I am not proud of my first reaction to the news of the horrendous Boxing Day tsunami. To my mind, my response denotes a state of severe dysfunction, akin to running a temperature of 103F, or of flinching dramatically every single time a family member touches your shoulder.
As you will recall, the tsunami occurred not two months after the re-election of George Bush. I had spent the intervening weeks writing an
article about what the four more years of Bush would be like. I had just sent that article off to the printer, and was working on another one about the newly invigorated nuclear power industry, eagerly awaiting a new round of incentives and perks under Bush. I’d spent the run-up to the election thinking and writing about the revelation the mass extinction now in progress may well be the worst in the earth’s history, if you count the number of species wiped out.
It had been a rough few months. And that’s not even taking into account the usual litany of major episodes of destruction, and my seeming inability to rouse any interest in fighting them from a populace glued to the latest revelations on the election. Entire estuaries wiped out up and down both Baja coasts so that rich gringo yachters can visit and complain about the food for a few days, and the USDA refusing to allow meat companies to do their own tests for Mad Cow while contaminated beef is sold in restaurants in Oakland, crucial fisheries collapsing and children starving and well, too bad. What’s really interesting is whether the US Army had access to superscript typefaces in the early 1970s.
I opened my web browser and read that an undersea earthquake had sent massive walls of water crashing onto hundreds of thousands of people, most of them poor.
My first reaction was relief.
It was followed within seconds by a flood of empathy for the victims, a growing sense of the horror that the killer wave must have brought to bear on an entire basin. I began to leak tears, I dug in my wallet for the credit card to make a donation, I spent a few days reading everything I could on the aftereffects and the survivors.
And I thought about that first, gut reaction. It was very plain, as if spelled out in 72-point type in front of my face.
I was relieved because there was nothing anyone could have done. A disaster had happened that we could not possibly have stopped. The earth shifts all the time, and an oceanic landslide raises a wedge of water to batter a far-off coast. It had nothing to do with the Bush Administration, nothing to do with destruction of the environment, nothing to do with humans at all except as casualties. I could have written the best expose ever written, had a global movement crystallize around it like abolitionists around Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the tsunami would have happened anyway.
Just for a moment, I felt blameless.
I was wrong, of course. Tsunamis happen all the time, but many of the people who died did so because their shoreline homes were no longer protected by fringing mangrove forests and coral reefs. I publish stories on mangroves and reefs all the time. I should have known better. Oh, well.
There are a number of different types of bad news.
There is the bad news that is our birthright, the stuff inseparable from being human, the deaths of family members and ends of relationships, the loss of social prestige and conflict with other people. We feel this keenly, and it washes other considerations from our minds. We are all subject to it.
Then there is the remote bad news that comes in more abstract form, tsunamis, and famines, and extinctions of animals you were unlikely ever to see anyway. To be noticeable, given the distance from the observer, the scale of this sort of bad news must generally be large.
There is the tendency to treat this second kind of bad news as a series of disconnected disasters, evidence that life elsewhere really sucks, confirmation of the notion of American exceptionalism, or that life is cheap in the Third World. This notion does not stand up to much scrutiny, which is probably why few people scrutinize it.
When you do scrutinize the notion, you tend to find that poor people suffer far more than do the rich from disasters, famines, epidemics, and the like. You learn that people are poor because others are rich, and that in some cases and by some definitions of the word “rich,” some of those rich people are sitting in your chair right now. If you are of a certain humanistic frame of mind, you decide to work to mitigate your privilege, as meager as it might seem compared to the richer people around you. You boycott companies that cause tragedy. You donate money, and perhaps even time, to ameliorate the suffering.
And when it seems clear that your efforts are insufficient, you may become an activist, a Jeremiah, warning people that something must be done to avert even greater tragedy.
Which brings us to the third type of bad news: the realization that your work has had no effect. Photos, and then videos, and then confessions of hideous torture are released, and half the American public is just fine with that. You warn that summers will get hotter, and they sneer. When the summers get hotter, you warn that storms will thus become more intense, and they sneer. When the storms become more intense, you warn that our coastal cities are in danger, and they sneer. Trot out a thousand scientists, and they will vote to ban evolution from the curriculum anyway. Tell them of ecosystems collapsing, and they will proudly tell you that they throw their aluminum cans into a separate garbage can. They’ll load up their five kids into the SUV with the “Keep Tahoe Blue” sticker on it, and forget you exist by the time they run out of gas.
Half a nation voted for an obvious, admitted liar whose dissembling was part of an easily accessible public record. They didn’t care. Many of the people I know were shocked. Forget for a moment the repudiation of progressive Twentieth-Century values: the 2004 election seemed a repudiation of the Enlightenment. People were shocked into silence.
I will admit there is an upside to deep experience with that third sort of bad news: I am used to people not listening to me. On November 3, 2004, I was ready to get back to work.
But if you weren’t, if you were aghast that people would do soomething so destructive despite warnings obvious to any intelligent person, I want you to remember how you felt that day. Keep that memory in mind. It will become important.