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The grind

These fragments I have shored against my ruins. - T. S. Eliot

The national news trucks hit my neighborhood last fall, as some of you will remember. When Tropical Storm Irene caused severe flooding and destruction in surrounding communities, and particularly to many of my neighbor's farms, we were briefly in the news. Then, as is normal for any community that has experienced disaster, came waves of volunteerism and assistance, and then a gradual diminishing of attention and interest, and the slow, long process of reclamation and rebuilding. As spring came around, the houses in the village of Schoharie that listed, the stories of friends with severe depression and anxiety, people moving out of the neighborhood, farmers thinking about leasing their land for hydrofracking to make back their losses...those were the background of a disaster that most people don't remember happened.

The FEMA trailers that got people through the winter are being auctioned off, some of the renovations are done, the houses that weren't too bad are back and occupied and people are hoping the mold problems won't be too serious as the weather warms. We're back to a new normal - mostly. And the help and donations and volunteerism is winding down too. And now come the long term expenses - more folks on food stamps and unemployed, more depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses, no tax revenues from homes rendered unlivable. Our area will come back - but it won't come back the same, and it will be less able to bear the next disaster, whether local or collective.

There's nothing atypical about this - all over the country, in the last decade, there have been disasters - and their grinding aftermath in which the losses are not fully made good, where people fall through the cracks and find themselves a little bit behind...and a little more. Most of us remember the big disasters of this century so far - and there have been a lot of them. 9/11. Katrina. Most of us don't remember all the other places there were hurricanes and ice storms, floods and fires, tornadoes - we hear and are appalled for a bit, we send a check and good wishes, and then we don't think much about what happened.

For example, final estimates of the cost of the Joplin tornado are coming in at close to 3 billion dollars. I think, hearing those numbers, the implicit assumption is that the money will come from somewhere to rebuild - and a lot of the money does show up...eventually. Insurers will pay a lot of it - although if our local experience is any example, a lot of insurers will balk and look hard for loopholes, and lawsuits will be required to get some of it out. Half a billion will come from taxpayers. And some of the costs just won't get covered - things that slip through the cracks, and leave people trying to cover too many bases at once. It is the grind again, where everyone involved who survived gets a little poorer - or a lot poorer.

And this is a real piece of our future. It is hard to associate any given natural disaster with climate change, but we know that the aggregate experience of climate change is that the grind falls on all of us - falls on more and more of us as we wait for our storm or heatwave, drought or floods. It falls on more and more of us as it gets harder to get insurance, and the costs go up. It falls on more and more of us as the resources to cover the costs of each disaster get scarcer. The price tag for 2011 world natural disasters was greater than ever before in history.

That this is part of an emergent pattern was the judgement of the Stern Report, the clearest full analysis of the economic impact of climate change - that over the next century, unchecked climate change will take a bigger and bigger part of our budget for remediation and response, until it is consuming up to 20% of World GDP - a hit no economy can bear. The Stern Report considered ONLY climate change, however, not stagnant growth and rising energy costs.

The Grind affects all of us, whether the next storm hits you, your neighbor or far away. It affects us in complicated ways as patterns of relocation and refugeeism change, in our insurance premiums and our neighborhoods as houses sell or don't sell, in our families as we suddenly take in relatives escaping the latest disaster. Right now we can mostly absorb the costs, with only the expected pain - the little things that don't get fixed, the people who can't quite make it out of the quagmire. As we go along into a warming world with energy supply constraints, however, the grind keeps coming back, and its drag upon us gets heavier.

We were lucky - we lost a lot of plants, some fencing, a vehicle. Not our home, our animals or our farm. Most of the consequences for us have been in watching our friends and neighbors rebuild and helping where we can - we are caught only in the gentlest outer waves of the grind, not at the center. And yet, there's a drag, a pull, an effect that makes it hard to go forward. It seems every week we find that someone we depended on is selling up, no longer in business, thinking of moving on, struggling with things. You can feel it even out here on the periphery.

Our future is as much about rebuilding as it is about building, and about coming to terms (because we have functionally elected to do nothing about climate change) with The Grind, with the process of loss and imperfect reconstitution. We imagine that disaster comes and takes all away, and we must rebuild. But the reconstruction is never what was lost - and the resources for rebuilding become more tenuous, fragmentary and uncertain - are we rebuilding, or simply shoring fragments against the next ruin?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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