Israel/Palestine & global warming, two catastrophes in-the-making: What do they have in common?

The short answer is a failure of leadership – by presidents and prime ministers and their governments, those of the major powers most of all.

In The Independent on 21 December, Johann Hari offered this observation:

“Buried deep in our subconscious, there still lays the belief that our political leaders are collective Daddies and Mummies who will – in the last instance – guarantee our safety. Sure, they might screw us over when it comes to hospital waiting lists, or public transport, or taxing the rich, but when it comes to resisting a raw existential threat, they will keep us from harm. Last week in Copenhagen, the conviction was disproved. Every leader there had been told by their scientists – plainly, bluntly, and for years – that there is a bare minimum we must all do now if we are going to prevent a catastrophe. And they all refused to do it.”

I take issue with Johann only in the margins. In my view what happened in Copenhagen didn’t disprove the conviction (it was already disproved), it confirmed that our leaders won’t address seriously any of the problems which threaten the wellbeing and perhaps even the survival of humankind unless and until they are pushed to do so by informed public opinion, by expressions of real democracy in action. (There’s also a case for saying that our leaders, some of them, put us in harm’s way. Mention of President George “Dubya” Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair is enough to make the point. But that’s another story).

The real question is why won’t leaders lead?

Part of the answer is, of course, that they are prisoners of very powerful lobbies. But there’s much more to it. Even the well intentioned among them (President Obama for example?) are frightened to tell us, their voters, the truth about real choices and options for the future.

The truth they ought to tell us about what must be done to contain global warming can be simply stated. Those of us who live in the nations of the rich North have got to change the way we think and live. More explicitly, we’ve got to lower our expectations for more and ever more in the way of material gratification. Even more explicitly, we’ve got to be prepared to take less of the global pie. Politicians who promise that a vote for them will return us to the path of more and more prosperity are either idiots or liars

Why won’t they tell us the truth? Because, they believe, there are no votes for them in it. And they believe this because they take the pessimistic view of human nature.

According to this view – it’s which more or less an article of faith for most media people and many corporate executives, bankers especially, as well as politicians – we human beings are inherently and unchangeably short-sighted, selfish and greedy, preferring to live for today at the expense of tomorrow and are, on balance, more “bad” than “good”. In other words, we are really quite stupid.

If the pessimistic view is the correct one, it seems to me that nothing matters because the end, catastrophe for all, was inevitable from the beginning; in which case we would all be well advised, as individuals, as communities and as nations, to go on screwing each other for all we can get. Praising the lord and passing the ammunition.

The optimistic view of human nature is that we could be much more “good” than “bad”, meaning that we have at least the potential to act in our own longer term, best interests and those of our children especially, even if doing so would require those of us who live in the rich nations (and the pockets of plenty in the poor nations) to lower our expectations and actually be prepared to take less in the way of material gratification.

I believe the optimistic view of human nature is the correct one and that we have been conditioned to be short-sighted, selfish and greedy, and to assume that the purpose of life is the acquisition of material things, buying now and paying later. It follows, or so it seems to me, that we could be re-conditioned by information, education in the widest sense of the term. As the American John Dewey (my favourite philosopher) put it, we must “unlearn” what we have been taught about the “unchangeability of human nature.”

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