November 2012

Top of This issue Current issue


by Jonathan Wallace

This week, New Yorkers drowned in their basements, were crushed by trees, electrocuted by downed wires.

My wife and I were in Astoria, Queens, where the storm at its height was not more than a persistent rain storm with moderate wind. There were some trees down in our neighborhood. Two people died not far away, one when a falling tree hit his house, the other when she ran out to take a photograph and stepped on a fallen power line. Conditions here are nothing like Staten Island, the Rockaways, or even downtown Manhattan, all of which felt much greater force of the storm.

Our home in Amagansett, which I expected to lose this time, was also unaffected, although the Napeague Stretch, where we live, was "breached" (a thing we have long feared and which I will discuss below). (The top page photo this month is of a road on the far side of the highway from me, where I start my five mile exercise run.) We lost power, don't have it days later, and can't get out there because there is no gasoline to be had anywhere. This becomes serious if it is still true on Tuesday, when we want to cast our votes for the President at the Amagansett firehouse. I have not missed a Presidential election since my first one, in 1972.

Here are some random thoughts inspired by Sandy.

The cordon

One February in the early 1970's, I heard sirens at 3 in the morning, and walked out of my Flatbush house to watch a synagogue burn down around the corner on Ocean Avenue. I stood with a small knot of people observing the firefighters do their work. It was the first time I was aware of the concept of a "cordon of safety": whenever the chaos of the universe intrudes on orderly life, via fire, hurricane, tornado, wind, volcanic eruption, etc., the first responders---the blue-uniformed people reassuringly tasked by the state with entropy-fighting and keeping us all safe--establish a perimeter beyond which the looky-lous can congregate and watch.

September 11, 2001 was the day I became aware that the cordon is a social construction, a self-deception in worst cases, that sometimes entropy intrudes in a way which makes the creation of a perimeter impossible. There are times and places where you aren't safe anywhere, as in large stretches of Europe during the Second World War. After fleeing the subway beneath the World Trade towers on 9/11, I paused on the Brooklyn Bridge perimeter and briefly considered going back, as far as the perimeter, to see if I could help anyone (and possibly also with the secondary desire to watch from up close). When I couldn't get a cell phone signal to inform my wife I was all right, I decided to walk to Brooklyn across the bridge. That morning, at least two emergency medical technicians who deployed themsleves to the towers died, and likely many other self deployed volunteers, because they miscalculated where the perimeter was; when the towers fell, they fell right across the perceived perimeter.

Less than a year later I was working on New York City ambulances, and had become part of the cordon; but our training stressed how ambiguous and marginal, how imaginary, any cordon of safety was: they actually told us in training, with perverse pride, that they expected 300 of us would die in responding to a nerve gas incident.

More loosely, we may also imagine the idea of a cordon of safety as a larger geographical loop: the one which surrounded white neighborhoods in 1968 when the black neighborhoods immolated themselves after Dr. King's assassination; the one which surrounds the United States and differentiates it from violent Third World nations (but was itself breached on September 11 by the four planes). As Hurricane Irene approached, very mindful of the freakish number of tornados hitting places I had previously considered moving in the South, the earthquake risks inherent in California life, it struck me that Vermont would be the safest place in America; but it washed away a day or so later. It hadn't occurred to me that a hurricane could endanger places far from the ocean; but throw enough water from the sky at mountainous areas (it happened in the Catskills too) and eventually the earth and streams will not be able to absorb any more, and walls of water will then dance down the hillsides, taking out the houses. My wife and I went up to Windham a few weeks ago, and talked to a waitress in a diner, who said: "Everyone of us lost our houses", indicating around the diner, "she did, and they did, and everyone we know."


There has been a vast evolution in my mindset about my home in Amagansett, what playwrights call a character arc: I bought the place in 1997 oblivious to any danger inherent in its location just a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean on one side and from Napeague Harbor on the other. The selling point, the thing which decided us to buy the house, was the fact that we could see water from two sides of the living room, and I don't remember my wife and I ever having a conversation about whether that was dangerous. And I had already lived through a couple hurricanes in my life: I remembered Donna in 1960, which threw down a few trees around us, and the "perfect storm" of 1991, which caused us to tape up our windows but was a non-starter in Brooklyn.

Only later did I learn that in the last big Long Island hurricane, in 1938, the very narrow neck of land on which I live, the "Napeague Stretch" which is the narrowest point on Long Island, was cut by the ocean; Montauk became an island again for a short while. Over the years, especially after 9/11 when I became more frightened and fatalistic about the things the universe can do to you, I started telling visitors who praised the water views, "Of course, we know those two bodies of water will meet in the middle one day."

At one point I searched online for the Suffolk County hurricane evacuation plan, and found that its generic advice was to drive north or south from your location until you reached the center of the county, presumably the driest point available because equidistant from the ocean and the Sound. So I added another riff to my comedy routine: if we followed that advice literally in Napeague, we would walk a few score feet to the yellow line in the center of Route 27.

During the several years we lived full time in Amagansett, we hunkered down through one Noreaster, where winds made our ocean-side sliding windows bulge so badly we thought they would shatter, and pushed rain in rivulets and then streams through the sliders' sills into our living room. We used every towel in the house sopping it up, and ran the dryer nonstop to make more dry towels, and in the morning our living room floorboards were warped, though in the days that followed they reverted to flat.

One truth I have known my entire life is that everyone deflects away, in polite society, from conversation about worst cases. In fact, talking about gloomy things is a major breach of etiquette. Lillian Eichler's 1921 "Book of Etiquette" has a long disquisition on this:

For how can the boor be happy? With his gloomy face, sour disposition, complaining habits and inherent lack of good taste and culture, he sees only the shadows of life. People are repulsed by him, never attracted.

"Even if things aren't going well for you at the moment, stay away from gloomy subjects or complaints", says a contemporary dating etiquette site.

One of the reasons I started writing the Spectacle was a perception that there are things which are obvious which nobody will say. When I was twelve, I asked my father if there was a chance I would die in the Vietnam war. After observing that it would be over by the time I reached eighteen (it wasn't), he said, "Anyway, its always the other guy who dies in a war"--an observation of which I could clearly see the inanity even then. I gloomily enjoy sitting in lectures by quite intelligent people and then asking hand grenade questions, like, "Do you really think there is any way to solve global warming without a world government?" The speaker, who had just spent an hour discussing national legislation and treaties, answered probably not; he had just been too polite to say so until asked.

We had owned our home in Amagansett for twelve years or so before I sat in the living room of a neighbor I suspected of having an open-minded and realistic world view and said, "We are over-due for another storm like 1938, and when it comes it will entirely wipe out this neighborhood." And he said, "I know, I think about that a lot, myself."

Now we have had two "storms of the century", Irene and Sandy, in two years.

In Napeague, we talk, literally but also metaphorically, of a "breach". Of what? Of the shores of the ocean and the Sound, of our little neck of land, of our homes and lives. Such a breach happened this week, a small example of what we have all feared: water from the bay side flooded Route 27 in Napeague, and the emergency responders rushed in with bulldozers and sand, like King Canute commanding the tides to stop (the trope that he swept the ocean back with a broom appears to be incorrect, a folk saying connected inaccurately to a historical figure). The breach began at high tide Tuesday morning, and by evening the water was receding, likely more because the tide was dropping than because of the human intervention.

During Irene and Sandy both, I spent many hours unable to get any information about what was happening in Amagansett, because nobody I knew had stayed behind to watch. I steeled myself for news that my house had been severely damaged or washed away. It took a day or two to get confirmation that had not happened.

(Big holes in the data in a wired world are a learning experience. It is a false perception that the Internet makes instant information available on everything. Those holes are there everyday, but most of the time we don't notice them. Disasters aggravate them. of course.)

I used to describe my house in Amagansett as the only good financial decision I ever made, because I paid off the mortgage when I had some extra money and the house then appreciated in value. Now, in the perspective of Hurricane Sandy, I think that nobody should have houses any more that close to the ocean; I would have been better off never buying it, or if I had sold it five years ago; I won't be able to sell it now, at least for any profit, to anyone until we have gone two or three years without another "century storm", if that happens; and only then to an amnesiac.


What happened in lower Manhattan was also emphatically a "breach" and has far greater significance than Napeague.

Images of waves on 14th Street, submerged cars on Wall Street, flooding on the Lower East Side, makes me think in terms of a letter:

Dear New York:

Your concept isn't sustainable any more.



Katrina was a wake up call but we didn't hear it, because it was crazy New Orleans, it happened elsewhere. This week, parts of New York (Staten Island, the Rockaways, Coney island) and much of New Jersey became New Orleans.

Talk about gloom: Conservative estimates of sea level rise by the year 2100 say that we will see as much as a two foot rise--and these models don't take the full impact of ice cap changes into effect. In mainstream media, in post-Sandy articles, it is not hard to find predictions that the seas could rise six or seven feet in that time--and continue rising for another century or two after.

Articles in the Times and elsewhere this week spoke of building sea walls, levees and surge protectors for New York, at a cost of billions of dollars. At a time when we lack the will and ability to build roads or bridges, it is hard to imagine how we will find the money or political focus to do these projects. Mayor Bloomberg agrees: "ďI donít think thereís any practical way to build barriers in the oceans." Other improbable proposals: replacing chunks of Wall Street and Battery Park with soft parkland better able to absorb surges; redesigning buildings and neighborhoods at sea level so that, even if they flood once a year, they can be more easily and quickly recovered with less damage; or the approach known as "managed retreat", where we move people away from the ocean.

I am reminded of a stunningly silly article which ran in the Times after 9/11, which reviewed escape technologies for WTC-size buildings. One idea: personal parachutes to be stored under your desk until needed. I resolved immediately never to accept employment in any building tall enough to require me to need such a device.

These kinds of feverish imaginings are symptomatic of decisions which should have been made at a much higher level. There is very little economic justification for 100-story buildings, which are almost always built as a product of human vanity. Our dilemma today is to choose not to warm the environment, or not to live at sea level, two horses long since stolen.

The second worst people on earth

I have become increasingly aware, in the last decade, of the appalling phenomenon of reasonably intelligent Americans denying either that there is a problem, or that we can or should do anything about it:

Let me say I take it as an article of faith if the lord God almighty made the heavens and the Earth, and he made them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we are going to destroy Godís creation.

In other words, God would never permit global warming. This is not some little self-appointed American fundamentalist reverend in Bumfuck, Florida; that is former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey testifying in Congress. No shit.

Or here is Republican Senator James Imhofe of Oklahoma, author of a recent book, "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future", on a Christian talk radio program:

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that Ďas long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,í my point is, Godís still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

Or Republican Congressman John Shimkus of Illinois:

The Earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth. This Earth will not be destroyed by a Flood.

Is it just me, or isn't it grossly disturbing that these people are shaping environmental policy, in fact, any policy in this country? In fact, why run for Congress at all if we can't do anything, change anything? Answer: To enforce their perception of God's will by preventing anyone else from addressing the problems we face.

Google "global warming God's will" and you pop up a lot of disturbing content, such as:

Global warming is God's response to global sin!

As long as our government continues to protect and promote sexual immorality; God will not allow us to stop global warming; to stop climate change!!!

At times, reading this kind of tripe, I start thinking that maybe it would be better if our species washed away; maybe whoever comes next, the cockroaches or the cockatiels, will do a better job....

Its hard to say who is more dangerous, wing nuts with power such as Armey, Imhofe and Shimkus or the Uriah Heep-like intellectuals with whiny voices always dropping insinuations that, yes, global warming exists, but only a little, and yes, humans are involved, but not very much, and there's nothing we can really do about it anyway. You can listen to Imhofe, and know he's crazy, but the Heeps can cite studies and articles until you start to doubt yourself.

A leading and influential example is the Cato Institute, the Koch-funded attack dog which purports to represent a pure Libertarian agenda. (The masquerade was exposed recently when David Koch sued Cato, seeking more control over its board, on which he already names 7 of 16 members; he has told people that he thought Cato should be a more effective tool to defeat Barack Obama.) In a 2009 handbook for policy makers, Cato acknowledges that human activity contributed to global warming--from 1975 to 1998, and has now stopped for a while; it will resume at some point in the future, but there is no effective action Congress can take now, so we should do nothing at all until private business develops better carbon emission-cutting technologies.

Referencing a 2004 prediction, which seems to be coming true, that hurricanes in the near future will increase in intensity, Cato observes:

It is noteworthy that Knutsonís most recent work now calculates that the number of Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes will decrease with global warming. In recent decades, as the surface temperature has warmed, the frequency of these storms has dropped in both the eastern North Pacific and Southern oceans.

In a column entitled "N.C.'s Coast Can Live with Warming", published just a week or so before Sandy hit, Cato's Patrick Michaels wrote:

It's enough to make people panic before the apocalypse. So sell me your beach house. Please.

I'd like to offer you bottom dollar because a) everyone thinks your house is doomed and b) because everyone is probably wrong.

The basic tenet of Libertarianism is that most or all problems cannot effectively be solved by government. A statement that global warming, bad as it is, should be managed by the market's invisible hand (though misbegottten) would be an intellectually honest statement from Cato. There is nothing inherently Libertarian in going beyond that to attack the science itself.

I believe that people who don't want us to solve the climate change problem are the second worst class of people on earth, after the murderers and torturers. I also believe that they fall into two categories, those who know the truth and don't care, who are cynically protecting the ability of the billionaire class to make a few more billions before we all wash away; and the tools, those who are crassly and cynically used by the billionaires; the wannabes and ditto-heads who uncritically parrot the falsehoods of their idols.

As Mackay noted in his analysis of the South Sea bubble in "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds": "[E]very fool aspire[s] to be a knave."

The prospect before us

Sorry to be such a boor: I think a new dark age is almost inevitable. The population of the earth has doubled in my lifetime, the weather is obviously getting more severe, and the cordon of safety is gone, which, if you think about it, is civilization's premier gift to us, the one we must have to have anything else.

I figured out long ago that problems can only be solved by political entities which exist at the same level as the problems, or higher. In order to clean up a river which crosses several states, you need a federal government. To clean up the air breathed by the citizens of every state, you need a federal government. If you left it to the states (part of the conservative solution, what they are talking about whenever they say the words "states rights" or "federalism") it could never happen, because individual states would have the right to defect from the solution and once someone has the right to defect, someone inevitably does. This is the profound teaching of the game theory paradigm, the "Prisoners' Dilemma". We are going to have a new dark age because that is where the Prisoners' Dilemma will lead.

At the level of global warming, there is no government responsible, none that spans the globe. Only a collection of nations, which will never successfully regulate anything by treaty because someone always defects. For decades now, the worst defector has been the United States, whuch never ratified the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

If I lose my house to the random violence of the universe, I know how to live with that; if I lose it due to my own stupidity, I have some experience with that as well. But at moments I feel like I will pay my house as a tax to the Koch brothers and the other billionaires; they require my house in payment so they can have more billions. Then I am very angry, that someone is profiting while the rest of us wash away; though I wonder how they will arrange for their children and grandchildren not to wash away with ours. But it appears they are so appallingly selfish they don't even care about their own families, these folk.

What I did

A wonderful couple around the corner from us, established a donations drop off point in their driveway, and for two days I talked back to Sandy in the aftermath, by working myself sore and stupid, loading and unloading people's cars with canned food, cleaning stuff, flashlights, batteries, blankets and water. There is no better answer to entropy than hard physical work.