Our Care-Free Float Down the River de Nial

We could tell from her photos that Katrina would become an unwanted, unwelcome, unruly visitor. She was big, mean, and powerful. She arrived at the Gulf Coast superheated and fuming. The scenes she left behind were horrifying, revolting, and disgusting. But they were embarrassing, too, because the destruction and human suffering were way worse than they should have been. We were woefully unprepared to mitigate the damage or alleviate the anguish from a completely predictable event. The visions of stranded people on rooftops begging for help should have left nobody in America unmoved, grasping for answers about the type of people we are and the type of country we live in.

The indignity! One of the foreign countries offering a pledge of monetary support was tiny, impoverished Jamaica. “Thanks, but no,” we needed to tell them. Their offer was exemplary, saintly. But no thanks; we’re the richest nation the world has ever known and damn-it all, we need to take care of our own! Are you proud to be an American? It’s high time we started behaving in ways that justifies our prodigious pride.

This disaster was way worse than it needed to be because we’ve been living a generation-long bacchanalia, in giddy, nonchalant delusion, on a care-free float down the River de Nial. We’ve been living an orgy of consumerism and self-absorption, mindlessly seeing the world the way we want it to be rather than the way it really is. It’s high time for our national insouciance to end, to put our house in order. It’s time for each of us to sober up, bury our juvenile fantasies and face some stark realities. To whit:

We need to start taking nature’s power more seriously. We must accept that hurricanes happen and that if we insist on playing Russian Roulette every August along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts by building casinos, high-priced homes, and high-rise hotels on the beach, we are writing recipes for despair. We need to stop building cities below sea level, damning and channeling the rivers, and scalping the mountaintops (and for that matter, building biomedical parks in flood plains). We need to stop wasting billions on pork barrel highway projects which benefit the few and get serious about shoring up our crumbling electrical, transportation, and public works infrastructures to withstand emergencies. We need to take disaster planning seriously and do it in a way the rest of the world marvels rather than scoffs at.

We need to end the grandest delusion of our generation by joining the international community in accepting that Global Warming is a reality and beginning our commensurate role in mitigating it. Katrina was the evil stepchild of Global Warming, as tepid Gulf of Mexico waters stoked her prodigious energies. More intense, powerful, and destructive hurricanes are signature features of a warmer planet and they are here to stay. We will continue to deny this at significant peril.

We need to accept that environmental degradation isn’t acceptable, that environmental protection isn’t a tourist nicety, but a biological imperative. The putrid fetid stew now covering the streets and filling the homes of former residents of New Orleans is more deadly than it needs to be, exacting severe retribution on Louisiana for its laxness; it is one of the most polluted states in the nation. We need to acknowledge that there’s never been a pollution problem that wasn’t easier to prevent than to remediate and be willing to punish polluters harshly.

We need to accept that our economy is as vulnerable as a mobile home in a hurricane. It has taken but one presidential administration to turn the world’s greatest lender nation into the world’s greatest debtor, from the largest national budget surplus to the largest deficit. Our $630 billion trade deficit is wholly unsustainable. Our beehive of economic activity is a symbolic mansion built on a termite-infested foundation resting on a national debt of $7.4 trillion, an amazing $25,000 per citizen. We need to accept that the ongoing atrophy of our cities, public transportation systems, small businesses, and local farms makes us vulnerable to economic collapse and societal mayhem.

Tragically, we need to accept that our Federal Government’s highest priority – consolidating the wealth of our great nation at the top of the economic food chain – is tedious work and leaves our leaders with little energy to protect the environment, the economy, or the health and welfare of the American people. Although we’re all on the River de Nial together, our leaders are even more delusional than the rest of us. Rather than deal with issues that will affect the very survival of our nation, they divert our attention to the “three g’s”: God, guns and gays. We’ll need to lead this effort ourselves.

Lastly, we need to accept the coming reality of Peak Oil, the point at which no matter how hard we explore and no matter how many wells we drill, the earth will no longer be able to relinquish to us the amazing amount of oil we demand. Like all finite resources, oil will eventually tap out and decline. Our national economy is whitewashed in a patina of cheap oil, as the patterns of everyday life have adjusted to reap its affordable abundance. Americans are among the planet’s most gluttonous users. The ramifications of a shortage are immense. If you think our current situation at the gas pumps is bad, imagine a permanent energy crisis, worse every year. We can debate when Peak Oil will happen and how much misery will result, but it is completely inevitable. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

My fellow citizens, nature bats last. Life along the River de Nial is doomed. It’s a new day in America; the alarm has rung. It’s time to arise, to embrace reality, and to reclaim our pride and our country. The survival of our society depends upon it.