It was short-sighted politics, and they’re still with us
Don’t miss "The Slow Drowning of New Orleans," a knock-out piece of political history from the Washington Post‘s Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser. I’ve read a lot of material lately about hurricanes and the Gulf Coast, and nothing I’ve seen does a better job of traversing the long history of short-sighted political blundering that made the catastrophe inevitable.
The tale begins in the 1700s, and no one — local, state, or fed, Democrat or Republican — ends up blameless. The details are rich and varied, but at its root the story is about government’s crippling inability to deal with long-term threats.
The drowning of New Orleans was caused by complex factors of weather, geography, history, politics and engineering, but it was at heart a tragedy of priorities — not just Vitter’s, but America’s. For years, it was common knowledge in Louisiana and Washington that New Orleans could be destroyed by a hurricane. But decision makers turned away from the long-term investments that might have averted a catastrophe, pursuing instead projects with more immediate payoffs. Some of those projects made the city more vulnerable.
There you have it. If you want the political logic behind it, look no further than this short passage:
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to point fingers, but [former senator John] Breaux [D-La.] said it’s unrealistic to expect government officials to focus on events unlikely to occur during their lifetimes.
“San Francisco sits on an earthquake fault,” Breaux said. “So do you say: Move ’em all out of there?”
More than anywhere else, here you can find the explanation for the relative failure (or if you’re looking for speaking gigs, "death") of latter-day environmentalism compared to its 60s and 70s heyday: the big, glaring, immediate environmental problems — burning rivers, choking smog — have been taken care of, at least to the point that they don’t thrust themselves onto the radar of the public at large. The big problems that remain — global warming being the paradigm example — are slow-acting and invisible. It’s just hard to marshal a lot of political will around such issues, always has been and always will be.
It’s understandable, of course; it’s the nature of politics, nay, of humanity. But make no mistake: the quake in San Francisco will happen, and thousands of people will die, and every public official who failed to help San Fran prepare will have blood on their hands. So too with the next hurricane, the next heat wave, the next flood. In an age of climate disruption we know they’re coming, and we’re not doing anything about it.