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David Edwards: 5 Things Everyone Ought to Know

This came from a great 2000 interview with David Edwards on Medialens. It is a long quotation, and I’m highlighting the 5 points because they get a little obscured in the discussion. Between the fourth and the fifth point there is a fascinating discussion about distraction, self-delusion and how journalists are influenced by corporations as well (which I am not including).  It’s amazing how relevant these insights still are 10 years later.

Jensen: You’ve said that there are five things everyone ought to know. What are they?

Edwards: The first is that the planet is dying. One way to chart the damage is to look at insurance figures. Between 1980 and 1989, the insurance industry paid out, on average, less than $2 billion a year for weather-related property damage. From 1990 to 1995, however, hurricanes, cyclones, and floods in Europe, Asia, and North America cost the industry an average of more than $30 billion a year. The Red Cross is warning that climate change is about to precipitate a century of natural disasters. We have already seen a number of “superdisasters” in Honduras, India, Venezuela, and Mozambique, all “clearly tainted by human actions,” according to climatologists.

Global warming affects more than the weather. Last year, marine biologists estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean have died due to global warming. Coral-reef ecosystems are home to one-fourth of all fish species. And they’re just the first major victims of global warming. Others will soon follow. Scientists now predict that the polar bear will be extinct in the wild within twenty years.

Now, many environmentally conscious people would argue that the scale of the environmental crises threatening us is being communicated. After all, most newspapers these days have environmental correspondents. But the level of coverage in no way matches the severity of the threat. Think for a moment about the media response to the supposed threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War: Hollywood churned out pro-America films; novelists wrote thrillers pitting the “free world” against the “godless communists”; headlines decried the dangers of communism; and so on. By comparison, there’s next to nothing being said or written about the threat of global warming.

Jensen: I know what you mean. I like baseball, but it breaks my heart to see ten pages in the newspaper every day on sports and maybe three column inches a month devoted to the biodiversity crisis.

Edwards: This leads to the second thing that everyone should know, which is that huge numbers of intelligent, motivated people are working all-out to prevent action that could save the planet. No matter how clear the evidence or how stern the scientific warnings, time and again, effective action is obstructed. The Global Climate Coalition, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers are all vigorously opposing even the trivial cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions proposed by the Kyoto Climate Treaty. The irresponsibility is breathtaking.

The so-called debate on global warming is a war between the biggest enterprise in human history-the worldwide coal-and-oil industry-and the planet’s ability to sustain life. And our hearts and minds are battlefields in that war. The corporate press and corporate-financed politicians keep talking about global warming as if there’s significant doubt about it, yet the “debate” pits perhaps half a dozen high-profile skeptics bankrolled by this trillion-dollar industry against the consensus of twenty-five hundred of the world’s most qualified climatologists working as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How is it that the opinions of these six-whose arguments are often shot full of illogical and absurd statements-carry the same weight as all that scientific evidence?

This brings us to the third thing I believe everyone should know, which is that the death of the planet is symptomatic of a deeper, institutionalized subordination of all life-including human life-to profit. Algeria is a typical example. It’s been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. Elections were held in 1991, but the government scrapped them when it became clear a militant Islamic party would win, and since that time some eighty thousand people have died. In some cases, armed attackers have descended on defenseless villages at night to cut the throats of women and children. The violence has been characterized by psychotic frenzy, including the dismemberment of infants. It’s not exactly clear who is doing all of it, although the government is heavily implicated. But one thing is for sure: the world has done nothing about it.

Jensen: Why not?

Edwards: I can answer that question with one word: oil. Algeria has gas and oil deposits worth billions and supplies the gas for Madrid, Rome, and many other European cities. It has a $2.8 billion contract with British Petroleum. Because of this, no Western government wants to make trouble with Algeria. John Sweeney-just about the only British journalist who has written anything about it-called the eighty thousand deaths “Europe’s gas bill.” Instead of demanding an end to the slaughter, the European Union is giving Algerian generals $125 million for “restructuring and democratization.”

This story, of course, has been repeated any number of times: Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Indonesia, East Timor, Iraq, Vietnam-anywhere there are profits to be made. Yet few people in the media want to talk about this pattern in which the economic interests of the U.S. and Britain are synonymous with the systematic exploitation and impoverishment of Third World populations. It’s the same with the environment. Although the planet is being demolished before our eyes, the media remain content to artificially isolate each new disaster, leaving us to try to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

The absence of discourse about these patterns leads us to the fourth point, which is that the economic and political forces that profit from destruction and atrocity also profit from the suppression of truth. It’s the job of the corporate media and the politicians to prevent us from digging beneath the surface and uncovering the truth.

It’s important to be clear, however, that our delusions are not just the result of some conspiracy on the part of a few business moguls. The real problem is much more structural and psychological. Modern thought control is primarily dependent not on crude, conscious planning, but on the human capacity for self-deception. One of the biggest obstacles to social change is the propaganda system working undetected inside our own heads-mine included.”


Jensen: What, then, are we afraid of in this culture?

Edwards: Emotions, for one thing. We in the West seem to take it for granted that emotion and reason are in conflict. We think that to be rational is to be like Mr. Spock from Star Trek; that being unemotional gives one the capacity to see clearly. You see this often among business-people and scientists: when they want to be taken seriously, they speak in a cold, unemotional manner. On one level, this is quite reasonable; we’ve all experienced what infatuation or anger can do to our ability to perceive something accurately. But Buddhists believe that greed, ambition, and selfishness keep us from perceiving the world as it is, whereas compassion and affectionate love (as opposed to romantic infatuation), actually help us perceive the world more clearly.
This comes back around to the last of the five things everyone should know, which is that, if the planet is being killed by institutionalized greed and the sacrifice of life for profit, then the solution is to undermine the illusion that greed is "normal" and even desirable. And one way to do this is through compassion. When we reinforce our capacity for compassion and love and concentrate on other people’s needs, rather than on our own, we begin to weaken the psychological system that powers the selective inattention and self-deception we were talking about.

Of course, it’s not enough just to sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do, how you behave. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people, or at least experiment with working in that direction.

And trying to be more compassionate should include being compassionate toward ourselves: we shouldn’t expect to start out being fantastically, perfectly compassionate. It’s like becoming a weight lifter. Your ability to feel and act out of compassion and love has to be developed through learning and practice. Just as no one expects you to come out of your first weight-lifting session and lift up a car, there will be situations where you’ll try to be compassionate, but it will be beyond you; you’ll get angry, be selfish, whatever. Sometimes the best thing to do is just to run away.

I think compassion is especially important for dissidents seeking to change society. Think about it. The distinguishing characteristic of writers like Howard Zinn, Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Sharon Beder, and Mark Curtis is that, unlike many mainstream writers, they refuse to place their personal concerns for wealth, status, respectability, and even physical safety above the needs of the wretched of the earth. Compassion is at the core of what libertarian radicals are about, or should be, yet we rarely discuss it.

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