9 September 2005

America's Sorrow

The Confucian and Daoist parties at the court of the Emperor Han Chengdi debated the best way to control the flooding of the Yellow River, already known to them as China's Sorrow. Although the Daoists, led by Engineer Jiarang, triumphed at a court conference held in 8 BCE, their success was short-lived and by 58 CE the Confucians were using levees to control the floods. The river deposited silt between the levee banks and after some centuries the bed of the river was higher than the surrounding plains. Sadly the US Army Corps of Engineers had no access to the records of the court conference. and the Mississippi suffered the same fate as the Yellow River.

Role of the Yellow River Basin in Chinese Culture and History
This deep connection between Chinese culture, the Yellow River and flood control can be seen in the Legend of Yu. The Great Yu (c. 2,000 BC) was one of the three early, probably mythical, leaders of China and was known for taming the Yellow River floods using a strategy of channel clearing rather than dike construction. While it is unlikely that Yu, or anyone else, successfully controlled Yellow River flooding by any strategy, the story continues to be told, in part because it carries with it the moral analogy that adverse human nature can be better corrected by guidance (clearing a path) than punishment (constructing a barrier). More fundamentally, the channel-clearing versus dike-construction can also be seen as a reflection of a general philosophical debate in river management which has continued in China for more than 2,000 years between Taoists, with their emphasis on letting nature, human or otherwise, follow its own path and Confucianists, with their desire to channel behavior through virtuous moral codes (Needham 1956).4 The dichotomy of approach can still be seen in the modern debates on Yellow River management. In fact, both the historic and modern debates form part of a broader, and in many ways uniquely Chinese approach to river management predating Confucianism and Taoism of using the river to tame itself.

Differences between ideals and practice not withstanding (Rhoades 1967; Tuan 1968; McNeill 1998), the value of recognizing the role of philosophy in Chinese water management, and the role of water management in Chinese philosophy and culture, is not simply for academic exercise. Rather it highlights a more historically robust and broadly defined concept of integrated water management than exists in the West in which concern is placed not only on basic science, engineering and appropriate management units, but also on a philosophical understanding of man and nature. For example, current Yellow River managers approach the problem of environmental requirements with a Chinese perspective of the interrelationship between man and the environment, and so, define environmental water uses differently than may typically be the case elsewhere. In general, the concept, if not the practice, of environmental water use in China can be considered to contain not only the maintenance of biodiversity and natural ecosystem function, as emphasized in the West, but also the maintenance of the landscape as a place for human habitation and livelihood.


Okay, it was an undergraduate epiphany that all politics is about dike building and channel clearing. It is not an undergraduate epiphany that the Mississippi problem is an issue of the human landscape and not just a question of engineering technique.

The Chinese saw flood disasters as a mark of dynastic failure and the inevitable passage of the mandate of Heaven to a new dynasty. At one level this is just folklore about the anger of Heaven. On the other hand, a failing dynasty usually lost so much revenue to the aristocracy and to corruption they could not maintain the levees. Mengzi argued that: 'Bad rulers suffer not because they get worse weather but because they do not deal properly with the weather they get. A discussion with King Hui of Liang illustrates Mengzi’s view. The king describes how if the year is bad in a certain area, he moves the people elsewhere and he sends grain to the affected area. In spite of this, his people do not increase, and the king complains that Mengzi’s advice – that if you are virtuous your kingdom will benefit – is false. Mengzi responds by saying the king is not good enough, and that praising himself over other rulers is like a deserting soldier who laughs at those who run a little further away. Mengzi affirms the connection between virtue and reward by claiming the king is not virtuous and thus not rewarded.' and wrote:

Dogs and pigs eat the food of people, but you do not realize it is time for gathering, and when men drop dead from starvation by the wayside, you fail to realize that it is time for distribution. People die from starvation on the roads, and you do not issue the stores for them. People die and you say, “It’s not me; it’s the year.” In what way is that different from killing a man by stabbing him, and then saying, “It’s not me; it’s the weapon?


Too Many People in Nature's Way
The more advanced the nations, the bigger the blow may be. Terry Jeggle, a U.N. disaster-reduction planner, cites the New Orleans levee system -- dependent on pumps that run on electricity produced by fuel that must be transported in. One failure will lead to another along that chain.

"Complex systems invite compounding of complexity in consequences, too," said the Geneva-based Jeggle.

Experts fear more is to come.

The scientific consensus expects global warming to intensify storms, floods, heat waves and drought. Climatologists are still researching whether climate change has already strengthened hurricanes, whose energy is drawn from warm ocean waters, or whether the Atlantic Basin and Gulf are witnessing only a cyclical upsurge in intense storms. Computer models of climate change in the decades to come point to more devastating Category 5 storms.

The prospect of more vulnerable populations on a more turbulent Earth has U.N. officials and other advocates pressuring governments to plan and prepare. They cite examples of poorer nations that in ways do a better job than the rich:


  • No one was reported killed when Ivan struck Cuba in 2004, its worst hurricane in 50 years and a storm that, after weakening, killed 25 people in the United States. Cuba's warning-evacuation system is minutely planned, even down to neighborhood workers keeping updated charts on which residents need help during evacuations.

  • Along Bangladesh's cyclone coast, 33,000 well-organized volunteers stand ready to shepherd neighbors to raised concrete shelters at the approach of one of the Bay of Bengal's vicious storms.

  • In 2002, Jamaica conducted a full-scale evacuation rehearsal in a low-lying suburb of coastal Kingston, and fine-tuned plans afterward. When Ivan's 20-foot surge destroyed hundreds of homes two years later, only eight people died. Ordinary Jamaicans also are taught search-and-rescue methods and towns at risk have trained flood-alert teams.


A couple of memes are floating down the river of spin pouring out the White House in an apparent attempt to dam a flood of water with a flood of words. The Bush administration's performance does not compare favourably with much less advanced nations. Only last month, China successfully evacuated almost a million people in the face of Typhoon Talim. The nonsense, since disproven, that Louisiana's governor did not declare a state of emergency or request federal help is disproven. The President, Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brown were all warned by the National Hurricane Center well before Katrina's landfall. Why the relief effort was bungled matters, because it will control how the relief effort, and beyond it the reconstruction effort is executed. The only interesting question is why, if the White House has a true excuse, they have resorted to infantile and risible lies.

The White House is now pushing a particularly disastrous idea that FEMA should manage the reconstruction.

Talking Points Memo
Even if FEMA were still a model government agency, as it was by most accounts in the 1990s, this would still be a really, really bad decision. As the title says, FEMA is an emergency management agency, not a reconstruction agency. It doesn't have the organizational structure or competence to run the economy of a significant chunk of the United States for the foreseeable future, which is what this amounts to.


Failed leaders pushing a failed policy through a failed agency, and hoping failed lies will hide their failure.

1 comment:

Boondoggler said...

Don't worry - George has announced that to the extent that his Goverment's agencies (I think that excludes the States) may have been accountable for the slow response, HE will accept responsibility.

Point of order - he already has that responsibility ! What does it mean - evidently sod all - as he will not fall on the sword no doubt.