The Worldwatch Report:
Why are we not astonished?

Environmental scientists have made it emphatically clear -- coming about as close as scientists ever come to shouting -- that we are in trouble. What they point to can be described in terms of four global "megaphenomena" -- of rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, rising rates of extinction, rising consumption of resources, and rising population. And all four, after hundreds of centuries of relative stability, have suddenly spiked.

Plotted on graphs, they look like heart attacks. Population, for example, now grows by as much every three days as it did every century, on average, for most of the one-thousand centuries before the Industrial Revolution. Yet, for all the extraordinary arm-waving of the scientists, few people seem to see any big problem. We treat this spasm of biological destruction we've ignited more like heartburn than heart attack.

The fate of the planet isn't even given much attention by the editors of the New York Times (which instead published an article last year titled "The Population Explosion is Over"), not by U.S. senators, and not by teachers or talk-radio hosts. The scientists, of course, have no means of reaching people on their own. When they go to the extraordinary effort of producing documents like the 1992 World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, or the IUCN Red List of Endangered Plants, they make a few ripples.

But then, again and again, those warnings are either blunted or pushed to the margins of public awareness. Just as the Kyoto climate convention was approaching its critical decision point in late 1997, for example, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled "Science Has Spoken: Global Warming is a Myth." That article appeared during the warmest December ever recorded, which came on the heels of the warmest November and the warmest October. It was a year in which the American Museum of Natural History had just reported the results of a poll of experts in the biological sciences, the majority of whom said they believe our planet is now undergoing the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs were extinguished.

Why are we not astonished by what is happening to our world? The answer is complicated, but here are a few parts of it:

  • In this "information age," we have access to vast amounts of information, but the quality of what we have access to is increasingly questionable. Real news reporting is buried under a landslide of prepackaged news planted by corporate PR, ideological groups and other entities interested in manipulating how we act and consume. The Wall Street Journal's "Global Warming is a Myth" article, for example, was planted by an Oregon-based front group for the industries that have an interest in seeing the climate treaty scuttled. Real news is buried from one side by a river of PR and from the other side by a growing pressure from the dominant media conglomerates to select news for its entertainment value.
  • Our sources of belief have become less trustworthy. Once they were mainly our parents, elders, teachers, neighbors, and other people we grew up with and spent time with personally. Those sources were sometimes right and sometimes sadly wrong, but at least they didn't systematically exploit or deceive us by the millions, for purposes unrelated to our own well-being. Only in the last half-century -- the last 0.05 percent or less of our experience as a species -- have we suddenly shifted to a heavy reliance on surrogate sources of belief: TV depictions of parents (often characterized as amiable fools or foils for the dominant youth culture), inspirational televangelists, morally outraged radio ideologues, and charismatic authors of best-selling books on "success."
  • We're stressed out by unprecedented levels of environmental and social destabilization: 500-year floods, devastating hurricanes, increasingly severe water shortages, unexpected crop failures, resurgent diseases and guerrilla wars. Often the reaction to such stress is to flee -- not just physically, but emotionally and cognitively. People who have money often flee from the pain of their lives by consuming. I suspect that overconsumption on a societal scale may be driven by the same insecurity -- or sense of emptiness -- writ large.
  • Our world has been turned inside-out by entertainment. Once it was built around work; now it's made up of thrills. In industrial countries, entertainment has become the kind of dominant business that manufacturing once was. In Texas, which is part of what was once called the great American wheat belt, the estimated market value of just two entertainment businesses last year -- the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers football franchises -- was greater (at $735 million) than the total value of the wheat that state grew ($600 million). The loci of our entertainments are artificial environments -- stadiums and auditoriums and the interiors of cars, instead of canyons and vales and dells; earphones instead of the sounds of birds or wind; and the false fictions of TV ads and sitcoms instead of reality. If we're not astonished by what's happening to our world, maybe it's in part because, being constantly cut off from it, we no longer have any strong expectations to begin with.
  • The disconnection is worsened by systemic misuses of technology. Consider, for example, the soaring dissemination of automated toys and games that provide the propulsion, conflict or imagery once provided by children's arms, legs and imaginations. Not only does that vastly enlarge the amount of plastics and metals needed to bring up children, but it renders the children more passive and dependent on still greater stimulation. In a Toys-R-Us world, we spend more and more to bring up kids who are less and less connected to what keeps them alive.
  • The obsession with technology has led us into increasing specialization. And that makes it harder for us to see the whole picture. If you are an expert and you discover something curious, there's a good chance that only your colleagues in the field can really grasp it. Most experts no longer try to keep in contact with the rest of us. Think of the center as the common ground of those of us who are still close enough to each other to be able to integrate our collective knowledge and make it work as a system. It is our cultural and ecological integrity. The way expertise is exploding, the center can't much longer hold.

What to do? Most analysts, including us World Watchers, try to approach this question in terms of policy. But while that's necessary, it may not be enough. Good policy arguably does for human behavior what end-of-pipe control does for pollution. So, just as pollution is more effectively attacked at the source, attitudes need attacking at their sources -- in the education of kids by parents and schools, in the learning environment we grow up in, in the curricula of universities, in the accountability of media. We need to revisit how people learn (or don't learn) from the first gasp of life to the last, because today's average upper-middle class college grad, when you strip away what he knows about entertainment and technology, has a medieval understanding of the world. That understanding won't get us through the next century.

(Ed Ayres is editor of World Watch. This essay is adapted from his book, "God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future," published by Four Walls Eight Windows.)

Copyright 1999, Worldwatch Institute
Distributed by The Los Angeles Times Syndicate
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