Review: Acts of God–The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America

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Nature is the What, Culture is the Who–Lovely Analytic Account, April 21, 2008

Ted Steinberg

I am starting to think about a 2009 book on CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE: Faith, Ideology, and the Five Minds (the later from Five Minds for the Future and I am constantly enchanted when I run across a vital reference to how culture is the disaster, not nature.

This book is a magnificent epistle on the folly of mankind and the duplicity of government, business and the media. The author of totally brilliant as he gently sets forth the myth that we are not responsible for acts of God when in fact we are the perpetrators of complex human, social, economic, and political fabrications and decisions that invariably:

1. Screw over the poor and those of color

2. Amortize high risks taken by the rich across the entire taxpayer base

3. Conceal, lie, deceive as to the actual premediated decisions that occasioned the disaster turning into a catastrophe.

I am reminded of that excellent work, Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series).

Here is “the” quote from the author, on page xxii:

“The official response to natural disaster is profoundly dysfunctional in the sense that it has both contributed to a continuing cycle of death and destruction and also normalized the injustices of class and race.”

The middle of the book is a detailed but not at all tedious account of California, Florida, and the Mississippi flood plain. In all three cases calamity was treated as a cultural script to execute:

1. A political agenda on the poor

2. Conceal and deceive outsiders to keep investment coming in

3. Further land speculation, with insurance company as well as state government complicity

I am reminded of the two books, Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin and The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Our country has lost its moral compass across all of its institutions. This is not new, the price is simply higher now.

The account of how a railroad magnate built a railway from Jacksonville to Miami (which was 200 feet of sand at first) and then on to Key West, with the taxpayer footing the bill, the state government giving away the land, and the speculation leading inevitably to enormous disaster and death, is riveting. Or at least captivating.

He lambasts the federal government for venturing into the political economy of risk, for trying to control weather from the 1950′s, and for “writing off” the poor in their mobile homes. Land in hazardous terrain subject to flooding is cheaper, mobile homes are cheaper, the poor cannot afford to evacuate, this strikes me as something only a genocidal maniac would love: “natural eugenics,” only a little connivance needed.

The author tells us that through the 1970′s the federal government stunk at both forecasting and warning, in part because of poor budgeting for the National Weather Service, in part because of privatization, in part because of ineptness (e.g. not repairing critical buoys).

He states, and this did not begin with Katrina, but goes back 40 years, that the Federal response to disasters has been consistently pathetic. One explanation is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has consistently been a dumping ground for political hacks, with nine times more losers than in other agencies.

He explicitly blasts Bush-Cheney for lies in relation to Katrina, which was accurately forecast. Every POLITICAL level of government, from the chicken mayor to the complacent governor to the dumb-s..t FEMA director to the village idiot President failed us.

The books ends by skewering both Clinton and Bush for 16 years of deregulation of all industries having anything to do with public safety, allowing them to increase their profits by increasing the risks and costs to the unsuspecting buyers upon whom they were enabled to prey.

Not a pretty story, but I for one am starting to see the pattern of government and corporate deception, and that is why I have committed the last twenty years of my working life to creating public intelligence in the public interest.

I cannot remember all my past weather and climate books, but here are a few more links:
The Atlas of Climate Change: Mapping the World’s Greatest Challenge (Atlas Of… (University of California Press))
The Weather Makers : How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth
Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization

See also:
Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration
The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political–Citizen’s Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs, & Corruption
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters

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