The Revolution, Gil Scott-Heron prophesized, will not be televised, but at least the apocalypse will. It will be televised and googled, blogged, vlogged and 24-7 entertainment. It will be a CNN special; it will star fleeing celebrities and a cast of millions; it will be sponsored by that delightful cockney-accented gecko (and a multitude of oil companies).
Empowered by our media-rich environment, we can chronicle nonstop the minutiae and magnitude of mega environmental disasters.
How times have changed.
When Mount St. Helens blew its top, we had to scrounge a few photos in stop-action sequence to thrill to the Gotterdammerung. Nowadays, Anderson Cooper would host the devastation. The fiery explosion would be a screen saver and an ironic t-shirt, and the thundering blast a ring tone. Within hours, footage of boiling ash and lava would be mashed with Scandinavian death metal on YouTube.
It’s a brave, new world. The ever-inflating media universe allows coverage of September 11, the Tsunami, Katrina and the Califlagration to expand endlessly. Happening at the speed of news, these disasters are picture-perfect television.
Not so for other calamities. The Southeast’s drought may be threatening millions and melting polar ice might swamp coastal cities around the world, but shrinking lakes and rising seas do not titillate like howling firestorms and rampaging tidal waves. At the other end of the disaster spectrum, earthquakes are too fast and nuclear war too totalizing to cozy up to as live-action spectacles.
For that we need Hollywood. In “The Day After Tomorrow,” decades of global cooling were compressed into a few days, even seconds, making the public’s blood run cold with fears of a new ice age. Alas, global warming seems just that – warming. It will not foment a freezing backlash but a burned and parched planet.
It’s appropriate that California hosted the latest catastrophe: it’s where Armageddon meets Eden. Hollywood may one day burn as Public Enemy rapped, but not from social unrest, rather ecological distress.
Tinseltown was a bit player in this drama. The guvernator was powerless against Mother Nature; he was one of those pantywaist politicians who crowd the sidelines of disaster flicks, issuing motherly admonitions to stay indoors, listen to the authorities and stop making so many phone calls! The heroic military of celluloid fantasies was even more impotent as thousands of Marines surrendered Camp Pendleton to the advancing flames.
Other movie royalty were mere extras in the exodus. Albeit escaping in luxury, they didn’t have to worry about camping out in a sports stadium. This was the bright side, beyond the glowing mountains. Despite a Katrina-sized tide of displaced, Qualcomm reaped a PR bonanza with its branded stadium cum refugee camp.
It was a corporate love-in, with free Starbucks coffee, telcoms providing free wireless, Ralphs Supermarkets trucking in food and Costco handing out pharmaceuticals. There’s a lesson here. If the Superdome had business sponsors, then the displaced residents might have received timely aid, and frivolous entertainment, because of its brand-building potential.
But the yoga classes, blues bands and magicians at Qualcomm Stadium couldn’t hide the human hand behind the disaster. It started with the small – a delayed response initially, overstretched fire crews, needed equipment stuck in Iraq, National Guard troops protecting the borders from Mexicans (while evidently letting in sneaky Mexican posing as firefighters) – and progressed to the large.
For more than a decade, Mike Davis has drawn the connection between development and disaster. Pushed by developers and enabled by local governments, the suburbs sprawl ever further into fire-prone ecosystems. Davis famously argued “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” which it subsequently did in 2003 and almost did again this time. Despite the obvious risks and public costs in firefighting and rebuilding, Malibu and other tony neighborhoods will be reseeded with nuevo gauche mansions by gilded elite demanding official aid despite their anti-government ideology.
Why shouldn’t they get special treatment? As the fires raged, the overburdened state mobilized to protect the wealthy, whether it was spraying Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Malibu beach house with fire-retardant foam or county patrol boats hosing down the Malibu Pier of “Baywatch” fame to protect it against blowing embers.
It was a mirror image of Katrina. The danger zone this time was the high ground, those rural-urban interstices thick with the rich. But they could flee in fancy vehicles. Thousands lost their homes, but the vast majority returned in days instead of being flung across the country for years. The cost is likewise miniscule, a billion dollars in Southern California compared to estimates of $100 billion in Katrina-related losses. It would barely pay for a few days of the Iraq War.
The feds and state will probably cover whatever the insurance companies don’t, beginning anew the cycle of development and destruction. After all, many of these folks are Bush’s base: the haves and have-mores.
There is one important similarity between the California wildfires and Katrina: global warming. There’s an undeniable link between hotter, drier conditions, stronger Santa Ana winds and the massive wildfires. Warmer, earlier springs mean less snowmelt and greater evaporation, which have created record-breaking drought conditions and more fuel for the fires. The heat also intensifies the winds, stoking the wildfires with devastating results. And this completes the feedback, pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the planet more.
The mainstream media touched upon the connection to global warming, but it received about half the coverage as the pets-in-peril angle, according to a search on Google News. Meanwhile, the denialists, such as CNN’s Glenn Beck, still peddled their claptrap in prime time. But they only took their cues from the Bush administration, which is still censoring government scientists documenting the extent and consequences of global warming.
Tracking the fiery Armageddon day after day became mind-numbing, ultimately. There was no plot or character development, just more of the same. The media interest died down on cue with the Santa Anas, allowing us to get back to celebrity scandals. (The public stopped flocking to showings of the Iraq War at the multiplex ages ago.)
Down the road, some ecological catastrophe will grab our fleeting attention, but for now there will be little heard or seen of the slow-motion apocalypses: drought gripping both the Southwest and Southeast; the Great Lakes drying up; thawing permafrost and melting arctic ice. In the last instance, corporations are filling the void, selflessly, of course, with plans for energy extraction and new, cheaper shipping routes.
Here in New York City, we’ve been enjoying a particularly pleasant catastrophe. In late October the ocean waters were as warm as they’ve been all summer, and the streets and parks were full of shorts and t-shirts and skirts. With the prospect of six-month summers, New York might elbow out Southern California as the new Shangri-La.
Eventually, however, something, or everything, will break. “Vector-borne” diseases such as Malaria are expected to spread because of warming as are water-borne ones like cholera. As temperatures rise, extreme weather will become more so. This past summer, New York was smacked by a tornado and unprecedented rainfalls that crippled subways. Species extinction will accelerate as fragmented habitats in the region prevent fauna or flora from shifting climes easily. Perhaps drought will strike the Northeast, too.
But these are climatic bumps compared to a hurricane. With ocean surface temperatures rising, there’s potentially plenty of energy to power a Category 4 hurricane to New York. It’s unlikely, the city says, but possible.
Recently, the city’s Office of Emergency Management mailed brochures to all New Yorkers on “Hurricanes and New York City” outlining the dangers, how to prepare and evacuation plans. It’s based on the “screw-you” philosophy of governing, a philosophy on display in California.
“With professional firefighters stretched to the breaking point across California,” The New York Times reported, “many neighbors throughout the state were left to their own devices this past week, manning garden hoses, axes and shovels to attack the flames.” It was a great opportunity to build familial and community bonds as “exhausted families with children as young as 7, doused their gardens and homes in water, as adults and teenagers battled flames racing up a ridge toward their back yards.”
In New York, in case of a hurricane, the city “strongly recommends evacuees stay with friends and family who live outside evacuation zone boundaries.” Consulting the color-coded map, you see that pretty much the whole city – which is a bunch of islands after all – is bounded by the evacuation zones. In other words, get the hell out of Dodge long before the hurricane hits.
But this never happens. Most people wait until it’s too late. Having no experience with hurricanes, and with much of Long Island likely to be drowned by a monster storm as well, millions of New Yorkers with no cars will try to flee west across a few tunnels and bridges that traverse the Hudson River as a hurricane barrels toward them. And the city is telling us to bring extensive “go bags” and “emergency supply kits” that would have a family of four lugging around 100 pounds of water just for a three-day supply.
Not to worry, the city is opening shelters. For Manhattan south of Central Park–where around a million people live – it has generously designated two high schools and two colleges as evacuation centers. The potential social meltdown mashes the worst of New Orleans and Los Angeles. Take more than 8 million people with no means of escape, all exits jammed and a pitiful few shelters while lashing rains and deadly winds tear the city apart.
I wouldn’t want to be caught in it, but it would look great on television. It would be “Faces of Death” on a planetary scale.
Or perhaps I could enjoy it if I had a bitchin’ new iPhone. That way, even as I was drowning in the aqua-calypse, I could watch it on TV, blog about it, upload a video clip to YouTube and email everyone I know to check it out. Because you’re never as alive as you are when you’re in the eye of the media storm.
A.K. Gupta is an editor of The Indypendent, a biweekly newspaper based in New York City. He is currently writing a book on the history of the Iraq War to be published by Haymarket Press. He can be reached at email@example.com .