Hurricane Harvey: The REAL world intrudes on the VIRTUAL one… and sharpens minds.

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” – C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Some reflections as rain from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey pelt on the roof here at home in the DC suburbs…

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re living, at least momentarily, in a virtual world – one that is two-degrees-of-separation from the real world. Any problems you’re facing (again for the moment) are virtual-world problems: slow Internet connectivity, weak WiFi, cyber-insecurity, data-use overage fees, low battery charge on your mobile device, annoying pop-ups, and more.

Put down your cellphone or turn away from your laptop, and again, chances are good you’re still finding yourself in a virtual world, though now separated from reality by only one degree. You’re in an enclosed, artificially lit, temperature and humidity controlled room. Or, even if you’re outside, you’re in an urban canyon, or a largely artificial urban or suburban groundscape. In this virtual world, a full range of privately- and publicly-provided products and services isolate you from the larger and less hospitable real world. Water, guaranteed to be safe for consumption, is available from tap or bottle. Reliable 60-cycle, 110-120V AC is available from any of numerous outlets. Are you hungry? Food trucks, fast-food, coffee shops, restaurants, and high-end grocery stores vie for your business; at home, the refrigerator and pantry call your name. Feel like learning something? Feeling a bit under the weather? Threatened by someone or something nearby? Colleges, hospitals and medical centers, police and fire are all standing by. Tired of working at your comfortable desk job? (For many privileged to live in this virtual world, exertion is a choice, not a necessity.) All manner of entertainment awaits.

Any problems here are also virtual-world problems: a job that isn’t always meaningful, the aggravations of rush hour, an irritating co-worker, a boss who doesn’t get it, slow service, omnipresent trash and urban decay.

Chances are good that from time to time you’ve wanted to escape from these two virtual worlds, and venture into the world of nature. Away from crowds – in mountains., at the beach. Closer to home, perhaps, in parklands. Amid trees and waterfalls; grasslands and meadows. Enjoying wildlife from insects and birds to megafauna – foxes, or deer, or maybe even the occasional bear in the distance. Watching porpoises gracefully break the ocean surface. But even here there’s an element of virtual reality. These visits are on your own terms. At a time and place, and for a duration, of your choosing. In good weather. Hiking, or perhaps camping, with just the right lightweight gear, and the provision needed for a day or two, or perhaps even glamping.

The real world we actually live on, for the most part obscured by these carefully constructed layers of virtual reality, is altogether different. On this real world, we’re spinning on the Earth’s axis at a speed of a few hundred miles an hour, even as the Earth rotates around the sun at 7000 mph, and the sun orbits around our galaxy at a speed six times faster still (and that’s saying nothing about the speed of our galaxy relative to other galaxies careening through the universe).

Our vehicle of choice for this joyride? For hitchhiking across the hostile, dark, absolute-zero-freezing vacuum of the universe as we’re pelted by everything from asteroids to cosmic rays?

An open-air convertible.

One that just happens to weigh 6×1021 tons. A planet. A planet that lives in the moment – makes no future plans but simply hurtles through space wherever gravitational forces might want to take it instant-by-instant. A planet that for now happens to track a Goldilocks-perfect path, just the right distance from a star that chooses to be friendly and heat us just the right bit.

But this Earth is not a sleeping planet. It’s restless, agitated, and does much if not most of its business through extreme events. It’s constantly shivering, quaking. Most of those tremors are of no account, but every so often it moves violently enough to shift its rotation axis by 4” and to throw the entire nation of Japan eight feet or so, as it did in the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. (6×1021 tons are not to be ignored!) The Earth also belches; on occasion volcanic eruptions cover the skies with so much ash that we experience a year-without-a-summer. (That’s today’s older, senescent planet; in its younger days, those volcanic eruptions could and did cause mass extinctions.) And its surface features a staggering array of violence: lightning and tornadoes, ice storms, cycles of drought…

… and flood.

Such as Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than a year’s worth of rain over Texas in less than a week.

In these circumstances, the real world breaks into, trumps, upends, suspends that virtual reality. The disruption is total. Familiar behaviors and practices, appropriate for any ordinary day, are now life-threatening. The houses that protected us and the cars that carried us become deathtraps. The powerlines that had kept the virtual world humming are now down, hidden underwater, electrocuting any hapless enough to encounter them. Chemical plants and refineries first fail, then explode. The water mains that had been life-giving now carry toxicity and disease. No time for dithering, and no mulligans. Seconds matter. They may be all you have to choose what you will save and what gets left behind. Staying alive becomes back-breakingly strenuous, when you’re wading or maybe even swimming, not in an Olympic pool but on what used to be your neighborhood street, now a cesspool of your neighbor’s junk and worse – while supporting a child or children, struggling to keep them above the water, fighting the currents and the eddies.

How are we behaving on this joy ride? More like unthinking teenagers than wise adults. If our planet is indeed living in the moment then, so it appears, are we. To complete the metaphor: we’re gobbling up the food and drink we’ve found, staining the seat covers with ketchup and mustard, tossing the waste cups and wrappings wherever. We’re bickering with each other and throwing an occasional French fry or even a punch or jab, always close to the threshold separating playful from vicious. We’re situationally oblivious. When the car heads off the road toward a tree, we’re unprepared.

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Which brings us to C. S. Lewis. Our bond with Earth shares much in common with Susan’s eventual relationship with Aslan.

To start: our connection with Earth is not merely neutral; it’s good. We have rapport. Throughout human experience, Earth has been just the resource we needed and still need today. In part by celestial circumstance (we know enough astronomy these days to know our position is rare), in part due to plant- and animal evolutionary development and fine-turning over millions of years, and in part reflecting our own impact on its atmosphere and ocean, the Earth and its location are ideal for us.

But like Aslan, the Earth is not safe. As a price for our growth in numbers and urbanization, we have to pay increasing amounts of attention to where and how we’ll sustain our food, water, and energy consumption. We have to be realistic about land use, building codes, and standards for critical infrastructure. When making decisions for the long haul we can’t afford the luxury of “feeling lucky.” The same threats that are unlikely in a given week or year or decade are inevitable over longer time spans. We have to do what grownups do – shoulder responsibility for maintaining safety and protecting property over the longer haul. That extends to protecting the value of ecosystem services on which we depend (the uptake of rain and floodwaters by forests and wetlands comes to mind).

Amidst the still-building tragedy that is coastal Texas we hear calls from our leaders and from experts to this effect. The lessons of Houston are no different from the lessons of New Orleans. As a nation, we have to give priority to putting Houston and Houstonians, and others, extending from Corpus Christi to Beaumont and Port Arthur, back on their feet. We can’t afford to rebuild just as before. We have to rebuild better.

Each passing day brings us one day closer to similar catastrophe in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle and points in between. Each passing day brings another increment of global warming, ratchets up sea-level rise, intensifies ocean acidification and worse. We don’t have the luxury of closing our eyes to these concerns.

It may sound daunting. But facing these challenges forthrightly can bring us together.

And we won’t be alone. If you’ve read the story, you know we can count on Aslan to help.

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