The oil spill and Hurricane Katrina: ‘Natural disasters’?
What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.
Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.
Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.
Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.
Yet there is a widespread tendency to elide these distinctions, in the media and society. New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt took this up on Sunday, in response to a petition from Levees.org asking for an official NYT style change, to call the New Orleans flood a “man-made disaster.” (Ironically, the petition was sent in response to this article, which calls the oil spill a “natural disaster.”) Hoyt was sympathetic, but no style change is forthcoming:
However you want to define what happened in that city, the hurricane certainly was a natural disaster for residents further east, along the Mississippi coast.
But in other articles, The Times has said Katrina “devastated” New Orleans, and used other similar language. Philip Corbett, the standards editor, said, “We have repeatedly in our coverage over years dealt in great detail with all the factors that led to the catastrophe in New Orleans.” Readers, he said, “will understand you are talking about the whole event: the natural disaster that was the hurricane and the various problems, man-made, and the government response that exacerbated the problems.”
Sounds reasonable, right? The problem is, when “Katrina” becomes a journalistic shorthand for all those problems (institutional, political, social, environmental, on top of basic stuff like bad floodwalls) it’s easy to lose sight of what really happened. Journalists are nothing if not sloppy when it comes to complex problems, and in this case the underlying story is one of deep institutional dysfunction, an abandonment of basic government and societal accountability. That is, something that lies outside the comfort zone of many journalists, especially those covering day-to-day politics. The plain fact is that neither the government (for obvious reasons) nor the media (for less obvious ones) has ever embraced the “man-made disaster” idea, despite the evidence.
But the New York Times stylebook is not the best venue to have this fight. It would be a low-level bureaucratic fix to what is, in essence, a huge paradigm shift (and something that actually deserves the use of this over-used term). It’s now more important than ever to identify the human part of the equation in natural disasters – and to make an explicit point of identifying it.
When I was writing a Katrina book along with Mark Schleifstein (who is now reporting on the oil spill), I interviewed a computer scientist named Alan Wexelblat who dabbled in thinking about disasters. His message was, essentially, we don’t have a clue about the ways our technologies interact with nature. We don’t think strategically about that. And as those interactions and feedbacks grow more complex, this is going to lead to a lot more stuff blowing up, collapsing, and imploding.
The term “natural disaster” may not be obsolete – we’ve still got tsunamis and volcanic eruptions to deal with – its usefulness is in sharp decline. The number of catastrophes that it accurately describes is shrinking. But our collective thinking – amplified by the media – is to lump everything together in a way that tends to strip the human agency out of what’s really happening. This is quite useful for those who screwed up. But it’s very dangerous.