Saturday, February 3, 2007

Restraining Ourselves

I have entitled this piece 'Restraining Ourselves' because it seems that our actions, singly and collectively, tend toward curable self destruction. Perhaps it’s a function of my age, or my predilection for sophomoric idealism (at the tender age of 66), but I am caught up this morning with the remembrance of President Kennedy’s exhortation during his inaugural address more than forty years ago to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." We Americans, rich and poor, live in a good society. We’ve (all of us) have it pretty damned good. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows without serious dispute that all of us live a lot better than the rest of the world. A certain mentality has crept into our consciousness; nothing is ever quite good enough for us. We need more, we want more, and if we don’t have it, we feel threatened and victimized by the void that is created. We expect others to bail us out of our self-created predicaments or simply ignore the future consequences of our behavior. The net result is a psychopathological mechanism akin to denial resulting in real and serious harm to us and the rest of the world.

This tendency has as its core feature disregard for the future ramifications of present acts or omissions. Let me be more specific. Singly, we all face the battle of the bulge and the threat of chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, all of which can be ameliorated by undertaking certain activities; regular exercise, trans-fat free diets, limited or no alcohol intake, cessation of smoking, etc., you get the idea. Knowing all this, we stuff ourselves with pizza while watching hours and hours of TV in an immobile state where nary a calorie is expended. Some of us smoke or drink ourselves silly, or dead, whichever comes first. We use our credit cards as if money grows on trees and then submit to bankruptcy proceedings with the same lack of restraint that we demonstrate toward our physical bodies.

At the collective level (governmental) there are a couple of seemingly unrelated examples which point out the collective failure to look beyond the end of the day in terms of understanding and appreciating the consequences of actions and omissions. In a touching eulogy to the recently deceased Molly Ivins in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff quotes her pre Iraq invasion writing;
[Nov. 19, 2002]: "The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win?" and
[Jan. 16, 2003]: "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side . . . . The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, ‘Horrible three-way civil war?’ "
In other words, it is clear that the administration and the vast majority of us simply chose to ignore what might be the ramifications of invading Iraq. Bush’s landing on the carrier of a returning vessel carrying the message that the mission was accomplished makes him the poster child of this collective denial.

Similarly, it is clear from ample scientific evidence that our planet is at risk and that we have contributed to this risk in a substantial way. The available science underscores the need for a massive effort to slow the pace of global climatic disruption before intolerable consequences become inevitable. John P. Holdren, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an energy and climate expert at Harvard University states, "Since 2001 there has been a torrent of new scientific evidence on the magnitude, human origins and growing impacts of the climatic changes that are underway. In overwhelming proportions, this evidence has been in the direction of showing faster change, more danger and greater confidence about the dominant role of fossil fuel burning and tropical deforestation in causing the changes that are being observed." He continues, "This new report should spur policymakers to get off the fence and put strong and effective policies in place to tackle greenhouse gas emissions." (New York Times, Jan 29, 2007)

In piecing these disparate thoughts together, the common thread is one of lack of restraint. What seems most obvious to me is that if one examines a potential future course of conduct, whether it be individual health, or dealing with a humanitarian crisis abroad, it seems logical that the decision maker should be asking himself or herself, what are the potential consequences of my behavior. If I am a citizen of the world, what are the consequences of my continuing to drive a gas guzzling SUV which, if continued unchecked, will have our descendants, some six or seven generations down the road, gasping for oxygen on our dying planet? What are the consequences of my daily decisions to sit and stare at the TV set munching on potato chips in lieu of physical exercise? What are the consequences of my willingness to let others carry the burden of correcting our society’s problems. What are the consequences of my willingness to remain silent when wrongs are being committed daily by those chosen to represent us? Can I remain silent in the face of actions by our government in direct contravention of the principles upon which this great nation was founded? What are the consequences?

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