Thursday, February 16, 2006

New Orleans: Welcome To Tomorrow's World


As the full scale of the Louisiana inundation, and its chaotic aftermath, sank in last week, commentators contrasted the power of the forces of nature with the weakness of human nature. The ‘thin veneer of civilisation’, we were told, had been scuffed off, showing the basic survival instinct beneath - anarchic, lawless.
But it wasn’t human nature that broke down, but a system of government. The New Orleans was - is - a peculiarly social and political disaster. The thin veneer of democratic citizenship has been ripped off a country deeply divided on class and racial lines; a society which has, for all its wealth and power, lost its sense of community and instinct for self help.
Yes, it was America’s tsunami. The scenes of devastation were uncannily similar to those we saw in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand, as towns were reduced to match wood. Much of the human suffering could have been avoided if flood warnings had been heeded, just as they could have been in the Indian Ocean had there been proper earthquake alerts.
But there is one important difference.
In those supposedly backward and primitive societies of the Indian Ocean we did not see the violence and looting that we have seen so shockingly in New Orleans. Nor were thousands of people left to fend for themselves for fully five days in a stinking concrete coffin. Commentators who witnessed both disasters, like the BBC’s Matt Frei, insisted that the social breakdown in the tsunami towns was not on the same scale as in Mississippi.
People who have less to lose, perhaps have a better sense of values; are more concerned to save lives rather than property. However, this is not just a question of there being more to rob. America is a devil take the hindmost society, in which the poor are segregated, left to their own devices. If New Orleans had been 70% white instead of 70% would the relief operation have failed?
It was overwhelmingly the black lower classes who were left behind by the white exodus. They are now being accused of resorting to lawlessness, but what else could they do. There is no functioning welfare state in modern America. They are used to a daily struggle for survival.
The initial evacuation warnings urged people to get in their cars and leave the city without giving any concern to those who lacked transport or were too sick or weak to get out or had nowhere to go. The poor, mentally ill and destitute were left on the streets, in the prisons, in the hospital to fend for themselves. And when they did start to fend for themselves they became the enemy within.
The US military and the police steamed into New Orleans as if it were Baghdad. Heavily armed, they made clear their first priority was to secure property, rather than help the victims. This was a military operation not a relief effort. The people in t he stricken city were treated like an internal colony which needed to be occupied and pacified, rather than a community which needed to be consoled and helped.
The other New Orleans citizens who ignored the evacuation warnings were, in many cases, survivalists and gun enthusiasts who seek out social disaster to allow them to exercise their particular skills. Others stayed to protect their businesses and property, with all necessary means. It is hardly surprising that gun law breaks out in a society which is saturated with hand weapons - where murder is commonplace and where the first reaction to confrontation is to often to shoot.
Forget the levees, it is the crumbling moral and social infrastructure of modern Republican America which has been exposed by this catastrophic event. It is summed up by the failure of a President to respond for fully five days to one of the greatest disasters ever to hit America. Nw Orleans like the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995, the inadequate response to which exposed the failings of the Japanese government.
But there is another sense in which this is a moral disaster for America. It has become a cliché to claim the influence of global warming on every natural disaster. Clearly, hurricanes happen in this part of the world. There was nothing particularly unusual in Katrina except its size and trajectory.
However, scientists are convinced that climate change is happening, that we are responsible for it, and that the consequence is likely to be increasingly unstable and extreme weather patterns. In other words, hurricanes are going to happen a lot more in future.
So it is perhaps fitting that one of these new age storms should hit America, home of irresponsible exploitation of carbon fuels, which produces 25% of the world’s C02 emissions. But the effects will not be confined to America, and we can perhaps see, in the scenes in New Orleans how quickly our own technological society can be plunged back to the stone age.
One of the main reasons for the failure of the relief effort was the loss of mobile phone networks. We don’t know how to function without them, or the computers which increasingly order our lives. We are becoming dangerously dependent on communication systems which are vulnerable to climate instabilities. Like our atomised society which has lost the capacity to unite in adversity.
So, look hard; look long. For this is what we all could face in the not too distant future. Welcome to tomorrow.

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