Shining a Mirror on Ourselves

narcissus small

The situation at the Japanese nuclear power plants is certainly worthy of the headlines it is getting. It is a catastrophe that fits into the once in a (fill in your own very high number) _ years risk category. Why, then, so much attention here in the United States? The risk of any damage from radiation emitted from the current state or even a much more serious meltdown is, as every knowledgeable commentator has said, is negligible.

Why, all of a sudden, do Congresspeople and others demand an immediate examination of our nuclear plants? This event has not changed the risk of our facilities in the US one whit. I find it very interesting that, all of a sudden, people of all political stripes are clamoring for government intervention. It seems that the marketplace and private interests cannot take care of everything.

How come the carnage wrought everyday by automobiles and guns never finds a place on the front page? When a plane crashes or a bus goes awry, we see it front and center in the print media or under a banner shouting “breaking news” or “exclusive” on the tube. The truth is that the damages created day-by-day and one-by-one far exceed those resulting from what goes as newsworthy events. The unnecessary death of a single human being is a catastrophe.

I know that decision scientists have explanations for this behavior, but I don’t believe they have it right. They say humans tend to discount the very low probabilities when catastrophic events are involved and focus only on the event as if it were going to happen to them. For example, this accounts for the “fear of flying” when the chances of an accident are exceeding low--much less than driving cross country.

My explanation starts with the observation that we in the United States have become extremely narcissistic. This is not just my opinion. It’s one widely shared by scholars and therapists. Everything of importance has to be focused on what does it mean to me. The online magazine Salon ran a story recently on the coverage being given to the Egyptian regime change with this header and lede:

The question we can't stop asking ourselves: What do the demonstrations mean for America?

America doesn't really understand how to respond to a revolution. The demonstrations in Egypt have nothing to do with Tea Parties or neoconservatives or Twitter or Facebook or Fox News. But don't tell Americans!

We don’t understand how to respond to a nuclear catastrophe either. Why has the horrendous plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the tsunami and tremors already been relegated to the “inside pages?” I got a copy of a dispatch from the Commander of one of the Marine helicopter squadrons that has been dispatched to Japan to aid and assist the already massive efforts. He, the son of a friend, commented that the media coverage has focused disproportionally on the remote radiation threat as opposed to the suffering of people affected by the tsunami.

Narcissism makes empathy problematic. The plight of others appears as a thin, one-dimensional image. We do little but take care of our own needs until something looms so large that we cannot but turn attention to it. Then the all too common response is why is this happening to me or why am I facing some risk out there in the everyday world. We should be asking why is this happening to others and what can I do to ease their pain and suffering. We do much in regard in delivering human and material resources following catastrophic events, but is it out of conformance or out of an authentic response? The motivation matters to sustainability. The recovery of our core of care is essential to flourishing.

I find the call for government action highly ironic. I am not sure that the “government” could have done anything to avoid this catastrophe other than to have not allowed these plants to have been built. But that kind of decision rests on having some faceless institution tell “the private sector” what we could or not be done. In this case, given the reality of the geological and demographic structure of Japan, the alternatives would not have supported the economic development as it has. We, in the United States, should be worried, but we should also remind ourselves that these nuclear plants have enabled us to buy oil at a cheaper price that we would have if Japan had been getting its energy from petroleum.

Unnecessary events is another way of pointing to events that are the result of “market failures” writ large. The market brought us nuclear plants located in the wrong places. The market brought us guns that are used in mass murders. The market brought us booze that addled a drunk driver that killed a police officer doing his or her job. The market does a great job in most aspects of our daily life, but it cannot cope with externalities that are inevitable. It takes an institutional intervention, usually by the government.

Our narcissism and lack of empathy and caring for the victims of the small, everyday tragedies we read about or see on some screen blind us to the need for action until a catastrophe strikes, and then its always too late. Sustainability can come to systems where the probability for catastrophe exists, but not where it is ignored out of the lack of care. As I wrote a few days ago, we should be using the stark reality of what is happening in Japan to as a wake up call to our interconnectedness--Our Common Future-- not as another opportunity to see only ourselves in the mythical mirror of the pool that entranced Narcissus, whose name has become attached to this behavioral trait.

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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

Thank you for your comments on this important, yet completely misunderstood, topic. I would like to provide a couple of comments:

1) Humans are fundamentally irrational. And, it is for that reason that the types of things you mention in your blog post get the attention they do. Cognitive psychologists study what is called the "availability heuristic". The basic idea is that we predict the frequency of an event based on what readily comes to mind. The media is mostly to blame for inspiring the availability heuristic to hyperdrive our irrationality in the case of the Japan disaster. Although I am not familiar with any research on the subject, it may be possible that narcissism increases our irrational susceptibility to heuristics.

2) Automobile accidents are the No. 1 killer of Americans between the ages of 3 and 33 (from 2002 NHTSA report). This is a boring fact that gets little attention in the media, other than individual traffic fatality tidbits in local newspapers. Yet, the market economy (powered by advertising) drives a cars-first mentality in the way in which we conduct our lives. In my mind, this is the ultimate in irrationality. If we truly cared about reducing the mortality of our citizens, particularly the younger ones, we would collectively and persistently work to convert our culture from cars-first to people first.