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Believing That What Happens to Others is Not Important
In America, we promote the individual as the most important unit in society, followed by the family, followed by society at large. Personal gains are treasured above all else. It takes acts of congress to force us to consider our neighbors, to make us clean up after ourselves, and to answer Man’s first question: Am I my brother’s keeper?
We need laws to force a man to support his offspring after he decides that the woman he loved was not really the Right One. We need laws that limit and codify the permissible amount of poison we can effluse in the rivers, belch into the air and dump upon the land.
Many industrial enterprises operated decades on the principle that their nasty waste products could be put in the river or buried on site and forgotten. These stockpiles of toxic substances didn’t go away when they “disappeared.” Some of them resurfaced at the Love Canal in New York State poisoning the lives of the residents there. The people who authorized the disposal of wastes did not think about what would become of those substances. They came back to bite them. There are 1240 Superfund sites around the nation. Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund, in response to the dangers of uncontrolled or abandoned contaminated sites. New Jersey alone had 107 such active sites in 1999. There are so many worthy sites that an amendment to CERCLA had to be made in 1986 to create the National Priority List of the worst sites. Basically, industrial enterprises neglected the cost of safe waste disposal and passed that cost on to the taxpayer of the future while generating higher corporate profits along the way. By deferring the costs until sometimes decades later, three things happen: The cost becomes much higher, damage to people and the environment happens and someone else, us, must foot the higher bill. Deferring in this way, the Principle of Imminent Collapse happens.
Counting the cost of an event only in terms of our economic unit, the dollar, is our biggest mistake. How can one place a dollar damage amount on 1 degree of global temperature increase? Our propensity is to see all damage in terms of direct human impacts. Even our currency declared that it is “legal tender for all debts public and private.” What is the human impact of the extinction of a single species of fish in a specific river reach in the Pacific Northwest? Probably zero. But the extinction of that species is probably not an isolated event. The causes of its disappearance may be the foreshadowing of a bigger set of extinctions set in motion by a combination of our own doing and that of Nature which we are not a party to. The fish might be the canary in the mineshaft. So when we dump 6 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere in a year AND nature does the same, the combined result is a warmer globe. And so what if the average temperature goes up 1 degree? We seem more interested in how much coastal real estate we will lose and whose beach house will be flooded than in how many species of plant and animal life will be lost by the changes as though we would otherwise be exempt from dire impacts. When there are thousands of species of Cichlid fishes in a lake in Africa, the loss of 25% of them is of no consequence in human terms except of one of them is a significant food source for Man or to another cichlid that is. Less bio-diversity has a major consequence to Man in a way much like the domino model in the first chapter. Line up all the tiles in one orientation like identical DNA strands in diminished speciation, or like the electrical power grid and nudge one into extinction.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa seemed to be one of "their problems." While it was the "gay disease" here in the US, research and development into finding a treatment or a cure was all but non-existent. While it was officially ignored and religiously repressed, the virus took hold in the population waiting for a breakout. Africans migrated to Europe and thense the US bringing with them the hidden imminent collapse. Everywhere in the world that men and women have nothing better to do than fornicate freely, HIV and AIDS has florished. Everywhere in the world that unsafe sexual practices are a matter of macho, ignorance and pride, there is a greater incidence of infection. Not helping "those people" deal with "their problem" allows it to become our problem.
As it turns out, not helping poor people to cope with a low availability of energy has put the US in a poorer position too as the amount of available cheap fuel is drying up. Not figuring out how to avoid the environmental conditions that have been the norm of Africa for decades, has let us fall far behind in finding solutions to our not-quite-yet-a-problem state of affairs.
What exactly IS the disconnect between our seeing a problem developing for some one else and not seeing that we are the next to experience it? As polar glaciers melt leaving less land-bound water and Equatorial glaciers are receding, how is it that we don't see that many of our urban dwellers are likewise dependent on snow packs and summer melts for their water? The 2008 collapse of the housing market will be a mere footnote to the mass exodus from cities like Los Angeles when the water stops.