To the meteorologists, we say, 'Thanks for the warning'

Storm-day ruminations about technology, weather and human expectations

October 29, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Pardon me, but among the things a big storm stirs, besides high anxiety, are memories of storms from years ago or, in my case, a kind of wonderment about how our ancestors prepared for and survived them.

As awed as I am about new technology, I'm often doubly awed that people once got by without the things we take for granted — telephones, televisions, automobiles, central heating and early-warning weather. Certainly, we're in a better place today. Thank you to meteorologists and satellite engineers.

Nature is still scary, but at least we know its magnitude and estimated time of arrival.

Most of us started paying attention to the possibility of Sandy smashing into the Mid-Atlantic nearly a week ago. This time, we had plenty of time to prepare and to worry, and to prepare to worry some more — and to get ready to do nothing.

What we're talking about here — the part that's really frightening — is the complete randomness of life writ huge: Men, women and children concentrated on the eastern edge of the world's most powerful nation, fully informed of an approaching storm, yet unable to do anything about it.

Yes, we buy batteries and batten down the hatches. We stock up on canned goods. We make extra ice. We prepare for the power outages that come with just about every major storm. But after that, it's all pretty much twigs in the wind, isn't it?

Even the high-tech tracking of the storm just tells us where it will hit and hit hardest, which informs evacuation decisions. That definitely helps save lives.

But after that, what are we left with? Wind and rain and forces beyond the control of mortals, a reality that has never changed through millennia.

I mean, really: When it's sit-and-wait-it-out time, we're not much different from cave dwellers.

Then again, the cave dwellers might have been inhabiting a less disaster-prone planet.

Some climate scientists argue that while there have always been natural cataclysms around the globe, we have sufficiently damaged the atmosphere in a way that will make such events more common and more deadly. I believe that. I believe we're experiencing the new normal of life in the post-industrial, fossil-fuel age. (It's why I argued in this space a year ago in favor of an ambitious national program to bury power lines.)

Even so, we like to think there's something we can do about the weather — if only, for now, on some deep level of the subconscious.

Think about it.

Here, in the 21st century, as you hold a cellphone to your ear, or poke at your smartphone, or watch satellite images of Earth on your wide-screen TV, you have to believe that something huge has changed about human life on the planet.

Truly, we've been through a global technological revolution, and it continues.

"Information is power," we're told, particularly when it comes to money and politics. Why should having information about weather and other natural events be any less empowering? Why shouldn't five-day forecasts be absolutely accurate by now, down to the ETA of a monster hurricane at Ocean City or the Jersey shore? We have the tools — and, in fact, we pay for a lot of them with our taxes — so, in the 21st century, we should be in better control of our lives, no matter what nature hurls at us.

That's not a far-fetched belief.

Last week, an Italian court sentenced six scientists and a government official to six years in prison for their failure to give adequate warning of an earthquake that killed more than 300 people three years ago in central Italy. The defendants were all members of Italy's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. They were accused of negligence in failing to soundly evaluate the threat of a quake and to warn the people of the city of L'Aquila of the risks.

This raises the concept of malpractice and manslaughter to a whole new level, and it speaks to the rising expectations humans have, the idea that we could not only be wisely warned of nature's fury but, eventually, somehow even control it.

I know that sounds ridiculous. It's not something most people, particularly the God-fearing, talk about. But I'm talking brain science here. I believe that rising expectations of empowerment are part of human intellectual evolution. Our brains are heavily influenced by the advance of technology and science. The more dependent we are on technology — the more efficient and productive it makes our daily lives — the less tolerant we will be of things like snowstorms, hurricanes and earthquakes, and the more we will come to see them as inconveniences that must be mastered.

You can laugh at that thought now. But let's check back on this in 100 years and see where we are.

In the meantime, get thee to a safe cave.

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