The flood washes over us

A year ago I wrote an article discussing Hurricane Harvey.  Here we are again watching another 1 in a 1,000 year hurricane disaster unfold.  I won’t try to summarize all the other weather disasters that have been unfolding around the world this year.  This year is going to be the fourth warmest year on record behind 2016, 2015, and 2017 respectively.    Our global climate is obviously in chaos and weather disasters becoming more frequent and severe.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence’s landfall meteorologists struggled to find words to describe this storm’s unbelievable potential for destruction.  The storm was “biblical”, “unprecedented”, “historical”, “a monster”…yet none of the words really conveyed the reality of risk that few have yet faced.   Governor’s of both Carolina’s took the warnings seriously and called for evacuation.  Many heeded their warnings but the fact that some people chose to stay and ride out the storm showed a dangerous lack of understanding for the danger they faced.  The media’s obsession for making storm disasters into morbid entertainment was in full form when one reporter struggled to stand against wind that seemingly had little affect on nearby pedestrians strolling by.  Like passing a highway accident we can’t seem to turn our eyes away.

The fact that Florence didn’t inflict greater wind damage when it made landfall was a fortunate break that had to do with the storm weakening after its final eyewall replacement cycle.  By Thursday evening September 13th hurricane reconnaissance indicated that a new eyewall was not likely to be completed; the eastern section of the wall not likely to reform.  This prevented Florence from rebuilding the strength of its winds and the storm continued to weaken as it lumbered towards landfall.  Instead of a Category 4 hurricane, Florence came ashore a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 90 mph versus 140 or higher.

Can you imagine the damage if this storm had been similar to last year’s Maria,  a Category 4 hurricane that dropped to Category 3 as it traveled 100 miles diagonally across Puerto Rico in 8 hours.  What if Florence had completed it’s eyewall and turned back into a Category 4 hurricane creeping slowly along the Carolina shoreline?  Hurricane Florence crawled across 200 miles in 72 hours dumping “unprecedented” amounts of rain on top of ground saturated from a long,  “record breaking” amount of precipitation this spring and summer.  The wind damage of a stronger storm would have been an order of magnitude greater, totally flattening buildings, infrastructure, and vegetation as it moved slowly inland.  Can you imagine the devastation in addition to the catastrophic flooding that is currently unfolding?  We are still days and weeks away from knowing the full extent of flood damage.

It seems we are constantly witnessing “unprecedented” violent storms, “historic” record-breaking summer heat waves,  “ferocious” winter snowstorms,  “never-before-seen” wildfires,  and “torrential” rainfall that results in a “deluge” of flooding.  We use adjectives that try to impart our sense that storms are bigger, stronger, or greater, yet after too frequent use they seem to lose their value.  We don’t seem to realize the magnitude of what is happening or the danger.  Does a “never-seen-before ” event that happens every few years really mean something to us?  Does a “1 in a 1,000 year” event that happens twice in two years become a warning of something different happening?  Perhaps we are becoming numb to the reality of our climate changing.

I keep expecting that most people will finally wake up and realize how serious climate change has become and do everything possible to prevent further climate destabilization.  Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.  The media will move on to the next disaster.  The damage will be horrific and some will send in donations believing they have done what they could, secretly relieved it was them and not me.  The unintended result will be that our economy will be stimulated by the money spent repairing the damage and we will conveniently forget we were warned.  We could have done something to avoid the damage in the first place.  Is it possible politicians don’t see the connection between recent spending and disasters?  Does it really not matter how our economy is stimulated?  Politicians brag about bringing down unemployment or raising GDP, while they decry climate change  a hoax.  By all means, let’s dig up more coal, pump more oil!

Years after Super-storms Sandy, Katrina, Harvey, and Maria reporters return and find the poor even poorer, their homes still not repaired, communities still struggling to rebuild.  How many storms can we take before we can no longer rebuild?  Look closely and you will see  climate change migration within our borders as well as across them.  I’ve given up trying to understand how denial is possible.  I watch events unfolding that scientists predicted over a decade ago.

Recently someone sent me a paper entitled “Deep adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” written by Prof. Jem Bendell.   It is a stark assessment of our changing climate and concludes that we are not likely to prevent further destabilization.  The paper offers his reasons for believing climate change is non-linear, why our forecasts are wrong, and what this means for our future.  He points out that professional researchers seem reticent to sound the alarm.  He suggests it’s time for scientists to break with conventional academic decorum and be frank in describing the dangers to society in collapse.  I agree with Dr. Bendell that we have likely passed the point of return and it is time to begin talking openly about what this means to society.

“It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channeled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.”

Maybe it’s time to admit failure and talk openly about how we deal with the collapse of civil society.  Did passengers on the Titanic reach the point where they knew it was hopeless and openly discussed the number of lifeboats available and who would be given the opportunity to board them?  At what point did the Captain announce that the ship was going down and everyone needed to get off?  Was it cultural programming that allowed them to behave “civilized” enough to apportion access to resources (wealthy women and children first)?  Will we be as civil or will we leave it to survival of the fittest, a fight to the bitter end?  What did it mean for people in lifeboats to leave some groups behind (men and poorer passengers) standing on deck knowing their life was being forfeited?  What did it feel like to be considered less valuable than richer patrons who were given first opportunity to board a lifeboat?  Have you looked around and wondered how you would fare in your community?  Don’t we have similar biases in the US, where the wealthiest citizens are given tax breaks while programs that serve the middle class and poor are cut?

Bendell concludes “Disruptive impacts from climate change are now inevitable. Geoengineering is likely to be ineffective or counter-productive. Therefore, the mainstream climate policy community now recognizes the need to work much more on adaptation to the effects of climate change. That must now rapidly permeate the broader field of people engaged in sustainable development as practitioners, researchers and educators. In assessing how our approaches could evolve, we need to appreciate what kind of adaptation is possible. Recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war –and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability that has underpinned the approach of many professionals (Bendell et al, 2017). Instead, a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a deep adaptation agenda may be useful.”

Can we reduce harm and not make matters worse?  I think Bendell’s paper is worth reading.  I agree we need to move beyond just thinking about political action, sustainable development, or efforts to reduce climate change.  We have to admit that our efforts have been largely unsuccessful and it’s time we face our situation, find ways of coming to terms with our bleak future.  There aren’t enough lifeboats!  The dangers are increasing exponentially and the window of opportunity to prepare is closing.  By preparing I mean securing access to emergency supplies of food, shelter, and energy.

Residents of North Carolina will suffer historic flood damage and loss of property but they were lucky this time because it could have been much, much worse.  Too many people stayed to ride out the storm and were lucky it wasn’t worse, fortunate there were people willing and able to rescue them.  All our homes and communities will likely be impacted by disaster sooner rather than later, and eventually people will not find the resources to help them rebuild.  It is hard to find hope for the best when the worst is upon us!

It’s time we talk openly about the emotional and psychological devastation of losing everything, of not being able to rebuild, of being unable to help others in need.  I believe we need to make room in our discussions for spiritual faith, something too often deemed irrelevant in the face of religious fundamentalism.  I know that my own belief in what is “unseen and unproven” yet gives me strength that helps me through difficult times.  Faith in our basic goodness gives us reason to behave better towards others.  Now more than ever we need to reaffirm our faith in the goodness of humanity and say “no” to baser instincts.   It will not hurt to pray for strength as the flood washes over us.

Image credit: Russ Lewis covers his eyes from a gust of wind and a blast of sand as Hurricane Florence approaches Myrtle Beach, S.C., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. AP/David Goldman

8 Replies to “The flood washes over us”

  1. Thanks Jody, for the anniversary reminder and the link to Bendellʻs paper (havenʻt read the whole thing yet but it is very interesting). Different qualities of mind and heart will be required of us, as well as different skills and abilities. Some very old-fashioned qualities like bravery and responsibility, as well as some not so old-fashioned qualities like social and political innovation, creativity, and tolerance of difference.

  2. Thanks for raising and facing up to these issues in your post, Jody.

    I’ve just started work on a dissertation touching on aspects of deep adaptation. It feels like something that has to be confronted, though I almost wish I could bury my head in the sand.

    Borrowing from Joanna Macy, I’m trying to cultivate faith in compassion combined with cold-eyed insight into reality.

    1. Chris,
      I both congratulate and commiserate you on nearing the end and begin writing your dissertation. It takes more work than we realize and we tend to feel rushed to be “just done with it all”. Enjoy it while it lasts. It is the rare time of pause between phases of your life.

      I’m not sure I would have used the term “Deep adaptation.” I don’t think our future is as much about adaption as it going to be about surrender.
      I like Joanna Macy’s work. I attended a workshop based on her teachings. I found it very cathartic. There is some healing in letting our fears, anger, and confusion come out and express themselves.
      Global problems seem to be coming at us faster and faster and it is getting difficult to know what is critical and what is a distraction. The state of compassion is elusive I think. I used to think the idea had something to do with “feeling sorry for others” but now I realize that is too detached. In compassion we actually take in and absorb other’s pain and suffering. We don’t push it away or run from it. And there is a fine line between allowing our self to feel someones pain and yet remain strong enough not to be overwhelmed. When we feel pain our mind and bodies tell us we need to react. We want to get away. We want to do something to fix it. Nature’s way of survival I guess.

      I’ve been reading Richard Rohr’s book “Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the twelve steps.” In some ways the twelve step path to recovery could be used to overcome our addiction to fossil energy. The title words “breathing underwater” were what caught my attention. It seems an interesting paradox.
      Its sounds like surrendering to suffocation. We can only hope we emerge out the other side.
      Transitions are never easy!

  3. thank you all for trying to get to the heart of it. Early morning musings of an old goat. Am on a thankfully short trip to the mainland madland US, big cities mostly, so filled with frenetic and powerful activity, so different from my life on Hawaii island especially that in beloved rural Ka’u.
    Among all the clear sighted revelations rehammered into this old heart is how difficult, nay impossible, it is to disengage from being an active participant in adding to the problem. Seeing things clearly is difficult enough from the midst of it, like being swept along in a murky river, but ceasing to add more topsoil, trash, and lest we forget carbon dioxide to it seems somewhere between improbable and impossible. Each and every engine has an exhaust, whether a vehicle or a local or national economy. Seems only plants take in our collective exhausts and belch oxygen, and my engineers brain sez the only way out of our dilemna is to build civilizations that output goods and services from one end and necessary raw materials, including insight, out the other…

  4. Have to say, I blew it earlier. Skimmed through this one when Jody posted it… but didn’t look into Jem’s piece. Fortunately Brian mentioned it at his blog and I followed the link.

    To make up for my inattention earlier I’ll offer that the Bendell et al, 2017 link that Jody lists above is behind a paywall, but if one follows to this researchgate link you can find a galley proof that is very close to the final published piece:

    This latter is 27 pages, and I’ve not gotten through them.

    Perhaps also of note – Jem has a blog himself and recently posted a piece I found fascinating:

    Look through his list of personality ‘types’ to see if your own attitude toward collapse is listed.

    1. Clem,
      Strange but when I click on the link to Bendell’s paper it goes straight to the pdf no paywall. ?????

      Anyway I’m glad you did decide to read the paper. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts when you finish reading it. I also went to his blog and read his list of attitudes towards collapse. There were many that resonated with my thinking and actions but they have changed and continue to change over time.

      I first became convinced of our society’s collapse after I watched a video entitled “Crude Awakening” about peak oil. That was more than 10 years ago. As a geology undergrad I began studying climate change more than 20 years ago. Frankly, as a peak oil person I assumed oil shortages would take down our economy long before climate change. Some of my friends assumed the same thing and thought they didn’t need to worry about carbon emissions because the economy would fail and that would reduce emissions. So at first I was more focused on surviving economic collapse.

      If I look back at my journals I can trace the evolution of my thoughts and feelings over time. At about the same time I watched “Crude Awakening’ I read Orlov’s “Reinventing Collapse” and I think it was his book that really kicked me into the “prepper” stage. It’s hard to dismiss the events that unfolded in the former Soviet Union, or the comparison with what could happen in the US. Not long after I read his book the financial near-collapse happened in 2007 and that really convinced me that economic collapse was immanent. Yet, somehow we didn’t.

      But I see a lot of economic cracks in our society. We can see that many Americans are still worse off than they were before the Great Recession and that economic inequality is as high as the roaring 20’s just before the Great Depression. I’d describe our country as being in a process of “slow collapse”, things moving economically downward in steps but not catastrophically.

      I recommend an excellent book “The Upside of Down” by Thomas Homer-Dixon. His explanations of how society grows and shrinks in complexity, the different ways that we use energy and resources to build complexity, and how a society eventually reaches a point in complexity when systemic problems with resources force a downward trend, where society can go through a renewal/reorganization process without it being catastrophic. But the longer we fight the change the harder the transition can be. That made a lot of sense to me. “Collapse now. Avoid the rush!” kind of thinking. So my husband and I began investing in change.

      I am a frugal person and always have been. I see value in energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy, and local food production. I see home gardens and herbal medicine as really important for surviving collapse. My husband and I have been living off solar energy on our home for more than 7 years. Our home is all electric and our monthly bill is $10. We have a ground source heat pump and wood stove for winter supplemental heating. We continue to improve energy conservation. Last year we spent about $1,200 to replace all 104 florescent bulbs in our house with LEDs. (Our home was built in 1986 and had mostly florescent light fixtures). We reduced energy use by 200 kW per month (our average was 900 so that was a significant improvement) and now our solar panels will produce more than half the electricity we need to recharge an electric car. We are looking into replacing the 1980’s windows next year which will be more energy efficient and we believe that should give us all the energy we need so we are looking at buying an electric car.

      I have less faith in political action than personal action. I have less ability to influence others than myself. But I’ve agreed to lead the Solarize Indiana group in Lafayette and we are working to help others in our community install solar energy. In my business I have a lot of contact with customers who want to grow food, since I make a soil product for raised bed vegetable production. I’m starting to work with the Purdue Student Farm in developing an internship program for training more small farmers. Some of our plans for the land we bought this spring include building greenhouses that young people who want to become market farmers can rent by the season. In four years I will have moved my business to this land, which is better than leasing land from Purdue. It gives me more control over my business. I’m also slowing learning to grow mushrooms and I see these as not only a valuable crop but also how mycelium can help to restore woodlands.

      Ten years ago we made a five year plan and accomplished it. Then we made another five year plan and accomplished that. Now we have another five year plan we are working on. Will we complete it before a collapse? I don’t know, but it has been useful to make plans and keep working. I think that the longer I’ve gone down this path the easier it has become to change. Changes I made five years ago are now “normal” and my life no longer seems that different. I’m actually excited about all the ways that we could change agriculture and improve our diet. But I also know that many people are still stuck thinking they can’t change.

      The fear of change, the idea of life as you know it ending (i.e. collapse) is a big reason why people get stuck in denial. Bendell’s paper echoed some of my same thinking about climate change and rapid intensification of global warming as we cross tipping points. I think this is what concerns me the most now because if we go this route it means that our future is threatened. It means that Homo sapien may not survive. I’m very concerned about the effects of the Trump Administration and his Republican supporters. I see them doing a lot of harm at a time when we should be working hard to avoid tipping points. There are days when I think I need to get involved in politics because this battle is heating up and it may require action.

      As someone who practices meditation and contemplation I look at acceptance as something that comes from the spiritual side of life. I think some of these practices will help us deal better with collapse.

      As I said, I could relate to many of the attitudes Bendell describes.


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