Thursday, July 21, 2011

So connected yet so disconnected

Two very different news stories caught my eye yesterday. The first story was about Candy Spelling's Los Angeles mansion, which sold for a mind-blowing $85 million.

The second story was about the food crisis in Somalia, which is now a full-blown famine.

The two stories seem unrelated. But they're not. They are both fundamentally about greed and stupidity.

A society that not only allows but glorifies the use of 4.7 acres of land to build a 56,500-square-foot house that contains 123 rooms, 27 bathrooms, and five kitchens for one family is a symbol of all that is wrong with the world.

Candy Spelling's mansion is an extreme example of wasteful excess but it drives home the point that our economic system is built on a foundation of limitless consumption.

We've created this myth that growth is progress and that progress is accumulation. So we accumulate obscene amounts of wealth and build obscenely big houses and call it "progress" but what we're really doing is digging our own graves (and taking everyone else with us) by consuming resources faster than they can regenerate and pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the climate is changing.

And this is where Somalia comes in. The famine is being blamed on the combination of a severe drought and the ongoing conflict. A New York Times article reports that many scientists point to climate change as the cause of the current drought. And if we are changing the climate with our growth and our technology and our addiction to cheap oil, then we are partly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Somalis.

Of course, there is also the greed and stupidity of the Islamic militants who control the famine zone in Somalia. The militants forced Western aid groups out of Somalia last year when the drought was looming and now they are asking the aid groups to return. But few want to return due to the danger of dealing with the militants. Making the whole emergency relief effort even more complicated is that American government rules prohibit material support to the militants. The scale of the disaster and all of its complexities boggles the mind.

I don't know what's worse: the insanity of America's excess or the insanity of Al Shabab's extremism? An economic system that is directly responsible for climate change or a bunch of militants who chop off hands, stone people to death and ban TV, music and bras in the hope of turning Somalia into a seventh-century-style Islamic state?

Either way, multi-million-dollar mansions in America and Islamic militants in Somalia are connected. It's not difficult to imagine some Somali kid growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Los Angeles seeing these McMansions and the obscene wealth and the big cars and feeling excluded and angry. And it's not hard to imagine some Islamic extremist group exploiting that teenager's frustration by giving him a sense of community and a feeling of brotherhood while radicalizing the young man's anger into something more sinister.

And so when I read those two very different stories yesterday -- the sale of Candy Spelling's mansion and the food crisis in Somalia -- it wasn't their differences that struck me, it was their connections.

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