like the stock market rising 50 points on one day, while throughout the whole week it lost 400 points.

    • On this one, the lunatic left is closer to the truth than the ostrich right. I’ll go with the vast majority of scientists on this one. I recall a news item revealing Exon paid one million to a scientist to write a study debunking global warming. The Koch brothers have poured millions into the effort to downplay the problem. It notable, is it not, that the ones that want status quo are the greedy capitalists. I do not know what it will take to wake us up when the evidence is right in front of us—if we are willing to read instead of watching TV ads.

      • I guess I should explain: it is one thing for science to diagnose, a different thing to expect it to save us.

  6. Dan Alter on said:

    The article is factually NOT true. You warmists need to clutter your mind up with facts. Why CO2 levels above 400ppm can NOT cause global warming.
    http://www.no1stcostlist.com/Forums/viewtopic/p=625.html#625

    As you can see the Beer-Lambert Law puts an absolute fixed upper limit on the infrared radiation any gas can absorb. CO2 stopped absorbing below 100 ppm in our atmosphere.

    Extreme weather events are at record lows, including tornadoes and hurricanes.

    The planet is cooling not warming, and CO2 levels have been several times higher during ice ages in the past and changes in CO2 levels do not lead changes in global temperatures.

    When you are actually trying to do good, you have an absolute obligation to get your facts straight.

    Since CO2 is a wonderful plant fertilizer, we need more not less of it. God wish our trivial contribution would make a difference.

    • The Beer Lambert Law in my mind doesn’t really apply for several reasons.
      1/ As the CO2 warms, it tranfers heat to the oceans which in turn changes our weather. It could act like a air conditioner in reverse.
      2/ As CO2 warms our air as does the ocean water, it helps release methane from the frozen north, and methane is a much more potent climate changer.
      As for 2013 being a cool year tell that to people in the north and they will laugh at you. Also at present Australia and the south are having fire problems as did the USA and Canada earlier. And I must say where I live the extreme swings from excessive heat to chill have been frequent and large such that the average may seem normal.
      But you can’t just go by one year as that is weather not climate change. The sun a few years ago went through a cyclic slowdown and it seems that the speed of the solar cycle is more pertinent to the radiation we receive. But if you beleive we are heading for an ice age try to tell that to the Inuit or the polar bears this year who need ice for their hunting.

      • Checking it out, the Beer Lambert Law doesn’t apply. It isn’t the absorbtion of energy from the sun by CO2 that’s the problem, but the suns light heats the earth and the CO2 absorbs the heat energy from the earth and holds it down. This in turn warms the general environment.