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Emotions and politics

By Eric Claus - posted Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The rich world’s attitude towards refugees and endangered species is frighteningly similar. As with so many decisions we make, the policies we’ve chosen are based on emotions rather than critical thinking. In both cases, we could do more and spend less if we used our heads a little more and our hearts a little less.

Emotionally we are always trying to feel good. We don’t have to think hard about it. We just feel. The best way to feel good is to be inconvenienced as little as possible, but to still feel like we are doing good. We feel like we are doing the right thing for the world’s poor, by saying we are really concerned about refugees. We say that we should let them have permanent residence in Australia, but just a few, not too many, because then we might become inconvenienced.

We feel the same way about the world’s plants and animals. We protect a few by enacting laws to protect the endangered and threatened species, but the rest can just fend for themselves.


Caring for just a few mammals (human or otherwise) doesn’t cost much money or effort and it makes us feel like we are really doing something for the less fortunate in the world. It is easier to care for a few hundred refugees than all the one billion devastatingly poor people in the world and it is easier to care for a few hundred endangered species than all of the 10 million species in the natural world.

Another indicator of our emotional thinking is that we dwell on the short term and forget the long term every time an election comes around. The politicians know this and are experts at exploiting it. John Della Bosca thinks New South Wales voters will forget that he cheated on his wife and lied about his night at Iguanas. Voters won’t remember. The election is more than a year away. A few weeks before the election all the attention is on the latest thing that has been said, the most recent GDP, interest rate or unemployment figures. Six months after the election the media will turn to long term issues like the lack of planning on infrastructure and the “shameful” state of our schools and hospitals.

Both major political parties and the media have focused intensely on the 78 middle-class Sri Lankans on a boat. There has hardly been a mention of the millions of really poor people in Sri Lanka or the billion in the rest of the world. That is because we know that making a start at helping the truly needy in their home countries, would be a much more difficult job, than giving 78 people permanent residence. It is also a job that, to be done properly, would have to be carried out over the long term. Long term projects don’t suit our political system, because there are sacrifices within the current election cycle, but no positive results within the current election cycle. In fact, there is a risk of votes being lost because there would be criticism that we are spending Australian taxpayers’ money outside Australia.

Building one school, buying some books and other teaching tools and staffing it with one teacher for five years would cost far less than will be spent on these 78 Sri Lankans and would benefit thousands of Sri Lankans. Building one health clinic, providing medical supplies and equipment and staffing it with one nurse for five years would cost far less than will be spent on these 78 Sri Lankans and would benefit thousands of Sri Lankans.

If we really wanted to help the world’s desperately poor and get bang for our buck, we would spend a one thousandth of a per cent of GDP ($10 million/year) on building and staffing schools and hospitals in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Africa and anywhere else there are desperately poor people. That is far less than it costs to run the Christmas Island “processing” centre for a year.

Another equally important reason that our emotions make these decisions is that we can feel for the 78 Sri Lankans on the boat because we see them on TV. The billion people living on a dollar a day don’t fit on a TV screen unless we pan back from the space shuttle. As the noted realist Joseph Stalin said “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Similarly, when a whale beaches itself in Australia, hundreds of people race to the beach to try to save its life, because we see it on TV and we feel its pain. When the TV says that 70 per cent of the world’s fisheries are overfished we think “Huh?” and change the channel. It is a lot easier to feel sympathy for one lonely whale than for billions of fish and all the ecosystems they support.


Does anybody think there are going to be the same number of koalas, kangaroos, wombats, kookaburras, emus and every other species of flora and fauna in Australia with 35 (or 45 or 55) million people, as with 22 million? Of course not, but that doesn’t really matter to us, because we can’t feel it emotionally. If we start to feel bad we can just remember that we are trying to save the ones that might become extinct.

Nobody ever said “I don’t understand why everybody gets so concerned about the Holocaust. It’s not like the Jews were going to become extinct”. But that is exactly our attitude towards the entire natural world with perhaps the exception of endangered species.

If we really cared about all the species, we would limit our immigration, stabilise the population, allow natural runoff to flow in our rivers and wetlands and set aside more land for protected National Parks. Unfortunately, again, the impacts of doing all those things would be long term. Nobody even notices when wombats and koalas die out or fail to reproduce because their burrows have been bulldozed and their trees have been knocked down. No politician stands in front of a healthy wombat’s burrow and says “See, I saved his life”. There are no votes in it. In fact if some politician did do that, the developer whose project was stopped would now be funding the campaign of that politician’s opponent.

When our political systems were being developed more than 200 years ago, three- and four-year election cycles were adopted because it made the elected officials regularly responsive to the will of the people. We still need three- and four-year cycles, but we also need more long term solutions. That puts the responsibility back on the voters to think long term and to reward the politicians who act with the long term in mind. If we are going to start voting for the long term, we need to think a little more with our heads and a little less with our hearts.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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