Natural disaster, experienced virtually

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishAs North Carolina towns like Goldsboro, Kinston, and Lumberton experience intense flooding long after Hurricane Matthew veered away from the coast, we are reminded again how disasters can take their own sluggish time. In the current case, it has taken days for intense rain water to move from inland streams to larger rivers, raising them to record heights.  “This is going to be a prolonged event,” announced North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, after having signed an expedited Major Disaster Declaration for his beleaguered state.

My book, which is just about to be released with Princeton University Press, considers a different “prolonged event,” a “superflood” which took not three or four days to arrive, but rather months. The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History is about the year-long disaster known colloquially as “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” In a magnified version of the 2016 disaster, intense rains and snow fell for months throughout the upper branches of the river system, creating upstream flooding. Then these swollen tributaries all disgorged into the Lower Mississippi River simultaneously, evincing what one commentator at the time called a “sinister rhythm.”

If you have been following Hurricane Matthew and its path through Haiti, Florida and North Carolina, you understand that in the modern era, we experience most disasters virtually. I started thinking about this issue of virtual disaster consumption in the days surrounding, and months following, the New Orleans levee disaster of 2005 (“Katrina”). I began to wonder: how and why do disasters become publicly meaningful? Why do certain environmental catastrophes receive scant attention while others seem to place our national character on public trial? Is attention an unqualified good? How should we communicate with ourselves about disasters, especially now, in a time when human activity largely determines their makeup?

After much research, I came to realize that the first U.S. disaster to occur in a media landscape as well as in an industrialized, stress-bearing environment much like our own was the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The ways in which this flood went public, and then lost unified public meaning and indeed national attention, represent a fascinating case in modern disaster communication and consumption.

The 1927 flood was a humanly caused event. Deforestation, wetlands drainage, and monoculture farming throughout the Mississippi watershed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seriously reduced the storage capacity of its soil.  Moreover, designers of the flood protection system elected not to mimic an alluvial basin’s own mechanisms for holding and dispersing water in times of overflow. Engineers decided instead to impound the river within a towering levee system. Months of very intense rain and snowfall turned this precarious situation into catastrophe in the Lower Mississippi Valley as levees, and more levees, burst—one was even intentionally detonated to save the wealthy banking center and port of New Orleans. Over 600,000 people—mostly African American—were made homeless, land in seven states was inundated, thirteen major crevasses occurred, as many as 1,000 people died, and a year’s worth of cotton and sugar crops were ruined. The Red Cross was established, and the National Guard patrolled 154 “concentration camps” to house the evacuees but also to keep the Delta’s labor force in place.

Media technologies which produced this flood for a virtual audience were distinctly modern.  Wired telegraphy, aerial photography, recorded music, documentary film, a rapid and extensive AP service, and a brand new nationwide radio system were all put into use to transport this flood into homes in the US and around the world.  In the wake of World War I, moreover, governmental organizations knew how to use narrative and representational techniques to weld its citizenry into a unified mass. As communications theorist Harold Laswell put it in 1926, speaking of machine-age propaganda, “more can be won by illusion than by coercion.”

The flood of 1927 did seem to configure, at the flip of an all-powerful speaker switch, a coherent public audience.  FEMA did not yet exist and Congress refused to appropriate special funds, so the Red Cross had to commandeer the communications infrastructure of the nation to involve the public in the work and cost of relief. Newspapers, movie houses, vaudeville stages, and radio stations became vital pathways in a top-down, diffusive program of national coherence. It was not just any story though which made the “huge relief machine” hum, but a particular story about historical redemption. Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. When Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary in charge of rescue and relief operations, first spoke to a national radio audience, he thus summoned memories of the Civil War. He imagined a new battle being waged between an invading “water enemy” and the people of “our South,” a “great army of unfortunate people.” Northern whites cast themselves this time around, in the words of The New York Times, as “an army of rescuers.” The Red Cross and its news outlets positioned this flood as a redemptive reenactment of the War between the States. This “illusion,” to use Laswell’s word, summoned national investment for about one month, and then public feeling split along regional and racial lines.

Sociologists at this time believed that disasters acted like helpful galvanic events to reset and repair a given society’s structural problems. The North’s disaster narrative, while it did symbolically bring accord, did nothing to actually address southern, and particularly, black southern, economic and political grievances.  White southerners came to express with great trenchancy their dissenting view that this calamity was neither natural nor redemptive, but was due to mainly northern environmental practices and the Federal government’s misguided levees-only policy. When they looked at the water destroying their crops, they saw Yankee water.

Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood.  As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie, and that northern institutions were abetting its reestablishment. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White and others publicly decried this situation in The Crisis, The Chicago Defender, and The Nation.

Whites outside the South began to lose enthusiasm too for Hoover’s “reconstruction machine.” Valiant scenarios of rescuing southern brethren gave way to a regretful feeling that the South was forever an intractable “problem.” H.L. Mencken acerbically wondered why anyone would care about such a backward place of “tinpot revivals” and anti-intellectualism. And others just felt the story had grown dull. An editorial in The Nation averred that “people can stand only so much calamity. After a while it begins to pall, and finally it has no meaning whatever.” Another complained that the flood, lacking the dramatic unities of place and time, was aesthetically unsatisfying. And another observed that it is very hard to care for “a mud-besmattered mass of human beings” because only individual peril really moves an audience.

Once the flood slipped from the national headlines, it continued for some time to resonate in the black press and in the southern press. Eventually the event took up lodging in the imaginations, and the work of two of our major authors, who both happen to hail from Mississippi. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were young men living in or near the flood zone in 1927; each read Memphis’ paper, The Commercial Appeal, and its refutation of the dominant northern flood narrative. Wright was an avid reader of the black press coverage as well. For the next thirteen years, floods would seep into their fiction. While we tend to associate the Great War with modern narrative experimentation, for these two American authors, it was the 1927 flood which brought home the realization that the world was run on chance and risk, and, even more, that humans had made their physical and social worlds still more violently unpredictable.

In the 1920s, the Gulf South represented a leading edge of environmental peril. The region made manifest early what has since become more globally shared. Wright, Faulkner, and other attentive southern authors and performers of that day help us even now think about which stories, and which ways of bending language, comport most searchingly with the world of diffuse, chronic environmental risk in which we now live.

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. Her book, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History, will be published this January.

Conversations on Climate: Paul Wignall says climate crisis is nothing new

NEW climate pic

Climate Change: We’ve Been Here Before
by Paul Wignall

The world’s climate is always changing and always has. Even during the past few centuries we have seen substantial variations, but only recently have we begun to blame ourselves for them. But how much natural variability is there, and just how extreme can climate change be? To gain some longer-term perspective on the climate’s variability we can look back through geological time, particularly at catastrophic events known as mass extinctions. In my recent book, The Worst of Times, I focus on an 80 million year interval when life on Earth suffered one disaster after another. These catastrophes included the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, the worst crisis that life has ever faced. It is not very reassuring to find that these extinctions all coincide with intervals of rapid global warming.

rocks from Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou

Sedimentary rocks from the Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou Province, SW China that record evidence for the greatest of all mass extinctions.

So, are we all going to hell in a hand basket? Well, probably not just yet. The story from the past is much more nuanced than this and I believe there is substantial hope that all is not so bad today. The reason is that the worst 80 million years happened a long time ago and more recently (in the past 100 million years) things have got a lot better. At one time all the world’s continents were joined together into a single supercontinent called Pangea. This seems to have created a global environment that was very fragile. Every time there was a phase of giant volcanic eruptions in Pangea, climates changed rapidly, the oceans stagnated and life began to suffer. The cause seems to be not the actual lava flows themselves, although these were very large, but the gases that bubbled out of them, especially carbon dioxide, everyone’s (not so) favorite greenhouse gas. As I explain in my book the effects of these gases on climate and oceans changed global environments in a disastrous way. Rapid increases in global temperature were part of the story and the results were some of the hottest climates of all time. The results for life were profound; dominant groups went extinct and new groups appeared only to have their brief hegemony terminated by the next disaster. By the time these waves of extinction were over the dinosaurs were the newest kids on the block. They went on to thrive and get very large whilst scurrying around at their feet were a group of small furry creatures. These were the mammals and they would have to wait a long time for their turn.

basalt flows

A landscape entirely made of giant basalt flows from the Permian Period, Yunnan Province, SW China.

Dinosaurs were the dominant animals on Earth for over 140 million years and it is often thought that they were somehow competitively successful but I think they were just very lucky. They appeared at a time when the Earth was rapidly getting better at coping with climatic changes caused by giant volcanism. There were plenty of episodes of large-scale eruptions during the time of the dinosaurs and none caused major extinctions. The key thing was that Pangea was splitting up and separate continents were forming – the familiar continents of today’s world. Such a world seems better able to cope with rapid increases in atmospheric gases because feedback mechanisms are more effective. In particular rainfall is more plentiful when the continents are small and nowhere is too far away from the sea. Rain scrubs the atmosphere and thus alleviates the problems.

However, the $64,000 question is how quickly this feedback can happen. The world seems better at doing this today than it was in deep time but maybe we are adding the carbon dioxide too fast to our atmosphere, maybe we are swamping the system? This is a hard question to answer, we’re not sure how much gas came out during the giant eruptions of the past and so it’s hard to directly compare with the present day pollution rates. What we do know is that past mega-eruptions have been remarkably damage-free. For over 100 million years, our world has been a benign place.

Oh, except for a remarkably large meteorite impact that was bad news for the dinosaurs, but that’s another story.

Wignall jacketPaul B. Wignall is professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds. He has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. The coauthor of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath, he lives in Leeds.

Conversations on Climate: Economists consider a hotter planet on PBS Newshour

NEW climate picIn Climate Shock, economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman tackle the likely prospect of a hotter planet as a risk management problem on a global scale. As 150 world leaders meet in Paris for the UN Conference on Climate Change, both took the time to speak to PBS Newshour about what we know and don’t know about global warming:


Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.

Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

Read the rest on the PBS Newshour blog.

Wagner coverGernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He is the author of But Will the Planet Notice? (Hill & Wang). Martin L. Weitzman is professor of economics at Harvard University. His books include Income, Wealth, and the Maximum Principle. For more, see www.gwagner.com and scholar.harvard.edu/weitzman.

 

Conversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design for Climate

NEW climate pic

Design with Climate is Design for Climate
by Victor W. Olgyay

climate change 2Our environmental crisis is real, and it is of our own creation. It is shocking that we humans are intentionally destroying the foundations of our existence, fouling our nest beyond repair. And we appear incapable of stopping ourselves from continuing to further worsen the problem.

Perhaps the issue is not irredeemable. After all, the climate crisis has had a long, slow burn. It has been a hundred years in the making, and has had the contribution of millions of individuals who have been polluting in the name of progress.

Now, in 2015 we are aware of what the uncoordinated actions of 7.3 billion people working for progress results in. We understand the origins of the ever-increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And we can both see the path forward, and we can design the path that we prefer.

Globally, buildings are the largest end use energy sector. We need to take dramatic steps today to address the global climate crisis, and that requires improving the energy performance of existing and new buildings. By doing this we will be able to shift economically to a renewable, low carbon energy supply.

We can reduce energy use in new and existing buildings dramatically and we can accomplish much of this through low and no cost measures. Simply designing buildings to work with local climatic conditions can reduce energy use by 50 percent or more. Design with Climate, a book written over 50 years ago, and recently republished by Princeton University Press, shows exactly how to do that. In essence, bioclimatic design information tells us how to shade our windows and walls during overheated periods, and to let in the sun’s warmth in when it is desirable. We can use daylight to illuminate vast amounts of interior space, and ventilate buildings with the wind, rather than fighting it. These ideas and many more result in sensible, responsible design, intelligent use of resources, and can result in beautiful, comfortable buildings.

: Designing with Climate makes buildings more comfortable while using less energy.

Designing with Climate makes buildings more comfortable while using less energy.

Since Design with Climate was written in 1963, several things have happened that make this even easier. We have more effective building insulation systems, which dramatically reduce heat loss and gain. We have better windows, and better techniques for building to reduce air and moisture infiltration. And we have sophisticated computer energy modeling techniques that accurately predict how buildings will preform before we build them, so building performance can become an integral part of building design.

And one more thing: we have that environmental crisis I started with. When Design with Climate was first published in 1963, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 320 parts per million (ppm), and today it is over 400ppm. In 1963 Rachael Carson had just written Silent Spring, and the environmental movement was nascent. Today the polar ice caps are melting, and global warming is threatening our very existence.

climate change 1We are now building extremely low energy buildings, zero energy buildings, and even buildings that produce more energy then they consume. Retrofitting existing buildings to use less energy, and building new superefficient structures paves the way for our renewable energy powered future, and combats climate change.

We must design not only with, but also for climate. Building design has implications we must use for our benefit. And through this engaged conversation with nature we can usher in a design solution to our climate crisis. That is true progress that can align millions of people.


Olgyay_DesignPB_F15_NewAndExpanded
Victor W. Olgyay is an architect and the son of the author of Design with Climate.

United Nations Conference on Climate Change: Reading Roundup #COP21

For the next two weeks, representatives from countries around the world will be meeting in Paris to discuss nothing less than the future of our planet at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Climate change is one of the most important issues facing the world today, and it behooves all of us to educate ourselves. PUP publishes a number of titles that have the information you need to understand the repercussions of climate change, and make informed choices that will promote sustainability. Browse many of them below, and be sure to take advantage of the free chapters and/or introductions that we have posted on our website. For the next two weeks, check back here to follow our Conversations on Climate blog series, including posts from Victor Olgyay and Gernot Wagner.

Morris Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels
Ian Morris
Chapter 1
Climate Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman
Chapter 1
 Life Life on a Young Planet
Andrew H. Knoll
Chapter 1
 Medea The Medea Hypothesis
Peter Ward
Chapter 1
 Sun The Sun’s Influence On Climate
Joanna D. Haigh & Peter Cargill
Chapter 1
 Worst The Worst of Times
Paul B. Wignall
Chapter 1
 Extinction Extinction
Douglas H. Erwin
Chapter 1
Tambora Tambora
Gillen D’Arcy Wood
Introduction
 Design Design With Climate
Victor Olgyay
Chapter 1
 Planet The Planet Remade
Oliver Morton
Introduction
 Ocean The Great Ocean Conveyor
Wally Broecker
Chapter 1
 Rules The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll

It’s Getting Hot in Here: Eric H. Cline’s New York Times Op-Ed on the Perils of Climate Change

5-28 Bronze Age CollapseIn the eye of the storm – that is to say, in the unrelenting public discussion that is climate change – author Eric H. Cline’s latest Op-Ed for The New York Times packs quite a gale force.

Holding both ancient and contemporary society up to the proverbial light, Cline asks if we’re really all that different from our forebears and whether or not we’re capable of avoiding a similarly abrupt end.

Eric H. Cline, a Professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University and the Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute,  doesn’t hesitate to present these very early, and very scary repercussions of environmental catastrophe. He reminds readers that these events have acted as catalysts of warfare and harbingers of destruction since the days of old, or, more specifically, since the tail-end of the Late Bronze Age.

In his new book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Cline reveals that the thriving cultures within Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia didn’t necessarily succumb to the military prowess of the ‘Sea Peoples’ alone, but rather, fell victim to Mother Nature herself: earthquakes, changes in water temperature, drought, and famine hearkened in a period of rebellion, followed by complete ruin.


“We still do not know the specific details of the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age or how the cascade of events came to change society so drastically. But it is clear that climate change was one of the primary drivers or stressors, leading to the societal breakdown.”


The real question Cline seems to be getting at is: “Why not us?” We’re no more able to control the weather than they were – or are we? Recent debates about global warming suggest that we might just be able to put off our own demise, at least temporarily.

What happens if we don’t change our habits, however, is less certain; but Cline is fairly convinced, based on the evidence from his book, that it won’t be good. For him, the possibility of total collapse is far from the realm of the ridiculous, and his article is not so much a threat as it is a warning. Maybe if we know what brought our ancestors into the Dark Ages, we can stay in a light for just a little while longer.

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Eric H. Cline is the author of:

5-28 Cline 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691140896
264 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 halftones. 2 maps. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400849987
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