The world is more populated and interconnected than ever before. As with the web of ecosystems that environmentalists have sworn to protect, what happens in one corner of the globe can have effects far away. The communications boom has enabled our awareness of emerging issues almost instantaneously. But what do we do with this information? Take the tragic stories that often have an environmental underpinning: a flood, a fire, a famine. If any of these things happened in our community we would care. There has been debate about whether humans are a naturally empathetic species, but we generally have a fondness for those who are most like us and those with whom we share a community. That humanity tends to dissipate as the scope is expanded; we simply can't spend our emotional capital worrying equally about every community and country around the world. But have we reached a point where our own bandwidth has been so saturated by tragedies that our sense of compassion and proclivity to help has been numbed? What is the appropriate way to feel in response to a 24-hour news cycle that constantly reminds us of the difficult world in which we live?
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The latest overseas example comes from the Philippines, a country with one of the world's longest coastlines and that is vulnerable to extreme weather. Last week, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest cyclone in recorded history to make landfall, wreaked complete havoc. This is not the first time that the Philippines has been traumatized by such events. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), more than 12-million Filipinos were displaced by disasters between 2008 and 2012. In a country seeking to improve the lives of more than 95-million people, these repeated setbacks make it extremely difficult to move forward. The IDMC report states that the Philippines faces the same level of tropical cyclone exposure as Japan yet would suffer 17 times the fatalities due to poor infrastructure and settlement in at-risk areas. The Philippines isn't the only country struggling to cope with these impacts; others can point to just as poignant examples of loss and suffering.
It is upsetting to review these figures and to watch the coverage. In response, some will be driven to volunteer, contribute aid, write letters to their government and take to social media to voice their condolences. Others will feel a profound sense of sadness and tacitly acknowledge the awfulness of the situation while feeling helpless. What concerns me is the distinction between these types and those who have been so conditioned to accept these tragedies as normal or inevitable that they don't register. What does it say about our ability to address pressing human development and environmental objectives when many people have become ambivalent about events that claim thousands of lives?
Am I suggesting that we all take on more stress and worry in our already hectic lives by reflecting deeply on every sad story? No, that would be far from healthy. But if the solutions to our greatest challenges require a greater sense of communality, then it can't hurt for us to reflect on how we perceive the plight of others and channel some of this despair into constructive action.
The UN climate change talks opened with an impassioned speech from the Philippines' chief negotiator, Yeb Sano, urging world leaders to muster the political will to prevent what had just happened to his homeland from happening to others. The speech is impossible to watch without feeling immensely for his loss. Historically, similar pleas have resulted in little action at this conference, but if delegates truly feel Sano's words, perhaps they will take a major step forward this week and show the Philippines and the world that the message has finally been heard.