We Can't Say We Weren't Warned

by Richard Steiner

In the week before Hurricane Katrina struck, the U.S. government was busy insisting on the deletion of a simple phrase from the general principles of the United Nations -- "Respect for Nature." History may now look on Katrina as the perfect storm that ended, once and for all, such anthropocentric arrogance.

The scale of the Katrina tragedy offers a painful portal into our very heart and soul, the way we think about ourselves, one another and our world. In the rubble of homes and lives and businesses, Katrina provides a potent teachable moment for society.

The evolutionary success of Homo sapiens as a species depended on our ability to learn and to act on that knowledge. When we recognized a threat -- predators, weather, lack of resources, etc. -- we learned to act to avoid or prepare for it. In this context, Katrina has much to teach.

First, prepare for the worst. It is a historic, national disgrace that we did not do better. Katrina was a well-predicted flood disaster, a well-predicted storm and, to those observers of government bureaucracies, a well-predicted failure of government altogether.

Next, prevent disaster to the extent possible. A decade ago, Louisiana's "Coast 2050" plan recognized that a century of flood control on the Mississippi was shrinking the wetlands, bayous, barrier islands and the entire delta of our nation's greatest river, and, if left uncorrected, would with certainty lead to catastrophe. It was not a "0.5 percent probability" as the Army Corps of Engineers is now claiming. It was a certainty.

Scientists proposed a straightforward $14 billion pre-emptive fix to the problem -- build canals and floodgates in the south bank of the river in New Orleans and periodically open them to allow the river and its millions of tons of sediment to flush onto the delta, rebuild barrier islands, thus protecting the coast from inundation in future storm events. This would take decades, but the sooner it begins, the sooner the area will be protected.

The threat was perfectly clear, the solution was perfectly clear, yet government did nothing. To officials, these warnings were typical of "environmental alarmists" and government had other more immediate priorities. When Katrina hit, this government attention deficit came tragically due.

Herein may lie our potential evolutionary downfall -- our modern inability to act decisively and cooperatively to avert certain disaster.

In this way, Katrina may provide -- in fast-forward microcosm -- a vision of the very future of Homo sapiens itself. The transcendent lesson of this perfect storm may be that the natural environment is ignored only at our own peril. As Katrina swept away lives and life-support systems on the Gulf Coast, the tragedy may give focus to the deteriorating condition of the essential environmental services the planet provides for the health and welfare of all 6.5 billion of us -- air, freshwater, food, shelter, energy, medicines, nutrient recycling, waste processing, enjoyment, etc.

History is littered with fallen civilizations that ignored their deteriorating environmental condition -- the Anasazi, Maya, Greenland Norse, Easter Islanders, etc. And like Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl and Bhopal, Katrina will now take its place in history as one of the seminal, time-compressed disasters that provide an overnight glimpse of the long-term degradation of the life-support systems of our home planet.

On this larger issue, the science is perfectly clear. We are dangerously degrading our biosphere, and for decades policy-makers have been warned of the dire consequences of ignoring this systemic environmental decline. As with New Orleans, we are all living on borrowed time. We are rapidly approaching a planetary tipping-point from which there will likely be no recovery. But just as with Katrina, governments have ignored warnings of global ecological collapse as well. How much longer can we afford such shortsighted, selfish ignorance?

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was bestowed the power to foretell the future but no one would believe her. She warned of a Trojan Horse, to no avail. The rest, as they say, is history.

Will we as a society learn from this perfect storm, reaffirm our "respect for nature" and attend to our deteriorating planetary life-support systems before it's too late, or not?

Richard Steiner is professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska.

Informant: Anna Webb



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September 2005

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