was an environmental studies major in college. To fill my
requirements in the largely cross-listed interdisciplinary
major, I found myself one semester in an environmental geology
class. It was supposed to be a gut course, and as a science
major I didnít expect much of it. It turned out to be fascinating.
It was also probably better titled Natural Disasters and How
Humans Make Them Worse.
There I heard, not for the last time, about the highly dangerous
mess that the Army Corps of Engineers had made of the Mississippi
River and the Louisiana coast by forcing that mighty river
into ever straighter, deeper, and faster channels to facilitate
shipping. (In case you havenít heard, among other things,
this means the river drops less silt at the delta, decimating
the protective wetlands and bringing the sea ever closer to
New Orleans.) Allowing development on the remaining wetlands
And I know in the course of my studies I heard or read someone
say ďSomeday New Orleans is going to be under water.Ē And
I know Iíve heard or read or said it at least once or twice
since then. None of us who said it wanted to be right. I imagine
few were able to really believe we would be.
As the horror was unfolding in New Orleans, this creepy fact
was sitting uneasily in the back of my head. I am always surrounded
by dire predictions that thoughtful people have frustratedly
made after looking at an analysis of the bad, shortsighted
policies of our governments and corporations.
Not random, unavoidable things like ďWell, maybe an asteroid
will hit the Earth,Ē but things that can reasonably be predicted
by looking at the facts on the groundólike, say, global warming,
disappearing coastal wetlands, lack of investment in levee
repair and an absence of evacuation plans and preparedness
that even impoverished nations like Cuba and Mexico manage
to have. Things that experts in the relevant fields are shouting
themselves hoarse trying to make people worried about: a world
wide pandemic of Asian bird flu. Reinstatement of the draft.
Use of nuclear weapons by someone. A plant disease that wipes
out our no-longer genetically diverse food stock. Rising ocean
levels submerging a few more cities. China deciding itís time
to wield its economic power to disrupt the U.S. economy. Add
your own favorite.
It is, or was, fairly easy to say these things, and then look
around at the normal world around me and fail to really grasp
that they could happen now. Or soon. Even 9/11, which had
been predicted in a loose way, had not been predicted anywhere
near as specifically as the Hurricane Katrina floods, and
there wasnít quite the clarity of what could have been done
to stop it (the results of Katrina cannot be blamed on any
outsiders). So while traumatic, 9/11 didnít push the same
The other thing Katrina threw into stark relief is how utterly
awful some of these things that from a distance might seem
like needed correctives actually are, especially for the already
Iím sure youíve said or heard such things: Maybe if such-and-such
a disaster happens, itíll be just what we need to wake us
up. (Already there is the hope that Bushís pathetic response
to this tragedy has exposed his administration for what it
is to millions of voters whom Kerry couldnít convince.) Maybe
the best thing that could happen would be for the U.S. economy
to just nosedive so weíre kicked out of the driverís seat
of world affairs. Maybe . . .
These things are said not exactly as wishes, but they sometimes
have a sordid appeal because they allow us to step back from
the intimidating prospect of trying to figure out how to force
urgent yet incredible large-scale change ourselves. It can
be nice to think that maybe itíll just be out of our hands.
It can be easy to forget that even if the long-term structural
shifts happen, in the short term the pain and suffering is
visited multiple times worse on the already sufferingóthe
poor, disabled, ill, the residents of the neighborhoods that
have been stuck in the low-lying filled-in wetland, the folks
who donít have the cash reserves to ride out inflation and
invest in Euros, or the relative. Itís ugly. Superdome-last-week
ugly. People-still-starving-on-bridges ugly.
Wishing idly for such a means to an end is no better than
the fundamentalists who crow about Godís vengeance on a wicked
city. Perhaps it is worse, without the accompanying belief
that the deserving poor who get screwed by the disaster will
find their reward in heaven.
This is not, of course, a particularly fruitful line of thought,
just one Iím wading through as I try not only to get my brain
around this disaster, but to recalibrate my world view to
the near-certainty that the frequency of stuff like this is
going to increase over my lifetime. Hardly a trial compared
to being anywhere near Katrinaís path (did I even need to
say that?), but an exercise that seems kind of important nonetheless.
Iím not going all fatalistic on youóthis is not the shock
of facing something completely unavoidable. Itís the shock
of being reminded that the seriousness of our governmentís
actions (or lack thereof), and of our messing with the environment,
has not been exaggerated. There is a tremendous amount of
proper righteous anger to be expended about what happened
in Mississippi and Louisiana. Letís see if we can do it in
a way that prevents or at least mitigates the next catastrophe,
rather than relying on it to be a wake-up call.