Sandy and the end of the world as we know it

Posted October 29th, 2012 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

I don’t mean to be dramatic with that headline. We are seeing the end of a world, the familiar one in which most of us, at least those of us over, say, 30, were born and lived most of our lives. This storm is going to change everything, even if we once again attempt to bury our heads in the sand.

NASA/NOAA GOES-13 image taken at 11:35 EDT Oct. 29

We love to hype storms, and we are certainly hyping this one. On the other hand, this is probably going to be the costliest disaster in U.S. history. Thanks to all the climate models and accurate forecasting we are able to do now, I am guessing that loss of life will be low (we hope) and if there is any it will have to do with those who did not heed the warnings, or who had really bad luck (like a tree smashing through their house, as happens in towns like Takoma Park, Maryland, where I lived for more than 20 years). But there could certainly be loss of life and plenty of injuries, and then lots of misery from loss of power, cold temperatures, and a lack of social cohesion that would make neighbors and neighborhoods prepared to look out for one another, share with one another, know where the vulnerable population lives – elderly and disabled, for example.

At times like this, social values pre-disaster can have as much impact on what happens to us as the disaster itself. Do most of us even know our neighbors’ names?

I just heard a MSNBC guy, one of those insane people who stand in the wind and rain to tell us it’s windy and raining, say that this is a storm the likes of which he will probably never see again in his lifetime.

That’s what I mean about burying our heads in the sand. This is not a freakish act of Mother Nature, like the Ice Age, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, or even Hurricane Andrew (1992), one of the worst storms ever to hit the US. This “hybrid” storm with the sweet name Sandy is caused by a combination of an extremely unusual, though not unprecedented, late autumn hurricane, warm ocean waters (5 degrees above average) over which the storm slowly passed over several days gathering up more moisture to fuel its core, soon to collide with a sharp cold front moving in from the west (our temps in Milwaukee dropped from a high of 76 to 35 in about 8 hours as it passed us), driving the jet stream to the south where it is circulating back north over the warm gulf waters and the warm ocean waters gathering still more moisture and force, and bringing to the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountain ranges a circulation of cold air filled with all the moisture that will dump record snows in the mountains.

As they keep saying, we have never seen anything like this before. Language fails. As of this moment, the storm is a thousand miles wide. Even here in Milwaukee our winds are going to pick up today and over Lake Michigan we could have gusts well over 50 mph tomorrow.

As has been said for so many years now you wonder what is the matter with the human brain that it does not get this: a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture fueling more powerful storms. Global warming does not cause hurricanes. It causes them to become more extreme. Warmer air holds more moisture and warmer water brings about more evaporation which puts still more moisture into the atmosphere, a powerful source of fuel. Warmer water expands, takes up more space, which means sea level rises, which means when the more extreme storms hit, they cause more destructive storm surges; the sea, the floods, move farther inland.

In North Carolina, which just got clobbered by this storm (and it ain’t over yet), they tried to make it illegal to use the term “sea level rise” in official documents regarding coastal development plans. That is exactly how stupid the human can be when big things come along to shake up deeply entrenched belief systems (you know, things like evolution, as another example).

Why do I think this storm changes everything, despite our denial, our refusal to believe when reality smashes us full in the face? Think about this for a minute; think about the year we have just had.

For example, look at this map from the US Drought Monitor from August:

US Drought Monitor, Aug 21 2012: NOAA/NESDIS/NCDC

For much of this year, drought effected virtually the entire nation. Even Hawaii is seeing its rain patterns change as the trade winds have shifted. The costs to the nation from the drought are in the billions of dollars and will only increase next year as the full impact of it hits food prices. And then keep in mind that in much of the country, it is not over yet.

How ’bout wildfires? This year a record 7 million acres burned in the West. Utah had more than 1,000 fires and spent $50 million fighting them. The state government had budgeted $3 million. As of August, Montana fires cost the state $25 million, with an additional $39 million from the federal government.  Washington state budgeted $11.2 million to fight fires but was projected to spend more than $19 million.

So do we need to add that July was the warmest month ever recorded in the US and that we are likely to meet or break another record globally this year?

Now contemplate this map from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Ponder the Atlantic Ocean. See that area where hurricanes form and then move across the water towards North America? Kinda red and orange, isn’t it?

Land & ocean temperature percentiles, Sept. 2012 – NOAA/NCDC

Share this with everyone you know. Don’t let it matter if they are going to get upset or scared. We have to start talking about this. We, as a nation, in our churches, schools, on cable news, across the internet, in our neighborhoods, local, state and federal governments – we need to start seriously having this conversation about what we are going to do.

Because, though I hate to tell that guy out there in the hip boots with the sand and rain blowing into his face, this will not be the only storm like this he will see in his lifetime, not even the only one to hit the mid-Atlantic. This is not just our bad luck with Mother Nature; this is about how the weather patterns are changing across the globe. This storm was absolutely predicted by the climate models studying the impacts of our warming planet due to all those greenhouse gases we have spewed into the atmosphere, the waste product of our industrial culture and way of life.

We have a ways to go yet in 2012, but if you tried to add it up right now, and based on estimates of what Sandy could do to this nation, we are talking about multiples of tens, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars of damage to our economy, our infrastructure, homes and other buildings, from fire, floods, sea level rise, drought, wind, blizzards, and more. Just imagine the hit on the insurance industry, no matter what you think of these corporations, who may or may not have funds on  hand to meet all the claims that are coming. Just imagine what it would mean if we have a Congress bent on slashing the government budget and lowering taxes or eliminating crucially needed government agencies that deal with all the issues related to this chaos just as disasters like these increase in number and frequency!

I am more than stunned by this. When I have given talks or workshops or written about these things, a storm like this was one of those apocalyptic scenarios you try to describe as a future to wake people up to the danger of not addressing global warming, and now here it is. And we have only warmed a little, and are going to warm by a few more degrees this century. What will a storm like this look like by 2090, the life span of those being born today?

I get tired of hearing all the politicians tell us how resilient our people are, how we always pull together in the face of disaster, how we’ll get through this because we always do (ask the people of the Lower Ninth Ward about how well that worked out for them after Katrina). They insult my intelligence and the intelligence of my people. My people need some truth about why these disasters are happening. They need some good honest information so that they can start making better decisions about how we’re going to live on this rapidly changing planet.

Oh sure, some religious fundamentalists and bible-thumping preachers, fossil fuel corporation CEOs and venture capitalists, and right-leaning political movements and pundits may push back hard, but reality just keeps pulling the rug out from under them. In the same way that the NRA will never blame the prevalence of guns for the mindboggling level of gun violence in this country, I don’t expect the Cato Institute, or the Am. Enterprise Institute, or the Heritage Foundation, or Ams for Prosperity, or Karl Rove, or Fox News to ever admit that climate change is involved in these most unnatural natural disasters.

We just need to ignore them, stop arguing with them, and start teaching, raising consciousness, organizing, challenging the basis of industrial life on the grounds of ethics and morals and our responsibility to the “Seventh Generation” to come after us.

What we do to the world seemingly outside ourselves (that’s one of our biggest mistakes, to think it is outside us) often comes back to haunt us, becomes a mirror that shows us who we are, what we have done, what we are responsible for. We have done terrible violence to our Mother Earth. And now she is showing us exactly what that looks like.

We are living in a new world. It is still up to us what that world will ultimately look like and just how it is that we are going to live in it.


The Center for New Creation is the aptly named non-profit that is sponsor of my project. It was founded in 1979 and has a long inspiring history of working for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation. The work I am doing is not easily funded in the old paradigm. We are working now to contribute to the effort here in the Milwaukee area and beyond to muster up the courage to start that walking. You can help by making your tax-deductible contribution to our work. And thank you!


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One Response

  1. anshul

    I agree with u …….ppl need to be informed abt this …rather than thinking of world ending 2012 …we should concentrate on this…god bless u.