A World Without Pain
I have been sitting in front of my television off and on for the last couple days to see the progress of relief in New Orleans. As I sat and watched everything unfold on CNN and Fox News, I started to marvel on the way the media plays a role in modern society; I remembered the amount of time I sat in front of the television on 9/11. And I thought more about the media.
In each event the media journalists were full of superlatives. Until this week, 9/11 was hailed as the greatest tragedy America has faced. Today I heard similar superlatives—and it will likely play out that hurricane Katrina has been the most disastrous natural event to hit the USA in history.
My concern with the events is not to cast judgment on the media… they are going to jump on this because that is what they are in business to do; disasters help media outlets thrive.
My criticism is directed towards an American perspective that has become solidified as a standard mode of thought in American culture—both politically and socially—and that perspective is that America is insulated and impervious to calamity; moreover, that everything that happens is the responsibility of some person or groups of people.
Already I heard some yahoo blaring out on Fox News that the reason so many people are suffering in New Orleans is because there are irresponsible, racially prejudiced men running the relief operations—and that something could have and should have been done to prevent the disaster that happened in New Orleans.
America has become so comfortable in its status as a super power, and the public has been so far removed from the historic struggles of survival, that it is too easy for people to assume that someone is causing anything bad that happens.
But realistically, the fact is that we live in a precarious world. We always have. Our time has been blessed with increased knowledge, due to science and technology; humans have greater control of their environment than in any other age. But still we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. It will always be this way.
If you want to pass blame for this event, you have to go back to those who built the dams and dikes and levees to keep out the water; but no, you can’t blame them because they could only build what they could pay for. So you have to blame the government of the time for not taxing the public an extra billion dollars to build those dikes; but no, you cannot blame them, because the public can only raise so much money to pay for common welfare—and building prohibitively expensive across-the-boards safeguards is impossible.
No, you have to go back further to find blame. You have to go back to the founding of New Orleans hundreds of years ago. If those settlers had not built there, there would be no tragedy. But you cannot blame them—they knew nothing of category 4 hurricanes, let alone any other category. They also couldn’t have predicted global climate changes that have turned the Gulf Coast into a target for nature’s fury.
You’ll have to go back to geography and geology and meteorology and physics to find a source to this tragedy. Those of a religious bent shrug and say that the gods are mad or that God has his way; in the end, it all means that it’s nobody’s fault, and there is no finger to point.
Of course, the disaster in New Orleans is something that is going to affect hundreds of thousands of Americans for generations; the death and suffering is sad and unfortunate. Anger and frustration are natural reactions to the event. But the angry responses must be tempered—as natural disasters are not the same as aggressive attacks suck as 9/11 and full-blown wars. Of course, hindsight should be a powerful teacher in showing us better ways to manage our life and world… but just because disaster falls it does not logically follow that it’s anyone’s fault. That relief has not arrived at the speed that everyone affected needs, it still does not mean that anyone is at fault—logistics, cost, preparation and management are unavoidable aspects of all operations.
What this disaster needs to teach America is that this country is not impenetrably insulated from the realities of the world. I want to challenge people to think about a new perspective that was common in ancient days: what would our nation do if ten of these hurricanes hit ten major cities in one year? In fact, it doesn’t have to be just hurricanes. What if our weather systems are migrating overall towards more violent storms—tornados, droughts, hurricanes, blizzards… all around? What if earthquakes become more prevalent? What if we face an onslaught of celestial bullets? Extinction-level comets or piles of large asteroids?
Of course no one wants to contemplate the feasibility of any of these calamities. But disasters do happen. Remember a city called Pompeii? Where did the Minoans go? What about the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? Or last year’s world-changing tsunami?
Humans are resourceful and amazingly creative creatures. But we are still both stewards and pets of this world—and we are not ever going to be immune to this reality. Disasters do happen. They will continue to happen to us, even in America.
The challenge of all humans is to find ways to safeguard their livelihoods and futures, and the greatest tool we have is our brains. The jewel of human achievement in terms of power is science and technology—we can and should push our children to learn more science; science is our best mental tool for finding ways to mold our world. Science can prepare us for possible threats.
In fact, regarding hurricane Katrina, it was meteorologists and engineers who warned the Gulf Coast about the threats of Katrina. I live deep inland, and many days before the event I heard engineers and meteorologists warning about the imminent dangers facing New Orleans. Unfortunately, a combination of America’s half-cocky feeling of imperviousness mixed with a general disregard for science (and a degree of poverty in the hardest-hit spots) sealed the fates of many Americans in southern Louisiana. (Incidentally, poverty-stricken locales do not have high levels of scientific education and appreciation.)
Science will never stop hurricanes. I doubt any technology will ever do that. (Here is where pastors mention prayer.) Hurricanes and natural disasters will continue. But science can offer us options in preparing for disasters by teaching how to read signs; science can help us better deal with disasters by providing technology that more efficiently, effectively and economically protect us.
Don’t go blaming anyone for this disaster. Learn from it, and start learning more about the world you live in. Don’t kid yourself about the world we live in. And start pushing your children, teachers, schools and politicians to care about science. And learn some yourself. We can’t all be scientists, but we should all care about scientific progress. We’ll never live in a world without pain, but it is within our power to live in a world with less pain.