Sometimes The Onion Isn't All that Funny

This essay hits the nail on the head, and could pretty much have appeared in the New York Times, minus some vocabulary:

“I was just watching a CNN news story about how much damage Sandy has caused in comparison to Katrina, Ike, or last year’s storm that ravaged the Northeast, and it dawned on me: ‘Ah, okay, being a human being on Planet Earth, pretty much no matter where you are, now involves the threat of one day having your home, city, or country decimated in a matter of hours by a severe weather event,’” Detroit resident Stacy Hillman said. “Looking at images of cities—actual American fucking cities—flooded with water is no longer an incredibly weird, unprecedented thing to see. It has happened before, it happened this week, and it will continue to happen again and again in the future, and to an even greater extent.”

“So, then, I guess that what it means to be a member of human civilization has changed forever, pretty much,” Hillman added. “And that this is the new world we live in.”

A Reuters poll conducted earlier this week found that 43 percent of Americans reported finally accepting the fact that a potentially endless number of increasingly lethal natural disasters would likely occur throughout the coming decades, while as many as 18 percent of respondents said they were “almost relieved” knowing that the possibility of their entire life being washed away in an instant now existed.

The reason this is so perceptive is that I think that in fact, this is precisely what happened.  New Yorkers especially, had a sense of invulnerability that I think hadn't yet been penetrated the way has been in so many other places.  Yes, it happened in OTHER places, but not here.  Now that's gone, and in its place is the shocking realization that IT REALLY CAN HAPPEN anywhere - not just in New Orleans, in Joplin, upstate, in Galveston, but everywhere.   New Yorkers might have worried about security, but not about nature in the same way others have learned to. And yes, it was always everywhere, but those lessons are hard, and they shake people.

Columnist Froma Harrop wrote an excellent column about Hurricane Sandy, mentioning, among other things, that a large portion of the globe does without electricity not for a few days or weeks, but every day.    Unsurprisingly, she's been attacked for being insensitive, and I can understand why traumatized people struggling without power are angry.  At the same time, she's right:

Ralph Lopez totally got it. Much of the world never had electricity. Every gallon of water someone had carried from a well. And aren't those electricity-less New Yorkers -- the ones living without utilities on a short-term basis -- among the pampered of the earth?

Moderns have so effectively walled themselves with technology that Mother Nature must throw a tantrum to get attention. (She also does tornados, earthquakes and blizzards.) It's pointless accusing her of senseless violence. As Leonardo da Vinci said, "Nature never breaks her own laws."

Does that mean it doesn't suck, 10 days or more without power, losing your home?  Of course it does.  There's real tragedy, sorrow, suffering and loss of life here.  But those of us who had this last year upstate can point out that we have resources that no one else does - the reality is that the housing and the FEMA trailers and the food donations come.  For millions of people a year, seeing your home washed away by a storm happens and NO ONE comes with a trailer and food donations and blankets and cash.  Instead, you dig out in the mud yourself and go on - or die.    Climate change comes to all of us, but not equitably.  And as we realize that we have entered into a permanent condition, perhaps we will also think about the ways this condition has become permanent for people with vastly fewer resources, who get little aid, and who did less to create this situation.

We can both begin to believe that it will be us again next time, and also to reach out further than we have to our neighbors, to prepare for ourselves and also to help others build resilience into this new and frightening world.





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Loss of life, home and possessions really boils down to life as you know it drastically changes. Which does suck, without a doubt. It is a life changing tragedy.

What shocks me is when those stricken sort of just stand in the street and shout about not getting help fast enough. To be fair - that is certainly not everyone. I would hope that most people get out there and do something - cut up the fallen tree, clean up their stuff, find shelter if they can, etc. But those that think living in America means that you are guaranteed not to be struck by this sort of tragedy, or that if you are struck by mother nature, the government owes it to you to fix it, and fix it quick, tend to be the ones who suffer the longest. If you stand around waiting for someone to save you, then you are left behind by those who pick themselves up and move forward.

Within reason and ability, you can hardly expect others to do more for you than you are willing to do for yourself.

Help is wonderful, needed and the right thing for us all to do whenever and however we can. But it is not guaranteed.

I posted a comment on Facebook early last week that basically reminded folks of the need to prepare for tough weather times and a friend of a friend excoriated me for being "ignorant" and insensitve and in my comment I didn't go nearly as far as you, Michelle above me, or Froma Harrop did.

I do care about people as much as I can. I try to take care of and guide the special needs kids I work with as much as possible, but sometimes the truth must be spoken, however gently, that we don't exactly have the best relationship with Nature these days and that we should rework it.

Being yellled at and being called a monster stinks.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 09 Nov 2012 #permalink

Psychologically, it is much easier to do without something you never had than to go without something that has become an essential part of your life. But it is also difficult to see somebody who can afford to treat casually material comforts you have never had and probably never will. Furthermore, when you and many people around you routinely lose so much (your homes, your jobs, and even lives), and it becomes evident that people who should be able to help you get through don't care, this is the stuff of which revolutions are made.

Yes, it sucks to have to haul all of your domestic water up 20 flights of stairs because the electricity that powers the elevators and the pumps isn't working. But at least it takes a significant natural disaster to put you in that situation. In much of the third world, even the places that have electricity often cannot provide it 24 hours a day. If you're lucky the outages come at predictable intervals so you can plan around them. Or you have a place you can go that has electricity when your house doesn't. Not everybody is so lucky.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Nov 2012 #permalink

It's the same world of course, on a continuous trend as it happens, more stable in other senses. (Or at least until we reach a climate tipping point.)

It is not that some people lack electricity or other resources. (An increasingly smaller part.) It is that interruptions are especial and disruptive.

Which is well known, and one of those changing trends is that societies and systems are equipped with more resilience.

By Torbjörn Larsson, OM (not verified) on 09 Nov 2012 #permalink

Frankly I agree there is a lot to be said for "well maybe this is helping you think about what you are doing to other people".

However this sort of "well others have it worse" stuff is very common in society and generally just an excuse to do nothing. A cop out. It is an excuse to not send aid- and yet people don't send aid to those who have it worse either.

And the people saying it are actually vastly better off than both the groups of people they are enjoying sitting on their duffs judging and commenting on. And also telling them X is not really all that important while they have it in such abundance and don't have a clue what it is like to go without. Which is more despicable still and by far than complaining when you don't have it all that bad.

Secondly it is a bit different in modern societies, where predation is extremely common and dominant, and one of the main reasons people fear being poor or doing poorly so much - they may never recover. However people generally dodge the responsibility to know and admit this, so I don't have much sympathy for them when it comes back to haunt them as it is doing here.

Ultimately, it is important to be above all things realistic. Saying "it could be worse" or "others have it worse" has almost none of the implications that it usually assumed to. It does not mean you should not help - only that more help is needed elsewhere. Also there is overlap - there are in fact many people in poorer countries that are better off than many people in NYC.

It does not mean things are fine or sufficient. They are, for almost all nycers without power, so I am not bothering to donate or anything. They have tons of money themselves to begin with and that hasn't disappeared. They mostly are concerned about comfort, not survival. They will be fine. But for many, the are into the decidedly not fine zone. You have to recognize that there is wide variation.


You cannot eat money.

That seems obvious, but I ran into a couple of situations lately that bring home the fact that between the welfare state of our society and the systemized, marketed approach to "relief" operations, "help" and "giving" are defined, for too many people, in dollars.

The United Way, I was surprised to find, was unwilling to worry about organizing any efforts for anything -- they raise money and distribute it. I approached a Masonic member about organizing young people and families to gather pecans and other nuts as a source of food. His response was that the market was uncertain, and he didn't think it would raise enough money to make sense. He wasn't interested in the food aspect. The Lodge regularly supports various causes in town. The hold spaghetti dinners to raise money.

A friend back in college mentioned being in a flood, and seeing the Red Cross truck pull up and start selling coffee and donuts; the Salvation Army truck pulled up and started handing out blankets to those in need.

What you are asking people to do, to change their lives, to consider different values and make different choices, is contrary to everything the Federal Government and United Way and the local school board have taught generations, now, about what is needed in times of trouble: money.

What is important to recognize, I think, is that the difference between money and, like, helping someone, is directly related to the difference between an affluent lifestyle in a cheap energy culture, and a sustainable energy lifestyle in a constrained energy culture.

It is too bad, I think, that so much of "disaster recovery" is to replace the stuff that is broken -- that no longer makes sense in an energy-constrained world. And I mean that in the sense of personal belongings, residence, and business and community structures.

It's worse than that. There are cities where this is no longer even news. Did you know that 70% of Venice was underwater last week? No biggie. Barely hit our US news. Here is an excellent photo collection of The New Normal. NYC - is next.

So, one of the unending questions: is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that H. sapiens is so adaptable?