Dead Reckonings

All the celebrating over the death of bin Laden this past week suggests that a great victory has been won for mankind.

I’d suggest not quite the opposite: that the celebration itself, when compared to our indifference or even hostility to solving far larger and more pressing problems, suggests we are as far as ever from fixing what most ails us.

Example: This past Wednesday, three days after bin Laden’s death, my hometown paper was still putting the aftermath on the front page. Relegated to page 3, meanwhile, was a news account of a report from the Oslo-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Project. The report concludes that climate change is raising sea levels far faster than was thought even a few years ago, and predicts that melting ice and snow will help raise sea levels by up to 5 feet by 2100.

That’s bad news for any of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who live in a low-lying coastal area. Or who rely on the food grown, hunted or fished there. Or who’d prefer those areas remain land as a buffer from hurricanes and other types of extreme weather – or even as a repository of irreplaceable plant and animal species.

And that’s not to mention the other threats climate change poses — like the one to the glaciers that supply so much of the world’s easily accessible fresh water.

So bin Laden is dead. A villain for sure. But his lone successful attack in the U.S. in the past decade, while horrifying, failed to incapacitate a single major city for very long. Let alone the nation. Let alone the global community. He was not, as the pundits like to say, an “existential threat.”

Meanwhile, global destruction of an ongoing and long-lasting sort is exactly what climate change promises: an existential threat. And the failure of national governments to come to any kind of binding agreement to halt climate change, or to address its effects, drew not much more than sighs in the mass media. Congress’ failure to pass even watered-down legislation to slow U.S. emissions of greenhouse gasses was barely more lamented.

Plenty of people, in fact, were happy about it – oil companies, coal companies, climate-change deniers, free-market conservatives. And it’s little stretch to say that some of these people were the same ones who were cheering loudest when bin Laden’s death was announced.

The public at large cheered along. We are reluctant, it seems, to undertake long and complicated projects that will require altering our lifestyles, even if these projects – reducing energy use, getting off fossil fuels, etc. – would help ensure our long-term survival. Instead, we’re primed to dance at displays of violent revenge and bursts of national triumphalism, even if they little effect how we’ll live today or tomorrow, let alone 50 years from now.

Fifty years from now. The world may well be, or be much further on its way toward becoming, a toxic hump of sterile fields, stripped forests and dead oceans lapping at the heads of former freshwater streams. It’s hard to imagine people then will be thinking, At least we got bin Laden. Easier to imagine they’ll look back and see us as we are, swatting at shadows on the wall while the foundations of our house slid out from beneath us.

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