Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina
I once read a description of nature by a savvy New Yorker as “that thing I walk through from the front door to the car,” Last week that “thing” came roaring through the front door and into the romanticized underbelly of America.
We are not used to nature as a serious part of our reality. Nature can be a welcome and aesthetic background, something that we enjoy in our leisure time or use to enhance our property values. By and large though, nature is something distinctly removed from our lives and our selves. It is not really a part of our real world. Nature, even for most environmentalists, is something we do things to, not something that does things to us.
Our lives are lived in a manufactured reality. Ours is a reality of jobs, economy, banks, ideologies and politics. Our mythic structure is founded in the illusions of movies, television and computer games. We live in homes and cities that are isolated from nature and the natural environment, in a controlled and structured world where our needs and comforts are readily provided for. Water comes from the faucet and milk from the grocery store. If our holiday is ruined by rain, it’s the TV weatherman’s fault.
All that we consider so real is a manufactured construct. That is what human culture is. That is what cultures are all over the world and have been for thousands of years. Manufactured reality. And we couldn’t live without it. This culture, this manufactured reality, is what defines us and seemingly separates us from the rest of nature.
The trouble comes when we become too separated from the natural world, when we start to believe that our manufactured reality has a greater influence and strength than the real reality. We saw some of that over the past week when government agencies, officials and politicians responded to the hurricane disaster by worrying first about economic impacts, both to the people of the Mississippi Delta region and nationally. For thousands of people food, safety and clean water were far more important than whether the rent was going to be late, the price of gas or if they still had a job. Loss of a job won’t kill you in five days, but dehydration will.
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I believe Mr. Bush and the others when they say that no one anticipated this level of devastation. Even with much forewarning, years of preparation, planning and war game practice, everyone was caught by surprise. Those who did evacuate before the storm most likely expected to be back in a few days and those who chose to ride it out probably had plans for Labor Day backyard cookouts.
Even with expectations by experts for massive devastation, few except those right along the coast seemed to have understood what was heading towards them. The best planning and preparation doesn’t do much good if deep down you really don’t comprehend the true nature of that other reality. Obviously our American culture no longer does.
Our culture began divorcing itself from the reality of nature and the environment a few thousand years ago, with the rise of cities and empires. Physical separation, technology and the great advancements of civilization have steadily driven a wedge between nature and human society. Religion has also played a role.
Separating the Divine from nature and the world around us, placing the seat of spiritual authority literally out of this world and then debasing nature as a mere mechanical object for exploitation further exacerbated the situation.
The past few decades have seen a marked increase in the separation between cultural reality and the real reality. The physical and mental isolation has become nearly complete. We no longer even have to leave our homes to “experience” Africa and the wilderness. We give our children safe and sanitized manufactured experiences of nature that are then mistakenly learned as the real thing.
We watch from a place far removed in space, time and reality as tornadoes and tsunamis rip other lives apart. Scenes of devastation are projected into our comfortable living space, with commentary from so-called experts and interrupted by commercials. The big tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed nearly half a million people and devastated the lives of countless millions more. It was also gone from most of our lives fairly soon. It certainly didn’t interrupt most of our regularly scheduled programs.
Hurricane Katrina has hit much closer to home, indeed it hit right at home. It is an experience of real nature that will be with us for quite a while. At least I hope so.
There is a small band of so-called primitive people who live with the sea along Thailand’s western islands. Their culture and the realty of the world around them are still very much intertwined. Before the tsunami hit they knew intuitively what was coming and what to do. Their islands felt the full force of the devastating waves yet none were killed while not far away many thousands died.
We can learn from all this. We can begin to reconnect our cultural reality with the real world. Or we can go back to life as usual, remembering Hurricane Katrina through an episode of “Storm Stories.” VT
Ken Neubecker writes about water and the environment for The Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.