Written by James F. Pontuso
We cannot abide the sight of our neighbors and fellow citizens suffering. As the torrent of charitable contributions flowing to the hurricane-stricken areas shows, we want to relieve people’s distress. In fact, we wonder why we weren’t better prepared to deal with nature’s calamities in the first place.
It could it be that our concern for others shows that the human race has progressed and that we are more compassionate and humane than the icons of the Bible. Or is there another cause for our dismay and anger in the aftermath of hurricanes Rita and Katerina?
We, of course, do not reside in an age when God interferes directly in human affairs. Quite the contrary, we live in a skeptical era, one in which we believe only what can be proven. Our incredulity is not simply a lack of faith since most Americans claim to accept the existence of a Deity. But our burden of proof is high for we insist that something is true within the physical world – the world we experience – only if it passes the test of science.
The “scientific age” has been around for long time. It began with the Enlightenment more than 400 years ago. Enlightenment philosophers such as RenÃ© Descartes (1596-1650) hoped that the principles of science would rid the human race of ignorance, superstition, narrow-mindedness, and prejudice. Science would also increase the store of material goods available for human consumption. Life would be at once more bountiful, peaceful, and tolerant.
But the religious sentiments of that time distrusted and therefore suppressed scientific thinking. Religious leaders proclaimed that the Enlightenment was blasphemy for it sought to replace faith in divine authority with absolute trust in human judgment.
Enlightenment thinkers countered this assault in a most ingenious way. They promised people something that most everybody wants, a longer, more comfortable life. Science could be turned into technological instruments that would subdue nature and exploit its potential bounty into a benefit for human life.
We live in an age when that promise seems to have been fulfilled. Our doctors know an astonishing amount about how to keep us alive and well, our stores are so full of goods that even the most eager consumer can “shop until they drop,” and our communication system makes a truly global society possible since we can instantaneously experience events and people even in the most distant lands.
In our technological age the natural rhythms of life and death are hidden from view. Unless we make a special effort, we do not see babies born or elderly people die. Few people plant crops or tend flocks. Hardly anyone sees animals slaughtered for food or harvested fields turning brown in the autumn sun. Those who live in big cities hardly see trees and grass at all.
We have come to believe that we can virtually control nature. The global society is almost totally of human making; even the most remote regions have entertainment (via television), communications (via the cell phone), and consumerism (via innumerable stores such as Wal-Mart). Technology has quickened the pace of life. We no longer wait for reports of events but witness them as they happen. Technology seems to make us busy all the time tending to the innovations that were supposed to make our lives easier. Nearly everyone complains that everyone else is constantly talking on a cell phone.
Oddly, as our power over nature has grown our anxiety and expectations have as well. The media constantly makes us aware – far more aware than the people of the past – of dangers that lurk just beyond our peaceful lives. Media outlets, all competing for our attention, rarely reports ordinary, everyday life, but focus on the most compelling stories, such as instances of injustice, illness, and disaster.
We have come to insist that medicine can treat our illnesses and that science can foretell and therefore forestall natural calamities. Our worry and fear over the inevitably heartrending trajectory of our existence has turned us into a therapeutic culture; millions of prescriptions of Prozac and other mood elevators are prescribed in an effort to preclude apprehension over of aging and death.
Our power over nature makes us blame our misfortune not on our innate vulnerability, but on a human agency. We are angry when doctors cannot cure our illnesses. The number of medical malpractice law suits has risen almost in direct proportion to the advances in treatment. When the AIDS epidemic struck in the 1980s, its victims blamed President Reagan for not spending enough on medical research, rather than holding the microbe that caused the illness responsible. The wrath directed at President Bush for the lack of preparation in the face of natural disaster is but the latest instance of shifting our resentment over our inherent contingency onto a person who we can hold responsible.
But certainly, someone could ask, shouldn’t we better prepare for natural disasters? Surely we can learn from the mistakes of Hurricane Katrina so that the same confusion will not be repeated? This is a prudent strategy and the readiness for Hurricane Rita was far better organized than for Katrina. Yet, our compassion should not blind us to the cost of vigilance. Millions of dollars were spent in an anticipation of Hurricane Ophelia, a storm which, like most in our history, caused only minor, localized damage.
The broader question is how much we should prepare for the worst catastrophes. Every visitor to New Orleans knew it was likely to flood. Taxi drivers and waiters seemed to take sardonic pleasure in telling tourists that the city was below sea level. Yet, the local government and most residents chose not to spend tax dollars on making the city ready for the most extreme storms. Instead, money was expended on things needed in everyday life, such as roads, schools, libraries, and hospitals.
The case is the same in California where everyone is well aware that a major earthquake, “the big one,” will some day cause enormous damage along the San Andreas Fault. Are the people of California and New Orleans shortsighted and foolish for failing to prepare for the inevitable? Perhaps, but like most Americans they worry about creating a government that can cope with extraordinary events. An organization that can deal with every possible contingency is large, expensive, difficult to control, and intrusive. Liberals loath a military so powerful that it can defend the nation from foreign foes and safeguard the country from every possible calamity. Conservatives object to a bureaucracy so powerful that it could mobilize all the nation’s resources for even the most hypothetical disaster. Most Americans – like the people of New Orleans – would prefer to spend their taxes on immediate concerns rather possible contingencies, especially when no crisis is imminent.
In light of our hesitation to fully prepare for natural disasters, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant for placing blame for such events on our political leaders. Although Noah’s pious silence is out of season in the modern rationalistic age, we might learn from the ancient wisdom of the Genesis that some events are beyond our control, and that despite all our efforts nature’s final victory awaits us all.
RightSideNews contributing editor - James F. Pontuso is Charles Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden-Sydney, Virginia. He is author of numerous scholarly articles, reviews and essays. He is author of a number of books including Vaclav Havel: Civic Responsibility in the Postmodern Age; Assault on Ideology: Solzhenitsyn’s Political Thought; and American Conservative Opinion Leaders.