Tsunamis, New Orleans, and the War Against Nature

New Orleans is a monumental and heart wrenching tragedy which maybe impossible to comprehend and come to terms with. Our hearts go out to all those that suffer while life goes on as normal for the rest of us. Let us do everything to help those in need in whatever way we can, because the immediate need in the face of a disaster like the New Orleans flood is to offer every form of aid and compassion that can be mustered. But in the back of many people's minds is a lurking apprehension that grows larger every year.

The annual floods in Bangladesh have always seemed far away, as did the torrential monsoon last month in Bombay that crippled the city and killed hundreds. Hurricanes come closer to home, and the destruction wrought by Katrina is almost beyond comprehension, for it occurred with the same fury as the South Asian tsunami. Whole communities have been wiped out of existence, and the prospect of a major American city being under water for weeks or months feels as if Third World calamity, like those faraway Turkish and Iranian earthquakes that kill thousands without causing a ripple in America, has suddenly arrived here.

Both Katrina and the tsunami are forcing us to globalize our thinking under crisis conditions. Instead of approaching global warming positively, we are facing it the hard way, by enduring droughts, floods, and extreme natural disasters in general. No one knows to what extent any of these events is connected to human activity. It seems that global warming is playing its part in the increased force of hurricanes; one cannot find a similar connection to tsunamis, which are more like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but devout believers in the Gaia hypothesis have conjectured that perhaps our war against Nature is causing these responses from the planet.

I have no interest in metaphysical explanations here, and I would never join those religionists who will inevitably begin to mutter about God's retribution and premonitions of the End Time. But the fact that we are at war against Nature seems undeniable.

Katrina, we are told, would have been less devastating if local developers had not been destroying the marshlands that protect New Orleans from the fury of storms. But this ecological barrier was deemed unnecessary, and wetlands have been disappearing around the city at a rate of an acre every 24 minutes.

The war against Nature has been launched on many fronts:

--Abolishing native plant species in favor of over planting the same few crops: wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans.

--Exploiting fossil fuels without regard for their environmental effects.

--Polluting the ocean to the extent that half the world's coral reefs are immediately in danger

--Diverting and damming rivers without regard to the ecology or human needs downstream

--Eliminating wild lands and forests by stripping them of all vegetation.

When Thoreau made his famous comment, "In wildness is the preservation of the world," he had no idea of the alarming rate at which human beings would mistake short-term gratification for successful living. The environmental argument has been well addressed in hundreds of places, and perhaps the stridency of ecological alarmists has numbed the public to what's going on, leaving an opening for President Bush and other anti-environmentalists to deliver the reassuring message, "Nothing's wrong. Go back to whatever you were doing."

I think New Orleans will stick indelibly in our national consciousness as stark evidence that the war against Nature has to be ended. The choice is more clear cut than ever, and one only hopes that international cooperation is in the offing, since we are no longer apart from the so-called Third World in enduring intolerable calamity.