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We’ll See Irene Again

by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 31, 2011


I used to quip that here in the Northeast, our natural disaster danger was Lyme disease. I guess that line gets retired as of this year.

Especially since our region and our neighboring regions are focused on immediate disaster relief for flood victims, it may take a while for us to put this latest disaster into context, but it would behoove us to not take too long about it.

It’s hard to see something unprecedented as part of a trend (no matter how many people host “first annual” events). And this was unprecedented, in the sense that a hurricane with that much water in the air, causing that much flooding, over that much area, here in the Northeast United States, was unprecedented.

But it wasn’t an isolated extreme event. It was the 10th billion-dollar natural disaster for our country alone this year, breaking 2008’s record of nine. We are hitting records for heat, drought, tornados, and floods all over the country. And that’s just here. Remember the floods in Pakistan?

And yet, as author and activist Bill McKibben pointed out on Democracy Now, practically none of the non-stop coverage mentioned the human-caused climate changes that made Irene so dangerous, particularly when it came to quantity of rain and flooding. Apparently talking about climate change unless you’re doing a piece on the “debate” over it is still verboten. That’s a childish, cowardly state of affairs with far more dangerous consequences than entertaining creationism in the classroom. And it doesn’t even carry a veneer of religious pluralism for an excuse. It merely defers to fossil-fuel energy companies and their lackeys. Oh, and everyone who believes we can grow our “economy” and consumption forever with no consequences. Right. That.

But here we are, with warmer air holding more moisture—sucking too much of it from dry places and dumping too much of it in moist places. And when that comes in the form of a worse-than-usual blizzard, we still hear, “So much for global warming!”

I’m curious to see Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (that’s not a typo). From his interviews, it seems like it’s in a similar spirit to Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, whose author, Sandra Steingraber, talks in frustration about trying to turn conversations about pollution and toxic compounds away from “What products shouldn’t I buy?” to “How do we regulate corporate polluters?” (On talk-show TV it’s apparently not allowed.) She likens our impulse to personalize responses to daunting challenges to the fallout shelter craze during the Cold War—not only actually ineffective as protection, but unhelpful to the larger goal of creating urgency behind and generating momentum for moves to disarm and de-escalate.

That is, I admit, kind of how I have felt about talk of disaster preparedness for a while. It was too reminiscent of militia-survivalists readying to keep out the barbarians. Hearing people I respect talk about their preparations for Irene reminded me that it’s not that simple. Obsessing about what to buy or not buy to avoid contamination primarily diverts your attention and resources from fighting the bigger problem of lack of regulation or caution about toxic substances, and makes you feel less threatened by that problem. On the other hand, being basically prepared for a disaster to the extent one can be (food, water, non-plugged-into-the-grid sources of light, etc.) is a step toward supporting a resilient community as a whole—you have less need to call on disaster relief for yourself and more availability to help others.

McKibben appears to be explicitly getting into these sorts of lines too, which is what intrigues me. His sense of urgency about not continuing to pour carbon into the air is unmatched. While Irene was flooding his home state, he was getting arrested protesting the pipeline to bring oil from Alberta’s tar sands down to the Gulf Coast (TarSandsAction.org)—and from there, of course, the problem being, into the air. If all of this worldwide extreme weather—and the crises in hunger, poverty, and war that will follow its effects on crops, water, and livelihoods—is coming from an average rise of 1 degree, he argues, there is little more important than acting to stop what is otherwise likely to be a 4 to 5 degree rise by century’s end.

On the other hand, here we are, and we do have to adapt. We have to adapt our economies, our sense of scale, our sense of “enough.” And we have to adapt what we are prepared for, on this new unfamiliar planet we’ve created.