Former Liberal leader Bob Rae once commented that Ottawa had ADHD, a collective attention deficit disorder, in his unique way of describing a political and cultural dynamic that sees issues rise to the consciousness of the public and the political class, hold that attention for a short period and then fade from consciousness.
Right now the world's attention is focused on Syria (fading), Ukraine (high), Nigeria (high), the South Korean Ferry disaster (fading) and the extreme weather (rising and falling as the dangers and disasters occur). In the midst of these stories, reports emerge that China's GDP will top the U.S. by 2020, while its income gap currently exceeds that of the U.S.
In Canada, the resignation of Shawn Atleo as Head of the First Nations Chiefs grabbed some attention, apparently over his support for the federal attempt to 'educate' aboriginal peoples, and the protest against both the lack of collaboration with other chiefs and bands and the issues within the bill itself.
However, the question of public "sustainability," that is the capacity and willingness of the public to sustain interest in and demand action on any single issue, rises and falls like the current volatility of the temperatures at least in the eastern part of North America. There is a kind of 'band-wagon' effect that produces water-cooler conversation, even heightened emotions and inquiry among some whose interest in and connection with the various human dynamics that comprise what we could increasingly call a "world culture," allowing for the many nuanced and unique differences in all quarters. Headlines grab attention, and then, as we go about our business, attending to the lives we are attempting to develop and grow, our attention fades, the headline's ink fades both on the page and in our consciousness, and we somehow collect the general impression in our memory bank of 'how we see the world'.
Occasionally, that 'world view' is impacted by an event close to home, the death of a friend, the divorce from our partner, the estrangement of a child, the loss of a job and income and the dignity deficit that accompanies that trauma, and suddenly we are thrown into a kind of free-fall which, consciously or not, foreshadows our mortality including our vulnerability and our dependence on others. Such impacts can have the effect of pushing us into a cocoon, thinking that we will be 'protecting' ourselves from further trauma, and while healing and recovery require 'time out,' there is a real danger that our withdrawal can become permanent. At least, while in trauma and recovery, we have to pay more attention to our immediate needs and exigencies, and much less attention to the world's 'needs' and events.
However, and there are increasing signs that the next generation may be shedding some of their ancestors' collective detachment in their enhanced participation in philanthropics and their increasing detachment from the political engagement that so captured the interest of those parents and grandparents. Whether that development is "sustainable" will take a generation at least to bear fruit and to recruit even more participants in a world whose political leaders shy away from action, preferring the 'show' of action to the much more visible and empirically verifiable school buildings, or trucks of medical supplies and food, or programs of inoculation that address immediate needs among the distressed around the world.
Ruanda, and the massacre of hundreds of thousands in a battle of tribes, failed even to arose the United Nations members to support General Allaire's calls for assistance in the middle of the crisis, although no one in the world could claim ignorance of the tragedy. Syria, likewise, and the details of the daily bombs, refugees and chemical weapons attacks, leading to the accounting data of some 150,000 dead, is another case in point, in which the world knows there is a disaster unfolding, while also not knowing if or how to intervene. Ukraine, too, where violence in the eastern cities continues to grow, and statements of increased sanctions do little to restrain the Russian separatists, and a few soldiers and planes are sent to the area to send a symbolic signal of 'deterrence' to Putin, leaving the world in a state of suspended animation and powerlessness, to either continue to pay attention or to know how to help, on an individual or even a collective basis.
And there is Nigeria, where over 300 young women have been abducted by terrorists, and allegedly sold as slave-wives to members of the terrorist group Boko Haram. And yet, words from inside Nigeria, quoted in the Guardian, worry that this will be another 'spike' of world attention, receding quickly into a collective "glaze" of the eyes, ears, and hearts of the rest of the world to the depth and the dangers and the desperation of the whole situation in that country and beyond, in which people are living in fear for their lives and for the future of their country.
"My fear is that this will become another Kony 2012 where the context and the nuance gets lost," (Nigerian journalist) Tolu Ogunlesi told me, referring to the viral social media campaign centered on Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. "Hopefully the girls are all going to be safe and fine. But even if they get back home, it's still far from the end." (By Jill Filipovic, The kidnapped Nigerian girls show that religious conservatives hate education, The Guardian, May 2, 2014)
While the headlines grab our attention, it is our failure to pay attention to the more detailed and more nuanced and less dramatic and more desperate realities underneath those headlines that need our increased attention, engagement and participation. The drama of countries sliding into "failure" that includes the erosion of the political system, the security apparatus, the food supply chain, the education system, and the ripe and ready "take-over" by agents of terror and hate, promising instant gratification to those desperate for any "attention" is a drama and a developing story to which the world has not collectively paid attention, to the degree that the indicators would suggest is needed.
We are a crisis-oriented, a crisis-management, and a headline-grabbing-and-grabbed culture that responds to the thrill of immediate intervention, while failing to prevent, to build those structures and those systems and those cultural "gardens" from which healthy political and cultural nourishment can and will only grow.
We are, in effect, paving over too many acres not only of tillable land, but of fertile minds and hearts, with insouciance, hopeless and neglect, in our plugging our fingers into the holes in the dykes, in the midst of a tsunami of violence, scarcity, neglect and knowing detachment. Of course, there are too many crises for us to manage, if we separate them by region, by political ideology, by climate and by disease. Yet, there is growing evidence that the world's inhabitants desperately need each other, and the resources available everywhere to engage and counteract the forces that are determined to take advantage of our "detachment," our collective attention deficit disorder and our apathy.
Our towns and cities, even in countries like Canada and the United States pay less and less attention to the plight of their most vulnerable; our states and provinces are increasingly restricted in their support for systems and solutions that we all know would raise 'all boats,' and our national governments are narrowing their focus in dispensing 'international aid' to meagre initiatives that will leave the world generally and collectively exposed to increasing threats from all of the now visible and predictable forces, both human and natural, that are seizing control of our resources, our livelihoods and our interdependent futures.
The "have's" pay less and less attention to the 'have-not's' everywhere, as if to ignore them will make them disappear. The climate deniers and avoiders resist collective action to combat the impact of global warming and climate change. The inequalities of a global economy, while enhancing the position of the wealthiest people and countries, generates an even bigger gap of both consciousness and care for those at the bottom. We are, in effect, sowing the seeds of our own demise, and we can see the evidence of that unconscious collaboration and default encircling the air we breath, the water we drink, the deployment of our symbolic 'forces' as we 'band-aid' our tumors with public relations manuals to enhance our denial and our political narcissism.
The world's climate, economy, political preparedness and spine, its education systems and its supporting infrastructure for sustainability, not only of the environment itself, but of the global political culture that would provide support for all initiatives of sustainability, are all in need of serious remedial intervention dedicated to upgrading all of our response systems to the new biological threats but also to the new political, and terror cells that, too, are resistant to all of the political 'antibiotics' that we have developed over the centuries.
We are, like millions of doctors, a race of people who do not know the diseases we face, although there are clear signs everywhere, who do not know the measures to take to prevent and to resist those diseases, and who seem unconscious to our own future story line, preferring to enjoy the current status quo, and turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a drugged intellect to the dangers we face, especially the danger of denying our inter-dependence and our inter-connectedness. And our negligence and insouciance and attention deficit will one day make us wake up to our own potentially monumental crisis...but, after all we specialize in crisis management, so we will pull another rabbit out of our hats then too, right?