Two deadly threats, but only one taken seriously

January 26, 2003|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The United States faces two kinds of threats to its national security. One is from external enemies, the other from the degradation of the biosphere.

America's leaders respond very differently to these two threats. To protect us against external enemies, they're willing to spend billions and to erode some of our basic rights. To divert us from the path toward environmental disaster, they scarcely lift a finger.

So why are these men so ready to sacrifice to meet one kind of threat but seem so indifferent about the other?

Could it be the immediacy of the threat? The attacks of 9/11 could recur at any time, whereas the catastrophic effects of climate change could be decades into the future.

No, it can't be that. These same leaders also refuse to pay the costs of curtailing smokestack emissions that - even now - annually kill more Americans than the collapse of the World Trade Center. Meanwhile, they want to spend many billions on a missile defense system that - at best - would not be operational and effective for a long time.

Is it the difference between threats that are certain and those that are merely possible or hypothetical? We know that we have enemies that want to kill us, but scientists strongly believe that current atmospheric changes could prove very dangerous.

No, because these same American leaders are quite willing to make great sacrifices to meet some very uncertain threats from external enemies.

For example, even though not all informed observers are convinced that Saddam Hussein is close to having the means to threaten the United States with weapons of mass destruction, or that if he had them he would use them against us, our leaders are willing to send a quarter million troops to overthrow the Iraqi regime and bear the costs of a lengthy occupation.

While they prepare for the worst regarding Mr. Hussein, they consistently assume the best about environmental dangers. That includes minimizing the ever-growing scientific consensus about possibly catastrophic consequences from climate change caused by human activity (loss of land to rising seas and loss of food supplies from changing patterns of precipitation).

The solution to our puzzle, therefore, seems not to be a matter of rational threat assessment. It seems, rather, that our leaders respond to comparable threats with different attitudes. But why?

At the heart of the puzzle, I suggest, are deeply ingrained ideas about manhood in America. Some concerns are thought manly to attend to, while others are sissy stuff.

The image of the warrior is central to our idea of manhood. So it's always manly to prepare to fight an enemy, another man whose power can hurt us. But showing concern for environmental dangers - which means being willing to limit our own exercise of power in the world - does not look so glorious in American eyes.

Thus while it's manly to make worst-case assumptions about an enemy's capabilities and intentions, one who looks at worst-case environmental scenarios is derided as a "Chicken Little." While the business of guarding what's ours seems manly, the task of caring for what's been entrusted to us sounds, in our culture, suspiciously like women's work.

There's good reason why warriors have long been the heroes of civilized societies. For millennia, it is from outside enemies that the greatest threats to social survival have come.

Only in recent generations has this begun to change. Now, the explosive growth of industrial technology has so altered our relationship to this living planet that it is from the destructive impact of our own peacetime activities that the gravest threat to our security may now come.

Meeting this sudden new challenge requires new virtues of us, but our ways of thinking change far less quickly than has our impact on the biosphere.

There is another ancient image of what a man might be. It is the image of the good steward, the man to whom the care of things can be entrusted. We will not again be secure until the good steward seems to us as manly as the vigilant warrior.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who teaches American studies at the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.

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