Journal: Chuck Spinney Sends–Katrina & Fear

03 Environmental Degradation, 08 Wild Cards, 12 Water, Earth Intelligence, Ethics, Government, Military
Chuck Spinney
Chuck Spinney

The Detritus of Katrina and the Paralysis of Fear:
A Metaphor for Contemporary Politics

The vast Mississippi Delta in Louisiana is sinking as sea water from the Gulf of Mexico seeps in to destroy its fresh water marshlands.  The Army's Corps of Engineers says it can not protect New Orleans from the inevitable storm surges caused by hurricanes (see the Guardian report attached below).

Some may dismiss this warning as alarmist hype, and the Army's Corps of Engineers certainly does not have an enviable track record in this regard.  That said, the Corps' warning does make evident the political-economic  detritus left over from Hurricane Katrina.  Inferentially, the warning also highlights the hollowness in the scare tactics used by global warming advocates to raise money for their far more costly ambitions, not to mention the paralyzing political-economic consequences posed by the politics of fear practiced by the Pentagon.

The reality of the Delta thus becomes a metaphor for the larger emptiness that now pervades American politics.

Below the Fold: Balance of Spinney Comment, Full Article with Highlight, Books

The most immediate threat to New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta is the clear and present dangers posed by man's efforts to tame the Mississippi River by controlling and canalizing its route, together with the ecological damage to the freshwater marshlands wrought by the canal and pipeline systems that now move 35 percent of our natural gas and oil through the Delta.    To be sure, recent rises in the sea level exacerbate the problem, but they are not the proximate cause of the catastrophe.

Bear in mind, there is nothing new about our appreciation of the threat to the Mississippi Delta: hydrologists, civil engineers, and ecologists have been warning about it since at least the 1950s, long before global warming was deemed a politically fashionable problem.  Hurricane Katrina merely converted that threat from a future inevitability into a current reality.

The continuing disaster begs a larger political question: Will the United States ever muster the political will to raise the money and manpower needed to tackle what are clearly real, understandable, avoidable manmade ecological dangers?

The Corps of Engineers says that the total cost to place the Delta's ecology on a glide path to better health will be on the order of $200 billion.  This is, no doubt, an underestimate, and probably a large one. It also raises the collateral possibility of waste and smarmy political corruption at the local level — long bugaboos raised by the operating culture of the Corps of Engineers.

Nevertheless, the task of placing Delta's ecology  on an evolutionary pathway to better ecological health, while huge and highly problematic in conception, pales in comparison to that of solving the far more distant, less well-defined, ecological problems hypothesized by the more hyperbolic global warming advocates.  These dangers, if ever taken seriously, imply corrective costs of untold trillions of dollars, enormous collateral waste, and a degree of heretofore never-achieved international cooperation, all for what, at the end of the day, is a highly uncertain venture into an unproven theory that the evolutionary interplay of chance and necessity on a global scale can be made predictable and tamed by man.  If there is one thing the so-called taming of the Mississippi ought to have taught us, it is that a little humility is in order when messing with Mother Nature.

Notwithstanding its evident uncertainties, the current estimate to fix the Delta or move New Orleans to a safer location can to be placed in a contemporary political perspective.  A $200 billion underestimate to fix the Delta would be  less than one third of what the United States now shovels each year into the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) to finance the ever-growing costs of its unending wars of empire, the increasingly costly maintenance of the bloated overhead needed to support the MICC's cold-war inspired force and international basing structures, and to buy out its current wish list of new weapons that are high-cost, outdated legacies of the now defunct Cold War thinking.  In fact, the Corps'  underestimate for “fixing” the Delta is less than the current underestimate of the the $298 billion it will cost to procure the planned fleet of Joint Strike Fighters over the next 25 to 30 years, a kludge of an airplane plane the Obama Administration just committed to in order to buy off political opposition to its plan to terminate the equally unneeded F-22.

So, when compared to the problem of financing the MICC,  the problem of fixing the Delta appears to be relatively small in economic terms. But it is also small in political terms, when compared to the problem of reining in the ambitions of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex or MICC.  Taken together, the MICC's ambitions pose a political problem that,  in contrast to the ambiguities implicit in the various global warming hypotheses, is clearly understood, but one where corrective action is paralyzed by uncontrolled factional dynamics infecting America's contemporary political-economy.

Yet despite the comparatively small size of the problem posed by human activities in the Delta, it is quite unlikely, four years after Katrina, that the US political apparat will ever muster the political will to divert the flow of resources needed step up to tackle this real problem in a serious way.

The deficit hawks in Congress, the think tanks, and the media will argue that the United States can not afford it, although in the same breath, they will also say we must waste more money propping up the MICC.  The MICC will continue to use the politics of fear to siphon increasingly scarce technical and economic resources into its ever more wasteful activities.  And all the while, Americans will continue to be distracted by an ever growing flood of alarmist reports — the politics of fear again — about the long range threats caused by hidden mathematical assumptions buried in computerized global warning models which lack sufficient data (in the form of long time series of actual observations for a large numbers of different locations around the globe) to scientifically test the “truth” of those assumptions.

If we can not muster the will to tackle the human, ecological, and economic detritus left over from Katrina in some way (perhaps the only choice would be to abandon/move New Orleans and redesign the energy infrastructure), it is patently absurd to  imagine our political system will tackle global warming in any substantive way.   That is why the grim reality of Katrina, when compared to the intractable political reality MICC and the political fantasy of mustering meaningful action on global warming, becomes a metaphor for the emptiness of contemporary American politics.

Chuck Spinney

Full Story Online
Full Story Online

Storm threat to New Orleans

• Flooding can't be stopped, says chief of city defences
• Half of Louisiana will be under water by 2100

Paul Brown
October 25, 2009

New Orleans can no longer be protected from hurricane storm surges, according to the US army general in charge of the city's defences.

General Robert Van Antwerp, chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers, said his team was in “persistent conflict” with the Mississippi river.

“If you ask can I protect the city, the answer is no. Can I reduce the risk? Yes.

“We can develop better early warning systems, better evacuation plans, better levees to hold back most of the water, but we cannot stop levees being overtopped and the city flooded.”

He declined to say whether this meant the city should be abandoned altogether and relocated inland. “That is outside my brief,” he said.

Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and caused a political crisis for President George Bush, a religion, science and environment conference in the city was told that half of Louisiana will be lost by the end of the century.

The vast Mississippi delta is sinking a centimetre a year. Sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate, and will be two metres higher by the year 2100. Much of the delta is less than a metre above sea level, so most communities will be submerged.

The oil and gas industry's massive canal and pipeline network, which provides 35% of the country's gas and oil, cuts through the state's freshwater swamps and marshes, allowing vast quantities of sea water from the Gulf to wash into the delta and kill many of the trees and plants that protect the land from storm surges.

Chris Macaluso, in charge of the newly created Office of Coastal Protection, says 2,300 square miles of marsh and swamp have been lost because of salt-water intrusion in 50 years.

In the four-month hurricane season, land disappears at the rate of an acre every six minutes or 25 to 40 square miles a year.

His office is reconstructing some of the barrier islands along the Gulf to protect the remaining wetlands from wave action, but what used to be marshland behind them is now open water dotted with oil wells. Most of the once vibrant cypress forests, which could stop the storm surges, are reduced to dead stumps sticking out of the water.

“We have broken the ecosystem. What we are doing to restore it is a drop in the ocean of what is needed,” Macaluso said.

His office is spending $1.5bn (about £915m) over four years on wetland restoration. Another $14.3bn is being spent on new levees and defences for New Orleans.

It is estimated that to save the delta's wetlands and its settlements from sinking by diverting the Mississippi would cost $200bn.

Prof Gerald Galloway, from the department of civil engineering at the University of Maryland, said: “We are facing catastrophe. The challenge now is to see if anybody will do anything about it.”

Dr Peter Bridgewater, chairman of the UK's Joint Nature Conservation Committee, asked if he would advocate evacuation of the city, said: “New Orleans is not a place to invest in real estate.

“There needs to be dramatic changes in policy and attitude, but time is running out.”

Bridgewater said wetlands were resilient and adaptable. If the Mississippi was allowed to flow across the marshes and rebuild the sediment, the swamps would regrow and a buffer could be recreated.

To allow river diversions, the army would need to review its current priority to keep the Mississippi open to navigation at all times. New Orleans is the country's largest port, and vital to the nation's economic welfare.

“We are having to rethink everything,” said Van Antwerp. “But even if we get it right, and that is by no means certain, there has to be the political will to vote the money to implement what we propose.”

Phi Beta Iota: Four books are recommended, the first making the point that natural disasters are made worse by the idiocy of man; the second pointing out that industrial catastrophes are a far greater threat to humanity than either nature or terrorism.  The last two speak to the cost of saving Earth and how to do it–through the unity of knowledge.

Review: Acts of God–The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America

Review: The Next Catastrophe–Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters

Review: The Future of Life

Review: Consilience–the Unity of Knowledge

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