We Take Risks, Others Pay the Price
When I met George Awudi, a leader of Friends of the Earth Ghana, he was wearing a bright red T-shirt that said “Do Not Incinerate Africa.” We were both attending the World Social Forum, a sprawling gathering of tens of thousands of activists held earlier this month [Feb 7-11, 2011] in Dakar, Senegal.
Amid that political free-for-all — with mini-protests breaking out against everything from Arab despots to education cuts — I assumed that Awudi’s T-shirt referred to some local environmental struggle I hadn’t heard of, perhaps a dirty incinerator in Ghana.
He set me straight: “No, it’s about climate change.” Specifically, the combative slogan refers to the refusal of industrialized nations to commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Since the hottest and poorest countries on the planet are being hit first and hardest by rising temperatures, that refusal will mean, according to Awudi, that large parts of Africa “will be incinerated.”
He was quick to clarify that he did not think that people from wealthy countries actively want Africa to “burn” — it’s just that they want “to hold on to their interests,” including “interests of profit-making.”
But there is something deeper at play too, Awudi said. “It’s a mentality that they have imported from the colonial days. A mentality of looking down upon people” from Africa. It is that mentality, he argued, that makes it possible to barrel ahead with economic policies that carry growing and glaring risks.
I decided to focus my TED talk on the psychology of reckless risk-taking, because I see that impulse at work behind so many of the catastrophes of recent years: the BP disaster, the invasion of Iraq, the financial sector collapse, and the ongoing refusal to take meaningful action in the face of climate change.
Again and again, policymakers ignore mountains of evidence warning of catastrophe, opting instead to roll the dice and hope for the best.
There are all kinds of explanations for what drives this sort of short-term decision-making, with greed and hubris cited most frequently. Less discussed, but possibly more important, is the phenomenon that Awudi referenced: that the people taking the risks often feel distinctly distant from, if not outright superior to, the people most endangered by their decisions.
Many of our greatest risk-takers are also convinced that they personally will be spared from the worst consequences should things go terribly wrong.
In most cases, this is not an irrational assumption. The U.S. government’s decision to invade Iraq was disastrous for Iraqis, whose country spiraled out of control, but in large parts of the U.S., that war is virtually invisible.
Multinational oil and gas companies are so hypermobile that a disaster in one part of the world just means concentrating on new “energy plays” somewhere else. And then there are the bankers who caused the 2008 collapse. Billions around the world have paid the price for their recklessness, but the financial sector itself has been largely insulated from all but the most token reprimands.
With climate change, the gap between those who created the crisis and those who pay the price is widest of all.
It is the historical emissions from the industrialized world that are responsible for the dangerous accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. Yet in North America and Europe, where we have the infrastructure to deal with extreme weather (just don’t mention New Orleans), many of us feel we have the luxury to debate whether the phenomenon is even happening.
Meanwhile, African nations like Ghana, that contributed least to the crisis, are already facing crippling droughts and devastating floods, without the tools to cope.
All of this has led me to conclude that the central challenge of our time is tackling deep inequality, and changing the stories that we tell ourselves to justify our enormous privilege.
In a deeply divided world like ours, there is simply too much distance between the people with unchecked power to make grave mistakes and those who have to suffer the effects.
Only when we feel that our fates are genuinely intertwined will we understand that a fire that starts in Africa will eventually incinerate us all.
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