Brace Yourself -- New Orleans Was Just the Beginning

Hurricane season is almost here, and among other things that means we're going to see a surge in media interest in New Orleans. If a storm comes anywhere near Louisiana, expect even more. The cable hordes will descend. We'll get the inevitable bombardment of images of anchors in windbreakers standing on levees. Knock wood, nothing will happen, and that the extra attention will instead help focus the nation a bit on the problems the city faces.

But the national media's focus on the peculiar vulnerabilities of New Orleans -- the threatening confluence of hurricanes, levees and wetlands -- misses an important, broader point.

New Orleans does have a dangerous geography, one that we have collectively degraded and ignored, and that is constantly changing, becoming even more dangerous as the years, even months, go by. But it's a mistake to think of New Orleans as quirky, unique, "those crazy people living down there."

In reality, we are all New Orleans. Environmental change is accelerated there, yes. But similar -- and equally dangerous -- changes are coming down the pike for the rest of us; it's just going to happen a bit more slowly. And we haven't collectively recognized that yet. Our political system and our institutions are built for the 20th century, and the 21st century is here, now, about to swallow them up.

Recently I gave a speech at the University of New Hampshire (part of their innovative Undergraduate Research Conference). One question I tried to address is, why, exactly, aren't we ready for what's coming down the pike? Writing the speech forced me to look at the evolution of my own thinking. As it turned out, I was as guilty as anyone of the kind of complacency I'm talking about here -- even more so. In 2002, I co-wrote a Times-Picayune series called Washing Away that said, basically, New Orleans is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, and could quite easily be destroyed, and that for various reasons, this potentially fatal exposure was increasing.

Here's what I told the audience at UNH:

These past two years have had a profound effect on my thinking. I've done a lot of environmental reporting, and so I know that the world, the global environment, is changing alarmingly fast, on a trajectory to we-don't-know-where.

But there's always a certain distance when you're writing about terrible things that might happen, no matter how statistically probable they may be. Because, after all, they might not. They probably won't -- at least, not immediately. So when the levees failed, I was stunned. (My co-author, being more fatalistic, was not.)

Clearly, on some gut level I didn't quite believe the hard data that was in front of me. Well, I do now. But that is a basic problem confronting us all right now -- people don't believe the data because it points to a very strange and different future, one profoundly different than our previous experience. And that resistance, that lack of imagination, is hobbling us now -- at the exact moment we need to move forward.

As in New Orleans today, our very surroundings, the texture of our days, will change profoundly thanks to global climate change and other, related phenomena in the coming years. But on some level, many of us still don't quite buy it. That's human nature. We've been living in an era of relative peace (at home), wealth, and comfort for 60 years. Basically, it's very hard to believe the future won't be like the past.