Wednesday, August 31, 2005

DISSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: Acts of God, Acts of Man

Hurricane Katrina, with all its high winds, flooding, death, personal suffering, loss, and economic disaster is labeled an act of God. If that were the case, any impulse I have to worship would cease immediately. In fact the label is utterly untrue. Neither is it as much an event of nature as it would be without our human interventions over the last couple hundred years. What would have been "natural" now includes our human role as part of nature. That role has become increasingly destructive. This hurricane’s sheer force is very much the work of humans, its special violence a result of global warming (call it climate change if you insist on sticking with euphemisms). Our scientists around the world have been warning us of this for nearly three decades. Seems too long ago? I was involved in helping fund a conference held in Fairbanks in the late Seventies that explored the issue, looking at it from the perspective of science, and assessing the social implications of the changes from a humanities perspective. The warnings that came out of that gathering were dire. We ignored them, as we have most of the dire warnings since. So now we are told this one is just one of a series of natural events that will be more violent than we have seen before.

No, we humans did not invent or create hurricanes, but we have altered the natural environment enough to influence their violence. So this particular devastation is our own doing, and our insistence that humans know enough to control nature is proving again both our arrogance and our ignorance, our willingness to hide our heads in the sand and refuse to take even the minimal steps to avoid disaster. Sadly, it is fitting that this time nature struck America with its warning forces. America has been the great roadblock to Kyoto (which was too little too late anyway) and has been the primary impediment to international cooperative actions that might have taken the edge off global warming and thus off the violent natural responses to our interference. Species loss, soil depletion, stream pollution, greenhouse gasses, drawdowns of aquifers faster than they can renew themselves, deforestation, desertification, and our utter dependence on oil for agriculture and our macro economic systems have been the hallmarks of our culture. Now those forces we have created are converging, as we have brought ourselves to a sorry future.

This was no act of god but a direct result of human folly. As a nation we had an opportunity to impose a bit of self-discipline to prevent such events, but our cowardly national leadership refused. It would not even admit publicly that we have a problem, and to the cheers of our great corporations set about effectively dismantling efforts to slow climate change. We are paying the price for that failure of leadership now, and our children will pay still more dearly for our folly before they are our age.