Questions have sprung up about whether Hurricane Sandy is the product of climate change or was somehow influenced by it. It’s a terrifyingly unprecedented event that spanned a massive area, so naturally people are trying to grasp how such a monstrous storm developed. Many suggestions have been made in the media that we knew this was coming but have ignored this issue for far too long. Now, they say, maybe skeptics and the government will pay attention.
Here’s what it boils down to. Whether or not we can nail down global warming or climate change as the cause of Hurricane Sandy, we can expect more extreme, unpredictable weather phenomena. Whether you believe climate change is a hoax, real and totally natural or real and generated primarily by human activity, you’ll be able to find scientists who support your belief. Science – climate science especially – is not exact. Not only is the phrase ‘exact science’ something of an oxymoron, it’s usually invoked to explain how something isn’t free of error – as though whichever ideal it’s being compared with is. So once and for all, let’s stop pretending that science is anything other than a process of discovery determined by the questions we do or don’t ask, the parameters we set, how we measure and interpret data and how we manage miscalculation. We often speak as though science is truth. It’s not. Science is a valuable tool but it’s not a substitute for common sense. Nor is it a more highly evolved form of wisdom than is the knowledge that human beings have accumulated for millennia which has enabled the survival of our species. Today we have the unique opportunity to harness both forms of knowledge to reimagine a new way forward.
I’m an environmentalist but I’m not going to debate with people about whether climate change is ‘real’. We wouldn’t know for sure until something really crazy and large-scale has happened (oh, wait…). Whichever way you look at it, there’s a very simple subtext here. The amount of goods we consume and the waste we generate (that includes pollution) is extremely problematic. If it’s not clear to us on a broad scale now, it will be once our lifestyles are widely copied in China, India and other countries where industrialization and ‘development’ continue to increase. The lifestyle we’ve adopted in First World countries is extremely new to this planet. It impacts the natural world – our world – much, much more than it did even 50 years ago. If we barely understand the intricacies of how ecosystems work, how can we confidently claim we’re not affecting them to a degree that’s unacceptable? The oceans, the soil, the forests, etc. aren’t magical vacuums into which contaminants disappear. To assume that they can process sudden changes made by a dominant species within a very short period of time, not only in terms of human history but also the geologic time scale, is absolutely insane.
But this isn’t simply an issue of lifestyle. It’s fundamentally a philosophical one. The hurricane made some people realize that we may not in fact be externalizing our impacts. Not only have we believed that we can continue living relatively comfortable lives despite these impacts, we defend the right to take what we want and seek out exponential growth. The focus is on quantity over quality, so much so that many people think quantity will improve quality. Less and less people are going along with this story. There seems to be something intrinsically wrong with this value system.
Large-scale environmental chaos doesn’t discriminate. What has traditionally been the lived experienced of the poor – those people whose communities are forced to accept hazardous waste sites in their communities and the children and adults who toil in factories and on cash crop farms – are not necessarily the only ones who will pay the price for our insatiable appetites. While it’s true that the wealthy can usually avoid or escape these risks, their isolation in this regard can make their privilege the focus of much suspicion and disdain.
Exactly when is it appropriate to say enough is enough? And why are we even debating whether the environment can absorb activities it hasn’t evolved to absorb? Why are we treating this as some sort of experiment to see how much we can get away with before we have ‘evidence’ that we should change our approach? In the wake of the destruction, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said that if there’s any risk at all that the storm was related to climate change, it’s the responsibility of all elected officials to do something about it immediately. To think about our planet in any way other than as one integrated, interdependent system is an illusion we simply can’t afford.
Another thing we can take away from this catastrophe is that regardless of the origin of climate phenomena, millions of people whose lives normally aren’t disrupted by extreme weather were taught the power of nature, by the elements of air, water, earth and fire. Ancient systems of healing have always held that disease occurs in the body as a result of a lack of balance and that symptoms are not nuisances to be suppressed but rather warnings to be heeded. Every day we eat food and drink water that are the products of delicate, complex natural processes that we don’t seem to be particularly aware of or grateful for. At least, we don’t have to be, the way we’ve structured our societies along with our economies.
While many people are still without adequate shelter, food and clothing, the grassroots response has been swift and organized. Occupy Sandy has been widely reported in the media as having led many of these efforts, putting its principles into action, particularly in areas where large governmental and non-governmental organizations alike have been criticized as insufficient. The homegrown motto of disaster relief is one of solidarity, not charity. This is key. Many people are learning and experiencing how much they depend on each other in times of great need. When that need is diminished or no longer present, the people affected won’t soon forget that those connections have really always been there.
The corporate elite have of course already tried to exploit Hurricane Sandy by suggesting that what we really need is more large-scale enterprise and private infrastructure development. Those of us who aren’t sheltered from environmental and economic disaster instead might see this as an opportunity for people to rethink our place in society and nature. Not as a result of statistics, academic studies, computer models or politics, but because moving forward without doing so is simply no longer an option. Nor is it desirable. There is truly nothing more ridiculous than a headline that asks, “Is Sandy changing the climate change conversation?”. It has done more than that. Both the people who have lost and those looking on have something to learn from this tragedy. The way forward is both an individual and a collective effort. The wonderful people who are helping each other through these challenges are showing the world that love is power. This forges new grassroots links and new respect for the sanctity of community. When we heal our relationships with each other, we naturally extend that boundary further and further outward. Are we evolving from an individualistic, competitive do-it-yourself mentality to one of inclusiveness and mutual support? If there were ever a catalyst for change, this is it.