Howard A. Doughty
Lorne Kenney and I began life within weeks of each other in 1945. Our arrivals were immediately preceded by the detonation of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.” They heralded the “atomic age” and occasioned the extermination of roughly 150,000 to 230,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They underlined a comment (often falsely attributed to Stalin): “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic.” Some welcome!
This much is certain: J. Robert Oppenheimer’s experiment was all-too-human, as was the metaphorical atomic cloud under which most of us have lived our lives since.
Lorne was recently asked to recite “In Flanders Fields” at the rededication of the cenotaph in Collingwood, Ontario, on the centenary of its erection after World War I. He did so admirably. He added that we should be grateful to live in Canada because, unlike so many billions of our species, he had never heard the sound of a gun fired in anger in his 78 years of life.
Lorne and I were also in the vicinity when Hurricane Hazel rampaged through the Greater Toronto Area in 1954. I recall neither terror nor personal loss — just howling winds, driving rain, and disappointment because a school concert was cancelled. Lucky again.
Although human folly contributed to the death and destruction, Hurricane Hazel was a natural event. It would likely have happened with or without our species’ presence. The same goes for tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and occasional collisions with meteors — all disasters that insurance companies call “acts of God.” Sometimes thousands of people die. Sometimes dinosaurs are extinguished. Some god!
Innocent No Longer
The U.S. National Weather Service explained the cause of this summer’s worst Hawai’ian wild fire. It blamed downed power lines, dry vegetation, and hurricane-force winds.
That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Kaniela Ing, a national director of the Green New Deal Network, adds that dry vegetation and low humidity are functions of climate change. “Climate pollution, corporate polluters that set a blanket of pollution in the air that is overheating our planet … caused the conditions that led to this fire.” Further, state officials say a shortage of water hampered firefighters. Environmentalists blame the private corporate practices of diverting water from East Maui streams that started with Hawaii’s sugar plantations.
Hawai’ian Attorney General Anne Lopez has promised a “comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires.“ It will examine preparedness and decision-making in the moment. It will find failures. Heads will roll. Individuals will be held accountable. Strategic planning and emergency response readiness will improve. It will matter, but not enough.
Regardless of what happens to “fix” Maui, there are deeper issues. Naomi Klein named one: “disaster capitalism.” Real estate agents are cold-calling residents who have lost everything, hoping they will sell their ancestral lands rather than wait for compensation. President Biden has promised support. It will matter, but not enough.
A decade ago, Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, said capitalism was the planet’s enemy: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.” It’s been 36 years since the UN World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future. It urged us to create sustainable future. So far, no luck.
“Right now,” writes Klein, “the eyes of the world are on Maui, but many don’t know where to look. Yes, look to the wreckage, the grieving families, the traumatized children, the incinerated artifacts, and,” she pleads, “donate what you can to community-led groups on the ground. But,” she insists, “look below and beyond that too. To the aquifers and streams, and the plantation-era diversion ditches and reservoirs. Because that’s where the water is, and whoever controls the water controls the future of Maui.” Good words and true, but who’s listening?
In the 18th century, David Hume was the Scottish Enlightenment’s most prominent scholar. A cheerful atheist and a generous host, he even put up with Jean-Jacques Rousseau — a cranky, ungrateful house guest when he overstayed his welcome. Hume was a universal skeptic and a lover of life, who maintained that ethics and morals come neither from god nor abstract reasoning. They come naturally from emotion. I’ve known of Hume’s opinion for over 60 years. I now know that he was on to something.
Full disclosure: I moved to Honolulu in 1967 to do post-graduate work in political science at the University of Hawai’i. I’ve returned often. I’ve visited Lahaina. I was astonished, however, at my emotional reaction as I saw the town burning, perhaps because — unlike with New Orleans; Paradise, CA; Lytton, BC; or Yellowknife — I have a personal connection.
Hume set little store by sentimentalism. So did Karl Marx. For Marx, revolutions require both conditions and consciousness. We have the ecological conditions needed for an environmental revolution. We lack the consciousness. We know what’s necessary. We just don’t care. Wrote my New York friend, Kurt Vonnegut, in A Man Without a Country: “The good Earth—we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”
What to do? The science is clear. We don’t directly deny it, but we avoid its implications, defer decisions, seek balanced solutions, and fund both fossil fuel and battery factories.
I must be careful. I’m dangerously close to the sloppy language of Gaia-worshipping, solipsistic, spirituality-seeking, “Kumbaya”-singing, superannuated hippies, and drug-addled faux mystics… but, there is something to be said for emotional connectivity, both as inspiration to practical action and comprehensive understanding.