Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The wisdom of dialogue.

I'm taking an environmental sociology course this semester, and it seems that it will be quite interesting. I'm set to learn a lot from the instructor and the subject matter as well as from my classmates, who so far seem to be an incredibly well-informed, well-traveled, and reasonable bunch of folks.

Today's class was something of a free-for-all, and discussion was wide-ranging, but there was one thing in particular that I found quite thought-provoking. One of my classmates mentioned that environmental problems (in America) aren't as dramatically apparent today as they once were-- we don't have a burning river like Cuyahoga in 1969 to point to as a horrifying empirical demonstration of the direct harm that we can do when we make poor choices regarding business practices, etc.-- and that perhaps this lack of drama leads to disinterest in environmental responsibility. But it strikes me that right now, at this very moment, we have the equivalent of a burning river (or several burning rivers, or worse) down South in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Despite the statements already issued by right wing religious nutjobs regarding the "ultimate message" behind the hurricane (it was an Act of a vengeful God intended to call our attention to the sinfulness of our ways), it would seem that this particular hurricane is NOT an isolated event, but rather is part of a long-term pattern of change with regard to our climate. In other words, the frequency and increased severity of hurricanes over the past decade may be not only correlative with a warming planet, but there may be a causal relation as well. If this is so, then we are, in a very broad sense, partially responsible for the extent of the destruction and the suffering currently being felt in the Deep South. We have (in a sense) brought this disaster upon ourselves and our neighbors through decades (centuries, even) of poor choices with regard to our environment. And inevitably, and alarmingly, there is more to come.

It is, of course, disturbing (to say the least) that this particular conversation is starting so late in the game and only AFTER the major disaster and devastation has already occurred. Why do we loathe preventive medicine so? But don't worry, the conversation will hardly get started before it's forgotten.

There will be enough naysayers to table this line of thought quite quickly-- we've experienced Category 5 hurricanes before, this isn't unprecedented, remember Camille, etc. Eyes will be effectively drawn away from the observed trends in climate change across time, and we'll focus on this as an isolated event, even though it's not. And then we'll focus on the triumph of the human spirit in the face of disaster. The responsibility for climate change conversation is too abstract to hold our interest for long-- if we can't find a scapegoat for our troubles, or if we have to diffuse responsibility across peoples and generations, or if the only solution is to radically examine and quite possibly alter our current lifestyles, forget about it.

OK then, what about the levee system? Before Katrina struck, I remember reading something about the irony of the levee and drainage system of New Orleans-- sure, it protects the city from regular flooding of rivers, including the Mississippi, but it also interferes with the natural process of sedimentation that feeds the system of bayous and swamps that help coastal and floodplain areas recover from severe flooding. Without the levees, there is flooding; with the levees, there is less frequent flooding, but the land is less able to recover from severe flooding, as is the case currently. Further, after someone figured out how to drain the swampy areas of NOLA into the canals and levees, the city expanded into lower areas that are even more vulnerable to and unable to recover quickly from severe flooding. It's no surprise that the areas of the city that are experiencing less flooding (French Quarter, etc) are the older areas of New Orleans, built before the modern levee/canal/drainage technologies were implemented. So here again, we have an opportunity to reevaluate choices we have made with regard to environmental and urban planning-- and a less abstract case of cause and effect to reference.

But of course, as my classmates pointed out to me when I was waxing on about how I am interested to see how the conversation r.e. NOLA, MS, and AL plays out (and whether such disaster will call our attention to environmental problems and better solutions), OF COURSE they will simply come up with better, stronger levee/canal/drainage technology. More levees! We'll rebuild it! We will make it better, stronger!

And so this futile struggle of humans versus nature will continue unabated and unexamined, because there is something that we value deeply about rebuilding in the face of disaster, rather than taking our lumps and moving on elsewhere -- say, to higher ground. To do other than rebuild would be to let the terrorists, um, mother nature win. To do other than rebuild would mean that we were wrong, or weak, or inferior. We would be giving up our privileged place as God's chosen people, or as the highest forms of life, etc. We would be admitting that we are a part of, not apart from, nature and its processes. We must rebuild, and in so doing, ensure our complete annihilation at some point in the future. Absurdity, futility.

We absolutely refuse to accept that there might be some places we simply aren't meant to live. I'm reminded of the ancient wisdom that encouraged people to not build their houses on the sand, and I wonder what happened to that wisdom? Has technology replaced common sense? If we can build it, should we? Must we?

I continue to wonder what will happen to these potential conversations-- the conversations about the choices we make and our responsibility for their outcomes (and NO, I am most certainly not referring to divine punishment for providing women with a full range of gynecological care). The incident at Cuyhoga started a conversation that led to a focus on cleaning up the nation's rivers, and ultimately to the Clean Water Act. What will the Katrina conversation(s) lead to? More of the same?

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