in Civilization

How to Destroy Civilization

Ron Paul’s idiotic statements on FEMA over the weekend should put paid to questions about why the media ignores him: he’s a crank. According to his libertarian ethos, the federal government should respond to multi-state emergencies by doing nothing while a magic free-market unicorn steps in. His “proof” is the Katrina debacle, an example of what happens when governments abdicate responsibility for disaster response. See how that works?

This ugly and stupid little culture struggle is one of the oldest obsessions of the authoritarian right, dating back through the Great Mississippi floods of 1927 that spurred the growth of federal disaster response. The producerist narrative sees this event as a catalyst for the era of liberal government, so it should not be a surprise that so much of the right-wing authoritarian narrative hinges on disaster and response.

Here’s a particularly egregious recent example of the genre from the FOX News website, in which the authors propose doing away with the National Weather Service:

Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds’ thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting. (Emphasis mine)

Get that? Public airwaves are “hijacked” to “force us” to hear information we can already get through our privately-owned technology. That much of the information available on TV, phone apps, and websites comes from federal resources makes no difference. Unicorns will take care of everything; there’s no need to charge the taxpayer for the actual data that streams through their iPhone, right?

Ron Paul holds up the 1900 Galveston Hurricane — to date, America’s worst natural disaster — as an example of plucky individualistic disaster response. In fact, Galveston is what happens when weather forecasting fails. Dr. Isaac Cline, held up as a hero by later generations for riding across the town to warn everyone of the approaching storm, has also been criticized for not taking the signs of approach seriously enough to give earlier warning:

“Storm warnings were timely and received a wide distribution not only in Galveston but throughout the coast region. Warning messages were received from the Central Office at Washington on September 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8….The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case….A heavy swell from the southeast made its appearance in the Gulf of Mexico during the afternoon of the 7th. The swell continued during the night without diminishing, and the tide rose to an unusual height when it is considered that the wind was from the north and northwest….” (Emphasis mine)

Cline could not see his hurricane approaching, and had to guess based on the data available to him. Mistakes like his are what led to airplanes, and then satellites, monitoring storms at sea. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes it possible to not only predict the path of a hurricane with great accuracy, but to know the shape and depth of the storm surge in advance. When federal, state, and local government use that information properly, they can hold the death toll to a minimum.

That’s the point the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been trying to make lately as it campaigns to avoid budget cuts to its program for monitoring the Earth’s oceans and weather from above the atmosphere.

Here’s the most pressing point that NOAA’s making: A significant weather satellite that orbits the Earth in a north-south direction will die in 2016. Unless funding is put in place soon, a new program to replace that satellite won’t be ready nearly in enough time.

In a series of public appearances, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has been underlining the importance of satellites in forecasting weather.

At a meeting this month in Denver, she said there probably will be a gap of time when NOAA doesn’t have any working satellites on a pole-to-pole orbit, according to The New York Times’ Green blog. Those north-south satellites are “essential for supporting climate research as well as operational weather and storm forecasting for civil, military, and international partners,” according to a White House budget document. (Emphasis mine)

Producerism seeks to remove and uninstall the basic scientific apparatus of government, especially those elements dealing in preparedness and response. Bobby Jindal invoked volcano monitoring as an example of government waste; Eric Cantor wants to cut the US Geological Survey, NWS, and NOAA.

As if to underline the latter’s attitude, Cantor’s own home district was the epicenter of last week’s earthquake — the nuclear plant there having lost its seismographs to budget cuts in the 1990s. And in a flashback to the central argument over 1927, Cantor insists that relief funds for earthquake and hurricane come from budget cuts, a complete reversal of the paradigm since 1927 in which emergency response spending is simply charged on the federal credit card.

His stand is consistent with his efforts to do the same for tornado relief in Missouri and Alabama. For the producerist, disasters are opportunities. Indeed, “Shock Doctrine”  — wherein major disasters become levers to force economic policies on a population that would normally resist them — is a commonly-understood principle of the libertarian disaster response. Having blown its management of Katrina, the Bush administration transformed the city of New Orleans according to its guiding ideologies, replacing public schools with charter schools and much of the city’s housing with private development.

If one regards war as a manmade disaster, we can see the same principle at work when the Coalition Provisional Authority closed state-owned businesses and installed a free-market, flat-taxed economy of libertarian dreams in Iraq. One may also regard economic meltdowns as manmade disasters: libertarians and conservatives split over TARP bailouts and formed together against stimulus spending.

These ideologies fail to solve a basic problem for civilization, however. Regarding Jared Diamond’s checklist of factors in civilizational collapse, two of them — environmental damage and climate change — are present in America today. Another two — hostile neighbors and friendly trade partners — are less significant. The fifth set of factors — the society’s response to its environmental problems — is the most significant of all, according to Diamond, and for the producerist that response is best when it is no response at all.

This is not a mainstream position, but a sop to the fringe. Indeed, the wingnutosphere has been rife with paranoid delusions about FEMA for years: witness the Alex Jones “death camps” meme, promoted for a time by Glenn Beck. Cantor and Jindal and Paul represent a dangerous fringe lunacy gone mainstream.

In that sense, it is a part of the right-wing war against history — the apparent obsession with undoing the 13th, 14th and 17th Amendments, for example, or the Civil Rights acts. This great rolling-backwards also applies to science and education, to science and public policy, and to the basic scientific and technological foundations of a science-based society. All of it must be washed away before they can remake America in the image of what they imagine America should have been.

And they don’t care how many of us drown in order to get them there.

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