Nature is indifferent

During the discussion on Sandy and climate change yesterday, I was reminded of a short story “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane. Briefly, three men — a cook, the captain, the oiler and a newspaper correspondent — were shipwrecked and set adrift in a lifeboat. In the end, the most likely person to survive the ordeal, dies. (spoiler, sorry.. but read the story anyway.)

The lesson of Crane’s short story is nature is indifferent.

In the past couple days, I saw some right-wing blogs and twitter accounts claim that Sandy was God’s way of punishing the United States for becoming a wayward nation, for ignoring the fiscal issues, for allowing marriage equality — pick your issue, God is punishing us for it.

Equally as infuriating are the progressives who say that Mother Nature is fighting back by being ignored through the three presidential debates. This is a cute narrative, but does not help make the case. Rather, it reinforces that somehow climate is driven by an intelligence, instead of science.

Sandy formed because conditions existed that create hurricanes. I would argue that humans activity has been accelerating the cause of those conditions, but even if I can’t convince you human beings are causing climate change, you can’t deny the empirical data that shows the conditions do, in fact, exist. Neither “Mother Nature” nor God is controlling the weather patterns nor did either chose New Jersey to come ashore. Sandy came ashore where she did because the science of storms said that she should come ashore where she did. The fact the geo-political entity of New Jersey was at that particular point is irrelevant.

Sandy is incapable of caring that human beings built subways or boardwalks or houses near the shore or moored their boats in a bay. Nature is equally incapable of caring we stuffed poor people in crappy parts below sea level that flood easily or in poorly-regulated, over-crowded tenements.

Sandy does not even hate Staten Island. Really.

Nature does not target poor people. Or black people. Or gay people. Or people behaving badly.

These narratives are helpful for some to understand the senselessness of destruction or the randomness nature appears to have. It helps comfort us; it creates purpose. But in the end, they don’t really get us any closer to understanding a situation rationally or help us figure out how to reduce the danger.

We’ve seen the results of nature “fighting back” against political policies before in our recent past with the Dust Bowl. Will we finally choose to prepare for disaster, alter our behavior to slow climate change or continue to spin narratives of a vengeful God and a petulant Mother Nature?

A cool book that shows how public policy places people into precarious existence and then Nature gets blamed for the resulting carnage is The Worst Hard Time. A good read for those who really want to understand the effect of a population manipulated into moving into an area with the promise of prosperity only to become victims of an indifferent nature and a government who blamed a vengeful God.


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