Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The World May Get Bigger

Africa and Asia used to be very far from America. Then they invented airplanes, and then came the era of mass international travel. Then jet fuel got expensive. I just read an article in Business Week that says jet fuel is now four times more expensive than it was in 2000, when the Supreme Court appointed George Bush to be president. It says they are working on biofuels that will be cheaper than current jet fuels and won't freeze at high altitudes. But demand for fuels of all sorts is expected to continue to grow. Of course, Americans who would fly to faraway places must be able to afford the price of a ticket. As lower and even middle classes in the U.S. continue to be squeezed by readjustment to life in a more interconnected and competitive world, there is presently little prospect that international flights will be more affordable in the foreseeable future than they have been in the past. Young people in recent years have been able to speak of visiting other continents as blithely as previous generations spoke of visiting other parts of the United States. If the cost of such trips increases and the number of people who can afford them decreases simultaneously, there could be a dramatic change in how familiar those other continents seem to the next generation. To the extent that Americans have less direct personal exposure to other countries through travel, it may seem increasingly important, from an educational perspective, to bring larger numbers of foreigners to visit or live here. That may be politically unpalatable, however; hard times at present appear to stimulate xenophobic attitudes. Foreigners may also be less excited about moving to the U.S., as compared to other countries, if attitudes here are not welcoming, if the U.S. appears less wealthy, or if universities in other countries become increasingly competitive with the universities that presently attract students and faculty from abroad. It will doubtless continue to be possible to broadcast news from other nations, but the general public demand for such news may diminish if other lands come to seem increasingly remote and unrelated to one's life. Americans who do not visit or live in other countries, who encounter fewer people from other countries visiting or living here, and who come to feel more distant from other countries, would likely act the part. It is conceivable, that is, that consciousness of diversity would resemble a tide that ebbs and flows, rather than an inexorably growing phenomenon. People in future generations could actually know or care less about foreign lands than people do today. In the worst case, voters in the U.S. may already be embarked upon a course of collective ignorance of other lands, such that the Iraq invasion represents the first or, perhaps, the latest -- but not the worst or last -- large move against the grain of world opinion; and the world may increasingly contain people who can and will punish us for such missteps.