Our Slow Disasters

Slow Disasters: Irma, Harvey and Storms of Denial

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Hurricane Irma over Florida, September 10, 2017

September 12, 2017

One month ago, hurricane Harvey formed over the unusually warm waters of the Atlantic.  Hurricane Irma was not far behind.  Day by day since, we have been transfixed by images of calamity.  First the Caribbean Islands.  Then, the Texas Gulf.  Then, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina – a full month’s dosage of disaster.  Two of the most destructive hurricanes on record hit the United States only days apart.

What does this do to our limbic system, especially the amygdala, the mechanism in our brain that regulates responses to fear?  What happens to our moral compass?  Our spiritual perspective?  These disasters come on top of months of upheaval in our national body-politic.

In my consciousness at least, these tragedies have moved from my thinking “isn’t that sad for those poor folks; I might do something” to “these are my family and friends; I will respond!”

You might consider these hurricanes “slow disasters.” (Hurricane Harvey stayed for days over south Texas.  Rainfall was measured in feet, not inches.  Irma, moved ever so slowly, eventually covering the entire state of Florida.  Painfully slowly tracking up through Georgia and South Carolina, with ripping wind and record flood, and giving Atlanta the first ever “tropical storm” in its history.)

While these disasters seemed unending, they are but a tiny fragment of a much larger, slower disaster that has been unfolding over decades.  A few courageous folks spoke of this larger reality, this SLOW DISASTER.  As Hurricane Harvey approached his city, Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado said: “This is the time to talk about climate change.  This is the time that the president and the [Environmental Protection Agency] and whoever makes decision needs to talk about climate change.” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald “This is truly, truly the poster child for what is to come.” (See: Miami Mayor Calls on Honest Climate Change Talk.)  Brave man — truth teller he.

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Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado in 2014

In contrast, last week EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt opined, “It is very, very insensitive to talk about climate change in the wake of such extreme storms.”  Astonishing denial, this. 

In the face of such clear evidence regarding the changes that have been slowly underway for decades, Pruitt seeks to somehow blame those who would tell the truth.  He continues his assault on those who have been warning of such horrors surrounding the environmental degradation of our common home for decades. 

“NO, Secretary Pruitt,” we need to say,  “YOUR deceits and those who join you in such chicanery are undermining the future well-being of our grandchildren.  You blow and blow and blow your hot air into a continuing SLOW DISASTER.”  On the hurricane scale this is a magnitude 5 level storm-of-denial

Painful as it may be to admit, we need to have the truth spoken, here and now.  Calling any talk of climate change now “very insensitive” reminds me of what was said by a few following the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook, when it was suggested that it was an inappropriate time to speak about gun control! 

It may be an uncomfortable time to speak — but speak we must.  The evidence is abundant.  Our climate is changing!  We can trust science — our arctic and our glaciers are melting.  Seas are warming and rising everywhere, threatening low-lying communities around the globe.  While no one can as yet exactly measure how the magnitude of the hurricanes is directly related to human activity, we are shifting more and more from awful storms to catastrophes.   As David Leonhardt writes, “Climate change doesn’t seem to increase the frequency of hurricanes, but it does seem to increase their severity” (David Leonhardt, New York Times, 9-12-17).

I remember well the late 1960s when we were told that research wasn’t yet clear enough to link cigarette smoking with cancer.   It’s time to work with facts on the ground and in the air.  Meanwhile Mr. Pruitt a climate change denier, is pulling the plug on critical research his agency has been carrying out for decades because he doesn’t like the science pointing to a SLOW DISASTER.

Yesterday, in Chicago, skies to the northwest were of a hazy orange hue, as they have been for weeks — this from wildfires in Saskatchewan and Manitoba Provinces in Canada.  Smoke dims our skies from over a thousand miles away.  And today, from the southeast, circles of clouds are arriving as left over signs from Hurricane Irma.  Our global ecology and our local ecology are interrelated.  Climate patterns covering thousands of miles these are.  And we have before us slow disasters that are decades in the making.

A part of our dilemma in speaking about these tragedies is our cultural propensity to extend too easy blame or to believe in retribution.  More astonishing than Secretary Pruitt’s comments were those made by television evangelists like Jim Bakker who suggested that the hurricanes were a part of God’s judgement on our nation.  In the process Mr. Bakker was quick to sell survival kits to prepare his viewers for the end times.  Yikes — now that is a stretch.  

Then there is Rush Limbaugh who decided the increasing severity of hurricanes was simply being fabricated by the media — or by corporate America to sell more products by creating panic among the people.  He suggested that the severity of the hurricane hitting Florida was overblown.  Tell that to the folks in the Keys, Naples or Jacksonville today, Rush.  Of course, Limbaugh managed to fly out of South Florida to safety elsewhere just before the hurricane arrived.  

How do these “truthers” prosper?  What gives them any agency in our world?  Perhaps it is our inability to live with the complexities around the unintended consequences we face.  Perhaps it is the hope that we will not be implicated in the creation of these slow disasters or that we can avoid the lifestyle changes that will be required.  Perhaps we understand that folks are too easily blamed for things beyond their control.  I live in Indiana —  a place where tornadoes often occur.   I don’t think I cause them.  Even so, they seem to be gaining in frequency, size and destructive power.  It is not my fault that I choose to live here. 

However, each of us has contributed to small changes in climate that aggregate and rebound — an unintended consequence to our society’s lifestyle choices.  In places like Houston and Miami, there have been patterns of development or loose zoning practices that clearly contribute to the scale of flooding and hurricane damage.   Unwise development and the loss of barrier islands has been going on for decades in Louisiana, Texas and Florida — it has been a SLOW DISASTER.

How then shall we live?  Three things have benefited me:

1) I have chosen to change the way I begin each day.  It has been good for my limbic system — prayer before work or the news.  Instead of beginning each day with the newspaper or some work project, I spend my first moments in prayer, reading scripture and writings from other religious traditions.

It helps.  Here are some examples: 

  • From Buddhist writings I found, “Teach this triple truth to all: a generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
  • From the New Testament, Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
  • From the Prayer for Patient Trust by Teilhard de Chardain: Above all trust in the slow work of God.

2) Seek to be better educated and work with others on addressing climate change at your local level.  For me this has meant working with the Hoosier Interfaith Power  and Light (www.hoosieripl.org) group in Indiana and the Creation Care Alliance among United Methodists (http://www.inumc.org/creationcare).

3) Support groups that work nationally and internationally to address the reality we face with the SLOW DISASTERS surrounding climate change. 

So, in the face of denial and systems of blame, there are ways to work with a quiet and joyful heart to seek to join with others in “the slow work of God.”

Many of you have been doing this for a long time — I learn from you — together let’s do what we can to turn SLOW DISASTERS into MOVEMENT FOR STEADY RENEWAL IN HOPE.