Hurricane Sandy: prompting a Rethink of Life’s purpose

“Life does more than adapt to the Earth. It changes the Earth to its own purposes.” – James Lovelock

“Reasonable men adapt to the world around them; unreasonable men make the world adapt to them. The world is changed by unreasonable men.” – Edwin Louis Cole

“We’re the only creature God ever created that doesn’t want to adapt. We want to make it stand still. And one thing that’s constant is nature is constantly changing.” – Don Young

Peter Spotts, a staff writer for The Christian Scientist Monitor, has just published a nice piece entitled “Surging Storms: Can the U.S. adapt in time to avert coastal damage?” [Spoiler alert…the answer is probably “no;” we’ve hardwired in extraordinary future losses along the length of our coasts.] He looks at several aspects of the issue, including the cost of engineering works to provide coastal protection, and people’s strong attachment to place. Here’s a nice excerpt on the latter point:

Another challenge centers on personal or cultural attachments to a home, town, or geographic setting that has been heavily affected by coastal flooding or other natural hazards and likely will be again, notes Shirley Laska, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Orleans and a specialist on community responses to natural hazards. Rebuilding the old neighborhood as it was before is a strong pull for residents and politicians trying to restore a sense of normalcy to a stricken area. Global warming, however, could change that predisposition.

“People will start getting it into their thinking that they have to do something if they are impacted more than once,” she says. “They start accepting that they have to change the way they live, that they can’t go back to the way it was.”

Ultimately, she says, the goal is to move vulnerable communities “more rapidly into thinking about how to achieve the goals they have for using this place, but that it be in a safer fashion. They have to come to grips with risk reduction as they are planning their future, and it can’t be tomorrow. That’s what climate change is telling us.”

Which brings to mind one last quote:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” (often attributed to Albert Einstein, but possibly mistakenly so).

Fortunately, the Lovelock quote and the others point to the way out…a kind of compromise between humankind and nature if you will. The negotiation starts with the recognition that we can’t or won’t be able to simply kowtow to nature, to live under its oppressive thumb. That builds resentment, and we don’t tolerate resentment for extended periods of time (periods of time longer than a few minutes, say). We also recognize in our saner moments that nature will not be denied. Our planet accomplishes most of its business through extreme events. It’s not going to stop.

But we might be able to change our purposes. We might be able to set new goals…and find pride, enjoyment, satisfaction, fulfillment in building resilience to nature’s extremes. [That’s something akin to what we do on the individual level when we get tired of being couch potatoes and hit the gym. We learn to like the workout versus fear it.]

Human purposes that are congruent with, as opposed to oblivious to, Earth’s realities?

Worth a try.

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2 Responses to Hurricane Sandy: prompting a Rethink of Life’s purpose

  1. Shirley Lasko’s comments are right on, and I’d like to extend them. One of the great lessons of Katrina to me is that memories are the currency of social capital. When you hear the voices of those who left the Ninth Ward and didn’t return, you can still viscerally feel the emotional pull that they feel to go back, even with its vulnerability and poverty. It is the place where they remember the comfort of their mother’s arms. It is the place where they played their first game of stickball or hopscotch. It is the place where they met their first steady. It is the place that memory tells them is home.

    It is easy for planners who live elsewhere to simply say “That area is too dangerous. We shouldn’t rebuild there.” And in the past, I’ve said the same thing. But I think the wiser course is for all of us to say to those who want to rebuild in dangerous places, “If you feel you must, do so. But you must do so better.” And then we must work with them to help them build back better.

    What’s the price if we don’t? Those who have these emotional ties will lose their social capital, will become more isolated, more fragile and more vulnerable. The cost of that vulnerability may be greater than the cost of building back better.

    Again, NOLA provides evidence of this, and offers a signpost to the future. Immediately after Katrina, the lower Broadmoor neighborhood was one that city government didn’t intend to help rebuild. But the more affluent northern part of the neighborhood and the less affluent (and more prone to flood) southern portion banded together to stop the city’s plans in their tracks. They used money from wherever they could get it to build back better. Today, there is a wealth of new buildings in the neighborhood that will survive future storms better, but that will also strengthen the community’s sense of itself on a daily basis. Kids there will have memories even better than those of their parents that will bind them to their community, and ultimately provide a driver to build an even stronger community.

    The signpost to the future? They did it themselves. Eventually they got some planning assistance from the city, and funds from a variety of places, but the impetus and the vision and the daily dog work to build back better came from within themselves.

    At the national level, FEMA funding is heavily tilted toward reinforcing the Tyranny of the Old Normal. While this is slowly turning around, we need to speed the process. If we can do that, and find creative ways to help even the poorest communities to find their “god within” – the enthusiastic urge and ability to build back better, we will build stronger communities and have the basis for a more resilient nation.

  2. james correia jr says:

    I like what John said as it relates to unintended consequences of people giving up their sense of place. I dont know if people have to change the way they live, but they certainly have to think carefully about where they live, and how many disasters they can tolerate. What can you withstand? What can the community withstand? Disasters are here to stay. But you leave a lot of open land empty for a while, people will deem it safe and rebuild. 500 year flood plains for rivers need the same kind of thinking, and we have to be completely open to defeating the “Failure of imagination” when it comes to disasters.

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