Katrina and the Paralysis of Fear

The vast Mississippi Delta in Louisiana is sinking as sea water from the Gulf of Mexico seeps in to destroy its fresh water marshlands. The Army’s Corps of Engineers says it cannot protect New Orleans from the inevitable storm surges caused by hurricanes.

Some may dismiss this warning as alarmist hype, and the Army’s Corps of Engineers certainly does not have an enviable track record in this regard. That said, the Corps’ warning does make evident the political-economic detritus left over from Hurricane Katrina. Inferentially, the warning also highlights the hollowness in the scare tactics used by global warming advocates to raise money for their far more costly ambitions, not to mention the paralyzing political-economic consequences posed by the politics of fear practiced by the Pentagon.

The reality of the Delta thus becomes a metaphor for the larger emptiness that now pervades American politics.

The most immediate threat to New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta is the clear and present dangers posed by man’s efforts to tame the Mississippi River by controlling and canalizing its route, together with the ecological damage to the freshwater marshlands wrought by the canal and pipeline systems that now move 35 percent of our natural gas and oil through the Delta. To be sure, recent rises in the sea level exacerbate the problem, but they are not the proximate cause of the catastrophe.

Bear in mind, there is nothing new about our appreciation of the threat to the Mississippi Delta: hydrologists, civil engineers, and ecologists have been warning about it since at least the 1950s, long before global warming was deemed a politically fashionable problem. Hurricane Katrina merely converted that threat from a future inevitability into a current reality.

The continuing disaster begs a larger political question: Will the United States ever muster the political will to raise the money and manpower needed to tackle what are clearly real, understandable, avoidable manmade ecological dangers?

The Corps of Engineers says that the total cost to place the Delta’s ecology on a glide path to better health will be on the order of $200 billion. This is, no doubt, an underestimate, and probably a large one. It also raises the collateral possibility of waste and smarmy political corruption at the local level — long bugaboos raised by the operating culture of the Corps of Engineers.

Nevertheless, the task of placing Delta’s ecology on an evolutionary pathway to better ecological health, while huge and highly problematic in conception, pales in comparison to that of solving the far more distant, less well-defined, ecological problems hypothesized by the more hyperbolic global warming advocates. These dangers, if ever taken seriously, imply corrective costs of untold trillions of dollars, enormous collateral waste, and a degree of heretofore never-achieved international cooperation, all for what, at the end of the day, is a highly uncertain venture into an unproven theory that the evolutionary interplay of chance and necessity on a global scale can be made predictable and tamed by man. If there is one thing the so-called taming of the Mississippi ought to have taught us, it is that a little humility is in order when messing with Mother Nature.

Notwithstanding its evident uncertainties, the current estimate to fix the Delta or move New Orleans to a safer location can to be placed in a contemporary political perspective. A $200 billion underestimate to fix the Delta would be less than one third of what the United States now shovels each year into the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) to finance the ever-growing costs of its unending wars of empire, the increasingly costly maintenance of the bloated overhead needed to support the MICC’s cold-war inspired force and international basing structures, and to buy out its current wish list of new weapons that are high-cost, outdated legacies of the now defunct Cold War thinking. In fact, the Corps’ underestimate for “fixing” the Delta is less than the current underestimate of the the $298 billion it will cost to procure the planned fleet of Joint Strike Fighters over the next 25 to 30 years, a kludge of an airplane plane the Obama Administration just committed to in order to buy off political opposition to its plan to terminate the equally unneeded F-22.

So, when compared to the problem of financing the MICC, the problem of fixing the Delta appears to be relatively small in economic terms. But it is also small in political terms, when compared to the problem of reining in the ambitions of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex or MICC. Taken together, the MICC’s ambitions pose a political problem that, in contrast to the ambiguities implicit in the various global warming hypotheses, is clearly understood, but one where corrective action is paralyzed by uncontrolled factional dynamics infecting America’s contemporary political-economy.

Yet despite the comparatively small size of the problem posed by human activities in the Delta, it is quite unlikely, four years after Katrina, that the US political apparat will ever muster the political will to divert the flow of resources needed step up to tackle this real problem in a serious way.

The deficit hawks in Congress, the think tanks, and the media will argue that the United States can not afford it, although in the same breath, they will also say we must waste more money propping up the MICC. The MICC will continue to use the politics of fear to siphon increasingly scarce technical and economic resources into its ever more wasteful activities. And all the while, Americans will continue to be distracted by an ever growing flood of alarmist reports — the politics of fear again — about the long range threats caused by hidden mathematical assumptions buried in computerized global warning models which lack sufficient data (in the form of long time series of actual observations for a large numbers of different locations around the globe) to scientifically test the “truth” of those assumptions.

If we can not muster the will to tackle the human, ecological, and economic detritus left over from Katrina in some way (perhaps the only choice would be to abandon/move New Orleans and redesign the energy infrastructure), it is patently absurd to imagine our political system will tackle global warming in any substantive way. That is why the grim reality of Katrina, when compared to the intractable political reality MICC and the political fantasy of mustering meaningful action on global warming, becomes a metaphor for the emptiness of contemporary American politics.

Franklin Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com


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Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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