Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Societal Voyeurism

I was listening to Glenn Beck talk about the Hurricane Katrina disaster while driving yesterday morning. I often listen to Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the local AM talk radio station, mostly because the music radio stations are junk around here (thank you ClearChannel), and not because I agree with much of what they say. Often their comments are just stupid.

For example, Rush said yesterday that any attempt to tie global warming to the severity of the hurricane was left-wing propaganda. His logic was that if there was nothing humanity could do to stop the hurricane, even though we knew it was coming for days, then how is it possible that humanity could cause the hurricane in the first place? That’s just bad science and worse logic. I don’t know if he’s really that ignorant of science, or if he’s purposefully spouting falsehood to push his own personal agenda. Gee, I don’t know that the severity of this hurricane can be tied to global warming (but I suspect it might have been), or that global warming can be tied to anything being done by humanity (although I suspect it can). But just because we can't stop a hurricane doesn't mean we didn't start it (I think we find it hard to stop a nuclear bomb once the fission initiates).

One of Beck’s comments yesterday was that at some deep visceral level, he had been hoping that New Orleans would get nailed by the worse winds ever seen, and a storm surge 100 feet high. His staff cringed at the comment, as did I. But as he talked more about it, I found that he was describing a feeling I had too – we wanted something bad to happen for the entertainment value.

In my case, as an engineer, I’ve always wanted to see if those big pumps they have in New Orleans could really evacuate water from the city fast enough in a big rain. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, or any property to be lost – I just wanted to see images of those big pumps spewing out millions of gallons of water.

It was fun to see images in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” of New York City getting pummeled by tsunami then being frozen solid, all as a result in sea temperatures. We knew it wasn’t real, and no one would get hurt. Entertainment only.

Beck’s point was that we watch the news hoping to get the same kind of thrill. Unless you know someone personally who was killed, injured or wiped out by the hurricane, we just sit in front of the TV wondering what kind of astonishing image we’ll see next, and hoping it will give us a zing of some kind.

It’s not like we just got this way. Crowds have been gathering around disasters for as long as disasters have occurred to humanity. Our technology for conveying words and images has just gotten better.

New Orleans is in trouble for a good long time. The impact on the US will be widespread and personal. The first thing everyone is talking about is a spike on oil prices. My feeling is that oil companies use this kind of a event as an opportunity to lift prices significantly, and they will not let them fall back to the old levels. We’re gonna blow through $3.00/gal and stay above it permanently.

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast will consume a significant fraction of the country’s building supplies: plywood, drywall, wiring, piping, lumber, shingles, concrete and masonry products. Armies of workers will flock to the Gulf coast to participate in the rebuilding effort. Maybe that’s a good thing if it means the thousands of immigrants who have flooded our community go south to get these jobs and decide to stay down there.

Some fraction of the folks in that region will never want to experience anything like this again, and will relocate to other parts of the country. More seriously, some of the businesses who were down there are going to leave for good. Folks will find that when their house gets rebuilt, their job is gone.

I hope our political leaders are up to this.

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