The mass media has done an excellent job reporting the many impacts, as well as the consequential effects, of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston area. Many of us have read about loss of electrical power, loss of municipal water supplies, failure of sewer systems, chemical plant fires, toxic air pollution, hospital shut-downs, food store stock-out conditions, shortages of gasoline, and related problems. But all these matters, disastrous and horrible as they may be, are only symptoms. We, the public, even after reading article after article, and watching newscast after newscast, are still not really informed by the media’s reporting. This is because the deeper cause of this regional disaster has not been honestly addressed.
These widespread and multi-billion dollar impacts, suffered by more than 96,000 people, are not a surprise. Over the years, the Houston area has been repeatedly warned about flooding. And recent events have underscored those dangers. There for example have been three 100-year floods in the area in the last three years. Decidedly more could have been done to prepare and create back-up drainage systems, holding ponds, storm water pumps, etc. As helpful as those additional steps may have been, that is not the important underlying issue. Nor is the real issue whether the victims prepared adequately, whether they set-aside adequate provisions for such an event, whether they planned exit routes, etc.
The real underlying causal issue is our culture’s habit, and its supporting economic/legal/social infrastructure, that encourages short-term thinking. The real issue is that we’re not seriously considering the consequences of what we’re doing — what will happen out there sometime in the future. I’m talking about the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, of developing housing tracts on farmland that was sorely needed to buffer the city against floods, of allowing rampant development without adequate drainage systems, of state legislators who were more concerned about pleasing campaign donors such as developers than looking after the true welfare of their communities, of judges who handed down court opinions that make it increasingly difficult for victims to hold developers personally liable for the damages they caused, etc.
The magic bullet solution is likewise not going to be better scientific models to more accurately estimate the rainfall we will be experiencing in the future. Instead, what we desperately need to do is stop focusing only on short-term impacts, and setting our incentive systems up to reward those who only think about short-term impacts. If a developer makes five million dollars of profit for yet another suburban development outside of Houston, we herald him or her as a great success. The short-term impact here is the money. Never mind the impact on the environment, the loss of good farming land, the elimination of endangered species, the resulting pollution of the local aquifer, or what the people who live in this development will have to suffer with in the future. The developer is not generally held responsible for those consequences, except perhaps though a negligence lawsuit (even then, such a lawsuit is most unlikely to succeed in addition to being complicated, difficult, and expensive to undertake). The costs that should have been borne by the developer or involved business in so many instances are instead borne by the public (a good example is the Wall Street bank bail-out of 2008). Thus our incentive systems reward short-term gain, and encourage the decision makers to forget about tomorrow, forget about the impacts to third parties, and forget about the cumulative effects of continuing to engage in a series of acts that ultimately are destructive.
This short-term thinking is what the child in each of us wants. This unevolved part of us just wants our reward, would rather not share any of the rewards, would really rather not be responsible, and would rather not make the effort to responsibly deal with other people (or other beings like animals). Although we don’t like to admit it, there really is a child within each of us. The problem is that our society’s system of incentives and rewards, encourages, aids, and abets that same inner child, in effect saying: “go ahead, do it, you can get away with it, and there will be no adverse consequences.” The Houston floods remind us, still more painfully, that life doesn’t work that way. It’s time that our system is reformed to encourage responsible adult behavior, behavior where we are forced to consider the long-term, where we are forced to consider the impact on others, where we are forced to consider the down-stream effects of the decisions we make.
How might our system be changed so as to be encouraging responsible adult behavior? We could for example hold developers responsible for the financial losses of those people owning houses which flooded because inadequate drainage systems were installed. We could for example hold bureaucrats managing the city zoning process personally responsible for the eco-system damage caused by pollutants released by flooded chemical plants, and now deposited inside people’s houses, in the wake of the storm’s flooding. Similarly, we could for instance hold the chemical plant owners responsible for cutting corners in their contingency planning process, allowing fires and explosions to pollute both the water and the air around these same plants. This country would be a very different place if we formally acknowledged our true interconnectedness, and we changed our incentive systems to reflect that interconnectedness.
Darwin’s theory of evolution has been twisted by our culture’s advertising and propaganda to give people the idea that only the cut-throat dog-eat-dog competitors will survive. Actually, that’s not what Darwin’s theory of evolution was about at all. Darwin’s theory says that it is not the strongest that survive, nor even the most intelligent, but those who are the most responsive to change, those who can most rapidly mobilize and make the necessary changes in light of new information. Now that it is clear that what we are doing environmentally is not working, in fact it is clear that to continue in this way is going to be horribly disastrous, it is time for us to rapidly mobilize, and create a society that works for everybody, including animals, trees, insects, and all other elements of the natural world. The question is, will each of us, step up to the plate to make this change to being more of a responsible adult, to consider the long-term consequences of our actions on the larger community, to flexibly and soon make the changes that these new circumstances require.
A relevant and popular adage is: “pay me now or pay me later.” We will need to pay at some point, although the price will be much higher if we choose to pay in the future. Crisis is fundamentally a forced rebalancing process; it is a large change that must now be made, because a series of smaller incremental changes have been resisted or prevented for some time. Unless we make the needed changes, the pain and suffering of big crises like the Houston disaster will get worse over time. I suggest that the damages from Hurricane Harvey are serious enough for us to sit up and notice right now — we really don’t need the price to markedly increase due to our unwillingness to pay the price of change now. Please join me by making the change now rather than later. Please join me by being a co-creator of the new world consciousness, and the resulting new world systems, where the incentives and rewards encourage responsible, sustainable, multi-party long-term thinking (like the great law of the Iroquois, which says all our decisions must consider the impact on seven generations in the future).