By Donella Meadows
–November 4, 1993–
I could feel sorry for the people of South Florida, whose houses were blown away by Hurricane Andrew. I could imagine that they were recent retirees from Chicago who had never noticed in their whole northern lives that Florida has hurricanes. I might have been in favor of jailing the developers who put up mile after mile of ticky-tacky buildings in a hurricane zone, or the city and state officials who let them do it. But I don’t mind my tax dollars going to help the homeowners, as long as they don’t rebuild in the same place in the same way.
I was sympathetic to the townsfolk along the Mississippi, who were lulled by the levees and the assurances of the Army Corps of Engineers into forgetting that they live on a floodplain. I was less inclined to weep for the farmers, who surely know that they owe their rich bottomland to silt deposits from eons of floods.
When it comes to Californians who build half-million-dollar homes out of wood, surrounded by dry scrub and inflammable eucalyptus trees, high on windy hills, I’m finding it hard to work up much pity. Even recent migrants could have contemplated the educational spectacle of the Oakland fires just two years ago.
“Chaparral,” it says here in a college biology textbook, “is a Mediterranean-type scrub biome, characterized by mild moist winters and long dry summers. As the vegetation dries out in late summer, fires may sweep the slopes with incredible swiftness.”
Another text, written in 1970, says, “Chaparral is subject to periodic fires that maintain the dominance of shrub vegetation. In areas such as southern California people have built homes extensively in chaparral and suffer the consequences of the inevitable fires.”
Why don’t towns in chaparral country have superstrict fire codes, or better yet zoning laws forbidding expansion out into the combustible hills? Why do people risk their lives and fortunes on floodplains, in hurricane alleys, on wave-bitten barrier islands and beaches, in landslide zones, in all sorts of places where we know that natural forces can be overwhelming and unforgiving?
One could answer that question with just about any of the common human failings. Greed, for example. Developers build houses in places where houses should never be built, because they can sell them to suckers and walk away before the “natural” disaster happens.
If you’re disinclined to accuse people of greed, short-sightedness will do. Most of us don’t think about natural hazards when we build or buy houses. Poorly schooled, raised on television with its five-second time horizon, ignorant of history, we don’t think about much of anything. Maybe it honestly never occurs to builders, zoning officials, or home-buyers that Florida has hurricanes, Missouri has floods, and California has fires.
If you don’t like that explanation, you could choose arrogance. Our culture is big on controlling the elements. Somehow our self-respect, our very manhood (even if we are women) requires us to tempt the power of mountains, rivers, fires, and storms. This cockiness leads us to great triumphs and stupid, repeated failures. John McPhee wrote a wonderful book about both the triumphs and the failures, called The Control of Nature — one chapter of which is about the impossibility of controlling the Mississippi, another of which describes the landslides in the steep, still-rising San Gabriel mountains of California. If the fires and earthquakes don’t get you there, the landslides will.
It’s not just your Yankee arrogance, my European friends tell me, it’s your nutty attitude about property rights. You Americans fight for the right to do what you want with “your” land, oppose zoning, sue the government if it stops you from building on an eroding beach, and then the minute you get hurt by your own folly, you rush to the government for disaster relief. If you’re so all-fired determined to be independent, they say, then stop pocketing individual gains while throwing losses onto the whole society. Grow up and be willing to absorb the consequences of your decisions. Either that or accept limits to what you ought to build and where you ought to build it — as we Europeans do.
Greed, ignorance, arrogance, social immaturity may all have their role in disasters like the one in California, but I’d guess the main human trait that produces wooden palaces in the chaparral is denial. Well, yes it happened in Oakland, but it can’t happen in Altadena. It happened in Altadena, but it can’t happen HERE. It was arsonists, not us. (Never mind how vulnerable we made ourselves to the arsonists.) Why wear a seatbelt, I’M not going to have an accident. You know, some smokers never get lung cancer.
Denial, environmentalists like to say, ain’t just a river in Egypt. Environmentalists like that joke, because they are so sick of hearing denial everywhere, from local zoning boards to global conferences. Well, yes those pesticides are poisons, but they won’t poison US. The toxics we’re dumping will disappear without hurting a soul. We probably aren’t wiping out so many species after all. So the atmosphere is filling with heat-absorbing gases — it won’t change OUR climate.
Of all human foibles, denial is the hardest one to deal with, because it is so widely shared (much more so, I think, than greed or arrogance). It’s so upbeat, so comfortable. It means you don’t even have to discuss a problem, much less deal with it. There is no problem. Or if there is, it’s over THERE, not here, not a result of what WE’RE doing.
In denial we refuse to act collectively to prevent the short-sighted, arrogant, and greedy among us from generating disaster after disaster after disaster. I guess we deserve to pick up the tab.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993