Andersen: Taking environment beyond science
The famine now facing Africa is being forecast as the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. Estimates are that 16 to 20 million people are at risk of dying from hunger in four war- and drought-stricken African nations.
The New York Times recently reported: “The world’s largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years has been declared in three African countries on the brink of famine, just as President Donald Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts threaten to pull the United States from its historic role as the world’s top emergency donor.
“If the deep cuts are approved by Congress and the U.S. does not contribute to Africa’s current crisis, experts warn that the continent’s growing drought and famine could have far-ranging effects, including a new wave of migrants heading to Europe and possibly more support for Islamic extremist groups.”
The causes of this famine are war and drought. Both are man-made and both are remediable, a conclusion that will be debated forever. But there is no denying the underlying moral dilemma which we rich Westerners face by witnessing starvation in a world of plenty. A moral chord is being touched in each of us as we feel the plight and pain of others. Or at least it should be.
This moral imperative fits with Charles Darwin’s observations of animals and the way they care for the sick or injured among them. Darwin concluded that humans also evolved with innate sympathy, which is the starting point for ethics as a social norm.
War is the primary cause of the famine imperiling Africa today. Civil war in Sudan and conflicts in Nigeria and Somalia have disrupted traditional agriculture. War has created a deeply destabilizing influence that is now a death sentence to combatants and noncombatants alike.
Tragically, war has become so normalized that the idea of its cessation is beyond most thinking. Such complacency about war must shift into making war as unconscionable as slavery, and therefore outlawed by civilized people. But slavery still exists, too. And so it goes …
The other cause of the famine in Africa is climate-related, reports the Times: “Scientists have been saying for years that climate change will increase the frequency of droughts. The hardest-hit countries, though, produce almost none of the carbon emissions that are widely believed to cause climate change.
“South Sudan and Somalia, for instance, have relatively few vehicles and almost no industry. But their fields are drying up and their pastureland is vanishing, scientists say, partly because of the global effects of pollution. People in these countries suffer from other people’s driving, other people’s manufacturing and other people’s attachment to things like flat-screen TVs and iPads that most Somalis and South Sudanese will touch only in their dreams.”
Turning his back on the world, Trump cuts U.S. foreign aid and rescinds Obama’s climate legislation. “This gives the power back to the people,” he said, cheering a return to dirty coal as a boost for the U.S. economy.
By burning coal, the costs of power will be borne by the American people who filter toxic emissions through their lung tissues. It will also be borne by the people of impoverished Africa who pay the price of America’s longstanding energy excesses and our convenient denial of climate change.
There are smarter ways to give power to the people: through clean, renewable, sustainable energy and fuel efficiency. That’s the way to give power to the people with a humanitarian appreciation for the future.
Arguments for ecological protection and energy conservation have shifted over the years. Originating from scientific findings, defense of the natural world evolved into emotional appeals that targeted iconic species like polar bears and beautiful landscapes like the Grand Canyon.
When emotional appeals lost traction, the rationale became economic, based on tourism. Now we’re back to zero as we again argue the science. Given the desperate plight of Africa, it’s time we couple science with emotion and economics to create over-arching, universal sympathy that respects all values of the human and nature experience.
Despite Donald Trump’s myopic world view, or perhaps spurred by it, morality must provide this overlay, redefining power to the people as the means toward universal humanitarian progress.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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