Drowning in New Orleans
Natural disasters often highlight our arrogance where environmental issues are concerned. We’ve been remarkably successful at controlling the environment to benefit our populations. So much so that we’ve got a little blase about respecting nature as a resource and as a threat. We’re failing to plan and heed warnings.I’ve got a feeling that believers in Gaia (the spirit of the earth as a force in its own right) are tempted to ironically link this unusually frequent and destructive hurricane season to our refusal to even acknowledge the harm our excessive contribution of greenhouse gases is causing to the Earth. In military terms she’s neutralizing the primary threat.Unfortunately for these believers, I doubt there are any more hurricanes now than ever before, although they may get a little more powerful if the sea temperature increases as warm seas power them.We see more damage mainly because we own more stuff and live in marginal areas due to poor planning and government regulation that doesn’t want to see beyond next years campaign contributions. New Orleans is a city built below or at sea level next to the ocean. Historically the wetlands, islands and natural levees of silt deposited in the Mississippi delta acted as a sponge and barrier to storm surges. We’ve drained, developed and blocked the silt from replenishing these wetlands and barrier islands, choosing to rely only on manmade levees and concrete barriers to protect the city from flooding. For budget reasons these are designed only to withstand a class III hurricane.Should be no surprise then that a class IV/V storm floods the place. I guess the allure of taking the money and running combined with our instinctive “it’ll never happen to me” attitude beats out long-term reality. That’s where government steps in to make the market behave responsibly. To say “no, you can’t build there.” Now we’re all going to have to pay for the recovery, which I mind a lot less than seeing all those images of human suffering. It’s always the poor who suffer the most. They have the fewest choices and resources to cope and rebuild.I’m impressed that the mayor actually ordered an evacuation, but is it seen as too much government to actually have a plan to provide help to those without health, cars, money for gas, money for hotels, places to go so more would feel able to leave? It’s tempting to say only the stupid stayed, but some may have not had much choice in reality.What is our Department of Homeland Security, FEMA or whoever has responsibility for war gaming disaster scenarios doing? Sooner or later, everyone knew this would happen, so why the apparent lack of planning on all fronts from evacuation, search and rescue to security? I’m betting the Dutch have full-on back-up plans for their dikes and emergency drills to evacuate whole areas.While the flotillas of boats, volunteers and emergency responders going above and beyond are heartening, the scenes of looting and disorder are unsettling. Is our society really only a few meals and a tank of gas away from collapse? Don’t know why, but in the recent floods in Switzerland and Austria, their communities held strong, helping each other and not disintegrating into a “I’m gonna get me mine” free-for-all. It may just be the madness of the mob or we’re creating a society where certain elements feel no loyalty, and their only glue is not one of community but fear of the law.Planning ahead and making sacrifices for the future is perhaps the best lesson to learn from any natural disaster. It’s easy to shake our heads at building a city below sea level, but Colorado’s the home to sprawling suburbs immersed in aging forests that historically burn down every hundred years or so. Fire experts here are ignored as much as flood experts were in New Orleans. With much of Forest Service energy focused on helping profitable logging in remote areas, we’re neglecting to clean up the areas around where we live. This will cost money and no one wants to pay in advance. Building regulations to protect us from the inevitable fires aren’t exactly pushed for or embraced by developers, either. Globally, it would be nice if we looked ahead and started to address the problem of climate change instead of dumping the consequences on the next generation. We’re all choosing to take the money and run here. Interestingly, more of the rants from climate-change skeptics have changed from “it’s not happening” to the “it’s got nothing to do with us” as the evidence for warming becomes less deniable. No “we were wrong, but … .” Instead it’s straight into the “it’s all a communist conspiracy to stop me driving a big ass SUV.” Conspiracy theories are so egotistical. They’re all about “me, me, and me”. The International Panel on Climate Change (i.e., the consensus of the vast majority of the world’s scientists studying climate) doesn’t care what car you drive. They’ve said for 20 years now and with models of ever increasing accuracy that the climate is getting warmer and we’re contributing significantly to it, that’s all. How much we’re contributing is open to debate, but as the climate is seen as an unstable equilibrium with lots of feedback loops that amplify small changes, it’s likely human activity is pushing it toward irreversible – on a human time scale – change.Like New Orleans, it will be the poor of the world who suffer the most, those countries and areas without the resources or land to help the displacement of starving populations. Hopefully, they won’t react as antisocially to the global community as the looters in New Orleans.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. This column, as in the case of all personal columns, does not necessarily reflect the views of the Vail Daily.Vail, Colorado
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