Alyssa Battistoni has an interesting and lengthy piece at Jacobin about natural disasters, what will cause us to do something about them, what lessons do we leawrn, and a lot of other things. I think it’s been out for a little while, but I just read it.
The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) again and again, even when New York City gets hit by 2 hurricanes in 2 years, even when an iconic American city is nearly wiped off the map, literally nothing of consequence is done. The upshot of climate change is that we will do absolutely nothing, 80% of the world’s plant and animal species will go extinct, our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do. We will still do nothing.
One nit to pick with Alyssa. Historians need to do a better job of pushing back on the myths around the Dust Bowl. She uses it as an example of when the U.S. did react to a natural disaster:
The Dust Bowl and the Depression offer the most obvious example of successful left politics in response to dual environmental and economic crises. Driven by radical organizing, the country essentially instituted basic income schemes that paid farmers not to farm and others to do public works. It was the obvious referent for the wave of enthusiasm for green jobs and a New New Deal in the early days of the Obama administration—perhaps too obvious, failing to take into account the differences of the current situation. But those hopes have faded in the face of austerity, and with it much of whatever tentative blue-green alliance there was, to say nothing of a red-green one. Both labor and environmentalists are becoming more confrontational in their tactics, but they’ve largely retreated to their own camps. In the vacuum that’s resulted, it’s not hard to imagine newfound bipartisan attention to climate change being used to advance proposals for blunt austerity measures instead of radical redistribution, capitalizing on the popular perception of environmentalism as asceticism to justify—or deflect blame for—a familiar neoliberal agenda.
This lesson from the Dust Bowl really isn’t true (I’ll leave the contemporary issues of labor and environmental movements for now). The New Deal and Dust Bowl were almost totally coincidental. New Deal policies exacerbated what we see as a major consequence of the Dust Bowl–migration out of the Plains. Tom Joad and clan were not pushed out by the Dust Bowl, it was centralization of agriculture and the eviction of tenant farmers due to AAA policies. Two major impacts of the Dust Bowl on federal policy was the Soil Conservation Service and the National Grassland system, but neither of these were major federal responses that changed the nation in particularly profound ways (important as the SCS is from some perspectives). The other was the beginning of the agricultural subsidy system, which although heavily mutated in the 70s always had the effect of centralizing agricultural control with big farmers. Dust Bowl policies really weren’t an example of successful left politics. By the 1950s, more native prairie was plowed up than ever and the agricultural capitalism that created the Dust Bowl was more powerful than it had ever been in 1932. As a society, we learned nothing at all from the Dust Bowl.