Sometimes The Onion isn’t all that funny

November 12, 2012

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.

Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts of an ethical, local, healthy food system and tells readers how to begin putting food by, and the newly published Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, which "shows readers how to turn the challenge of living with less into settling for more".

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