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Manhood and the Fate of the Earth

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[This article was first published in the Christian Science Monitor on October3, 1991. Fifteen years ago-- but sadly it has lost little of its relevance. Even the name of the president --this was written during the presidency of Bush the first --is the same. And so is the neglect of the environmental challenge-- except that it is now still worse.]

Manhood and the Fate of the Earth
Andrew Bard Schmookler

The Puzzle

The United States has once again distinguished itself among industrial democracies with its reluctance to take concrete action to counter the threat of global warming. While the Europeans and the Japanese are ready to commit to reductions in the consumption of fossil fuels --while some, indeed, have already moved unilaterally to do so-- the Americans are still hanging back.

We need, the Bush administration maintains, to avoid making rash judgments. Until we know more about the precise nature and extent of the threat from climatic change, why make economic sacrifices?

How different is this response from the way some of these same people responded to the alleged danger a decade ago from the threat of the supposed military ascendance of the Soviet Union. Fearing that the Soviets might be emboldened by their capacity to hit our land-based missiles, these American cold warriors expended many billions of dollars to close what they saw as a window of vulnerability.

Here's the puzzle: why are the same people who were prepared almost to bankrupt the country to protect against an external enemy so reluctant to sacrifice anything to forestall possible environmental disaster?

Uncertainty is not peculiar to the problem of global warming. Were the scenarios of Soviet attack plausible, given that the Soviets knew that even if they could knock out the land-based missiles, the U.S. could still have struck back with thousands of nuclear warheads on submarines and on bombers?

Yet we spent billions on the basis of our fears of what might be.

Deference to science cannot be the answer. In the case of global warming, there is substantial consensus among scientists on crucial points: that there is a problem; that continuing what we are now doing to the atmosphere could inflict catastrophe on living systems, including the food we depend on; that we know enough now that it is only prudent to take immediate steps to mend our ways.

Yet, despite almost unanimous scientific opinion that Reagan's Star Wars concept was fundamentally flawed, the same administration that preferred "study" to action in response to the problem of acid rain launched an exorbitant program to make us invulnerable to enemy missiles falling out of the sky.

Why is it that when facing the "Soviet threat," our conservative leaders always insisted that we prepare for the "worse-case scenario," but when it comes to how we care for this living earth, these same men always assume the best and sneer at those who fear the worst?

A Proposed Solution

A solution to this puzzle has also occurred to me: both responses grow out of deeply ingrained ideas about manhood in America. There are some concerns that it is thought manly to attend to, while others are sissies' stuff.

So, in one case it is damn the uncertainty and expense, full speed ahead, while in the other it is wait and see.

Our image of manhood is inseparable from the role of the warrior. Preparing to fight our enemies is always manly. We regard our armor as a sign of strength, not of weakness. There is no shame if we invest too heavily in armor. Nobody thinks it unmanly if a president spends unnecessary billions for defenses against an exaggerated threat, or if a football coach prepares for a weak opponent as if they were strong.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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