We are so very distracted

DistractedBy John Feeney:

This screenshot is from a talk I’ll be giving at A Renaissance of Local in Lyons, Colorado. It concerns the media’s consistent failure to recognize the most important news story in human history.

The stories making headlines are mostly important. They do need good coverage. There’s no question about that. But their importance pales in comparison with that of our ecological plight. No question about that either.

Ecological issues should be the headlines everyday. Ironically, the stories which do make the front page often have ecological bases which go unrecognized.

Many will disagree with my assessment. Understandably, they feel passionately about issues like the Iraq war. They can’t imagine any other story is as relevant as long as people in Iraq are dying. Yet I believe this reflects a simple lack of ecological awareness. Once one grasps the numbers of lives at risk as a result of looming ecological crises, one’s perspective shifts. Consideration of the potential impacts on global food supplies of climate change as well as the depletion of oil, natural gas, and aquifers is enough to make this clear. Factor in additional problems such as the mass extinction of species now playing out, and it’s impossible to retain any doubt about the media’s ecological blindness.

It’s bad enough so few discuss certain thorny but relevant environmental subtopics, but we’re not even seeing stories on the broadest global challenges likely to have pervasive and severe impacts in the coming decades.

The media need to wake up. Let’s wake them up. Letters to editors and comments under online articles are a good start. A great example was this comment by “Stilba” under an article by Naomi Klein on Common Dreams:

Not to be a downer, but little of this matters if our planetary life support system is kaput. I can’t even look at this “a better world is possible” stuff any more without thinking about that the whole way through. Sort of like a super-sized version of what Gandhi said about sanitation being more important than independence.

Stilba’s comment reminds me of a lesson I learned well in my days as a professional poker player. It came from David Sklansky, a pioneering poker and professional gambling theorist with an ability to see through and simplify many seemingly complex problems. The lesson was to focus on what’s truly important, those decisions that have major impacts rather than those which, while correct, have less long term significance. It has generalized easily to decisions concerning where to focus my writing and activism as an environmentalist. And it makes it easier to spot those instances, which are today unfortunately the norm, when the media focus on issues of relatively less importance.

I can’t help thinking the future of humanity hinges, in some large measure, on our learning to recognize what’s important.

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12 responses to “We are so very distracted

  1. John, good luck with the talk. The expo seems to wrap together so many things in which I have an interest. If you show the audience just a fraction of the passion you have then they will be on your side.

    Naomi Klein is probably right about priorities. We need at the very least to come to a global emergency plan including (in no particular order):

    a) cessation of further human co-opting of wilderness/habitat /biodiversity hotspots.
    b) immediate freeze on CO2 emmissions wih subsequent rapid decrease
    c) urgent population stabilisation.
    d) urgent green economic reform which allows for societies to change or develop without growth in material economic inputs, and encouraging movement towards closed-loop production cycles.

  2. Hope the talk goes well. I am sure it will.

    We definitely need environment over revolution, although the latter may help. We mustn’t be distracted as you say. And the sooner the better.

  3. Dear John,

    It means a great deal that people are beginning to receive the ideas presented by you. Keep going.

    The point made about many too many distractions is a vital one. We have to find ways to re-focus the attention of people to the practical requirements of biophysical reality.

    Our great colleague, James Lovelock, has been trying to accomplish this one goal for a long time. He is trying once again now.


    Somehow, we have to become more successful in communicating one thing: there can be no successful global economy without the resources and ecosystem services provided by an adequately functioning Earth.

    One of my greatest concerns is that humankind might choose to deny the reality of the bounded, finite world we inhabit and to pursue a primrose path marked by trying to grow its way out of the distinctly human-driven predicament in which we find ourselves in these early years of Century XXI. By that I mean we choose MORE population growth, MORE per capita consumption of resources and EVERMORE expansion of the world economy on the small, noticeably frangible planet we inhabit. The reckless pursuit of this endless growth strategy, one which adamantly advocates more of the same, outworn, environmentally degrading business-as-usual activities we see so predominantly in our culture today, could produce a colossal wreckage, even greater and more catastrophic than the one seen by Ozymandias, king of kings.

    Human beings appear inadvertently to be relentlessly and righteously sawing off the limb of the tree on which we are sitting. At least to me, it looks as if the ground below the limb on which we are so wonderfully perched is a long way down, so that a safe landing is put in doubt.



  4. Thanks all for the words of envouragement.

    It’s worth noting that James Lovelock’s projection of a die-off all the way down to a billion people is right in line with Paul Chefurka’s analysis.

    Now, neither of them hold out a whole lot of hope that we’ll avert that in any substantial way. But I just read the intro to Richard Heinberg’s new book, and he does hold out hope of a smoother (though not easy) transition to sustainability if we can muster a rather massive collective effort in that direction.

    It’s hard to know what to think about the fact that that this stuff isn’t making constant headlines.

  5. Good luck with your talk.

    Have you ever looked for information on depleted uranium? It does have something to do with the Iraq war.

  6. John,

    Good points. A telling example of the skewed media (and political) attention involves the current obsession with “security”, which has become synonymous with the so-called war on terror. But an informed, rational analysis of threats to global security shows that they have less to do with the boogeyman of Al Qaeda (dangerous as they are) than with the havoc we are causing to the environmental life-support system, as recognized by some of President Bush’s own military advisors, although evidently not by him.


  7. John,

    But I just read the intro to Richard Heinberg’s new book, and he does hold out hope of a smoother (though not easy) transition to sustainability if we can muster a rather massive collective effort in that direction.

    That’s my view. Even the most optimistic outlook on climate change expects some serious environmental degradation. Combine that with peak oil and a heavily armed, crowded planet and it’s a recipe for disaster. To me, mitigating that disaster is the goal, and the only way I know to do that is education and leading by example. We need to move the “perceptual tipping point” — the point at which a critical mass of humanity recognizes the danger and is willing to do something about it — up in time.

  8. Dear Trinifar,

    Your views are ones with which I am in complete agreement.

    As a community, from top to bottom, we have to find ways to succeed in talking about the vital issues of our time, the tabooed ones which are socially unpopular, politically incorrect and economically inexpedient.

    We have noted in many places the ominously looming global challenges that array themselves before humanity on the far horizon. Because these challenges appear to be derived for certain overgrowth activities of the human species, it seems to me that human beings are called upon TO ADAPT by changing our behavior, according to the practical requirements of biophysical reality.

    Of all the things I perceive as threats to human and environmental health, there is nothing I fear more than SILENCE. It is the abject failure of leadership within the human community to break the pernicious silence that keeps our brothers and sisters from recognizing clear and soon to be present perils. Leaders seem to be turning their backs, or placing their heads in the sand, or suffering from hysterical blindness, willful deafness and elective mutism. Take your pick. We are denying good science, reason and common sense.

    The silence will be broken….hopefully sooner rather than later. At least to me, it does not appear that time or current circumstances favor those who care for the future. The self-proclaimed masters of the universe, these children of men, are in possession of some considerable sources of power. Thankfully, all of these hiers of Ozymandias, taken together, are not in control of all the sources of power, as they suppose. The times, they are changing.



  9. Hi nunya. Thanks for the lead. I’ve only heard a little about depleted uranium in Iraq. I’ll look into it further. Iraq is of course a war over oil as well.

    Emmett, this is a key point:

    “But an informed, rational analysis of threats to global security shows that they have less to do with the boogeyman of Al Qaeda (dangerous as they are) than with the havoc we are causing to the environmental life-support system …”

    There’s really no comparison, is there?

    Trin and Steve, I think I’m seeing progress. Just finished watching the film, What a way to go. It’s very well done, and is a sign awareness will grow. I hope it grows fast enough to really avert catastrophe, but I think it will at least grow fast enough to soften the landing.

  10. Thanks to all,

    John, evidently concerns like long-term human wellbeing, biodiversity preservation and the integrity of Earth are MOMENTARILY at odds with powerful economic and political forces which relentlessly and unrealistically maintain an economic system marked by unrestricted and increasing per capita consumption, unbridled and expanding economic globalization and continuous and rapid growth of the human population.

    It now appears clear that at the base of certain primary human activities now overspreading Earth is an “economic engine” that prompts human action and requires unregulated human consumption, production and propagation for its very existence. Because a colossal pyramid scheme is the organizing structure for the global economy…… and this endless growth structure is soon to become patently unsustainable on a planet the size of Earth…… we will surely find ways to reorganize the world economy so that it is made sustainable by requiring the managers of the economic system to conform their activities to the limitations of the finite world we inhabit.

    Public discourse is focused upon the ECONOMY and not sufficiently on ECOLOGY. Wealth is used to recklessly grow the economy, while lip service is paid to ecology. This lack of balance, this unconscionable failure by leadership in the human community to give adequate attention and economic resources to the preservation of Earth’s ecology, could be the primary basis for a nest of global challenges that are already visible to humankind.

    The circumstances being described here are MOMENTARILY unacknowledged or else unbelieveable to many people. To have either overlooked or ignored the human-forced predicament we are seeing presented to humanity seems incredible…… and it is.

    We can do better and I trust we will.



  11. Magne Karlsen


    “Minds that remain largely unused because of ignorance, which is the child of laziness, will be found by mass media (“propaganda,” in the old days), filled with easily swallowed psychic worms that are coated with syrupy sweet sex, glistening cherry-red violence, desire-fulfillment fantasy, voyeurism, and lowest-common-denominator semi-pornographic mass culture. Once embedded, the underlying psychic messages re-program the thought patterns of the consuming individual for ease of remote control by the social programming elite.

    If you don’t think, someone will do it for you, but not for your benefit.

    The psychology of mass psychosis is how small groups of wealthy elites control larger populations. It may seem easy to look back on Hitler and the Nazi’s control of the German people and say “not me, not today.” But any truthful look at American politics would have to conclude that amazing progress has been made in the techniques of social control. Just look at how Americans so overwhelmingly volunteer to impoverish themselves, their society, their children’s future, even the very planet they live on — perhaps irreparably, all for the unique purpose of increasing the moneyed wealth of the moneyed class.”

  12. Magne,

    Yep, that’s the way it works much of the time, it seems. Sadly, I think it’s even that way for many who read the “progressive” media on the political left. They read authors who tell them that this or that problem are the ones worth their concern, but seem not to stop to think about what’s happening on the largest levels. And there seems to be an ecological blindness (see Catton for that) which has infected the left and the right equally.

    You won’t often find the truth of our ecological situation in any segment of the media. You simply have to go out and research it yourself.

    On a positive note, Trinifar mentions some new attention being given to environmental issues. I hope it really is a new trend, not just a random cluster of events.