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.

7 September 2005

God blew and they were scattered

Letters from Voltaire, 24 November 1755, describing the great Lisbon earthquake
This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds-- where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps, half, dying undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath d├ębris from which it was impossible to extricate them, families all over Europe reduced to beggary, and the fortunes of a hundred merchants -- Swiss, like yourself -- swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say -- especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike. I believe it is our mountains which save us from earthquakes.


Personally, I suspect God wanted to encourage the Enlightenment so he flattened Lisbon in order to seed Europe with disbelief.

Boiling Over
Apart from what it revealed of human depravity, Mr. Barry says, the flood of 1927 changed America. It put Herbert Hoover in the White House, even while his duplicity in dealing with blacks helped begin the shift of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It inspired Congress to pass a law putting responsibility for the Mississippi in Federal hands, making it easier for both Congress and the public to accept an even larger Federal presence during the New Deal years. And the pressures the flood brought to bear on the delicate racial fabric of the Deep South caused tears that could never be mended.

Altogether, then, ''Rising Tide'' stands not only as a powerful story of disaster but as an accomplished and important social history, magisterial in its scope and fiercely dedicated to unearthing truth. What the book doesn't do, doesn't intend to do, is to give us much reason to think that humans are ever going to control the river for any length of time (as the floods of 1993 demonstrated once again). The river's power is too great and our dreaming too small (and perhaps too ignoble) seriously to impede the course of what Mark Twain called ''the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi rolling its mile-wide tide along.


Octavio Paz on the politics of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake
One of the most significant results of the [1085] earthquake was autonomous action outside of the PRI and the government.

We are in the process of a transformation that began in 1968 with the student revolt. While the student revolt was a leftist revolt, its main demand was welcomed by the Mexican public: democratization.

That revolt instigated the Echeverria 'apertura,' the Lopez-Portillo political reforms and now De La Madrid's proposed changes for more seats in the legislature for the opposition parties. I wrote in 1968 that either we are going to have serious upheavals or we are going to move toward a more modern democracy. Although the effort is too slow for me, I am happy to say that democratization is happening, little by little. We are on the verge of change.

One of the great obstacles to democratic progress in the past has been the weakness of the opposition parties. Now we have
a new phenomenon in Mexico: the democratic right is more powerful than ever before, mainly in the north.


Apocalypse in the USA
The rest of America has rallied. Despite the Lone Ranger rhetoric of freedom, amazing reserves of solidarity bind US society. It starts with neighbourliness, swells into civic pride, and becomes patriotism. My university opened its classes to students displaced from the Gulf Coast, helping to lead a similar movement around the nation. Schools where refugees have taken shelter have done the same. Disaster relief has become a national, rather than a federal, effort. The government is outdone, engulfed and isolated by a wave of sympathy for fellow citizens in distress.

Regional authorities in the Mississippi Delta who failed to foresee the tragedy are, for the moment, escaping most of the resentment. Governor Hailey Barber of Mississippi disarmingly confesses failure while wanting to make up for it. His popular touch comes naturally, where the President's always seems scripted. People believe Mr Barber when he promises that "we're gonna hitch up our britches". Mr Bush, meanwhile, keeps promising a better future, when what the victims want is present relief. His uneasy optimism seems reflected in the gleaming eyes of fat-cat friends, already prowling around for prospective reconstruction contracts.

When the terrorists struck on 9/11, Mr Bush could make any number of mistakes, and still gain in popularity, because there were aliens on hand to hate. He could launch and mismanage wars with impunity, counting on the electorate's fidelity in the face of the foe.

This time Mr Bush cannot rail against God or, with his environmental record, make an enemy of nature. He cannot bomb the sea or invade the wind. God and nature are on the same side; and they no longer look like America's coalition partners. Even in the context of a natural occurrence, where there is no real enemy, people still need to hate and long for vengeance. Slowly, inexorably, with a chilling uniformity, the accusing gazes are focusing on the White House.


Bush could lie his way into Iraq because it is far away and little understood. When he brought the big lie home and tried to privatise social security he was arguing against his own supporters' direct experience and the spin did not work so well. When Spin does not sway the Fox network, the Bush administration, in his father's immortal phrase, is in deep doodoo. Historical crises destroy, they do not strengthen, rulers. Historical crises where the relief effort is a manifest failure can bring down entire elites. Robert Frost said it a lot better than I'm ever going to:

The Flood
Blood has been harder to dam back than water.
Just when we think we have it impounded safe
Behind new barrier walls (and let it chafe!),
It breaks away in some new kind of slaughter.
We choose to say it is let loose by the devil;
But power of blood itself releases blood.
It goes by might of being such a flood
Held high at so unnatural a level.
It will have outlet, brave and not so brave.
weapons of war and implements of peace
Are but the points at which it finds release.
And now it is once more the tidal wave
That when it has swept by leaves summits stained.
Oh, blood will out. It cannot be contained.


The death toll will be horrendous and there is not going to be any way to prevent comparison with other hurricanes and other disasters unnecessarily. In particular, the death toll of those who died unnecessarily, because the relief effort moved so slowly, will take more than cute word tricks like Bush condemning an effort he headed and directed. Blood will out.