2016-06-30
Was Hurricane Katrina wholly a "natural" disaster? Was human action in part responsible for the catastrophe that destroyed a city?

Let us recall a Torah passage that is raised up in traditional Jewish liturgy as the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, the affirmation of God's Unity. The passage reads (Deut. 11: 13-21, following and revising the Everett Fox translation):

"Now it shall be--
If you hearken, yes, hearken!
To My connection-commitments
to which I connect you today,
To love YHWH/ Yahh/ the Breath of Life
and to serve Yahh with all your heart and every breath,
I will give forth the rain of your earth in the right time,
Rain like arrows in its time
and the gentler later-rain as well,
And you shall gather in your grain, your new wine,
and your glistening olive-oil;
I will give forth grassy-eating in your field,
for your animals;
So you too will eat and be satisfied.


"Take care!
Lest your heart be seduced,
So that you turn aside and serve after-thought 'gods'
and bow yourselves down to them,
For then the heat of the Breath of Life
will flare up against you
So that the Breathing-spirit of the world
shuts up the heavens [as CO2 becomes scorching]
And there is no rain [or it smashes your levees and drowns your cities]
And the earth does not give forth its yield,
So that you perish quickly from off the good earth
that YHWH, the Breath of Life, is giving you!"


And in sum, the passage continues:

"If we can teach the Unity of all life to ourselves and our children;
if we can awaken our minds and our hearts, our eyes and our hands, our dreams and our efforts, to the Wholeness;
if we can remember that only the Great Flow of all life is worthy of
worship, not carving out of it our own idols, godlets of greed and ambition and hurry and Control--
Then earth will be heavenly in all its earthiness, a garden of sustenance and delight.

"But if not. "

The New Orleans Catastrophe has lit up our society like a continental lightning flash, revealing what was always present but hidden from us. Let us look at the specifics:

1. When money was needed to shore up the New Orleans levees before disaster struck, the money was cut from flood control funds to spend on the Iraq war.

2. When it would have been crucial to use the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards to evacuate people and keep order, two-fifths of them were fighting in Iraq.

3. When, decades ago, preservation of the Louisiana wetlands was crucial because they absorbed the rain of hurricanes, they were destroyed in order to drill for oil.

4. When scientists warned again and again that pouring CO2 into the atmosphere was heating the earth and oceans and could spawn more hurricanes of ferocious intensity, their warnings were scorned and the hyper-use of oil continued.

5. When evacuations were ordered, no one bothered to provide the means for hundreds of thousands of Orleanians (mostly black) who were too poor to own cars or to have credit cards or to connect with faraway friends or to buy extra food to pack in middle-class back packs. So many of them died, many of them sickened from hunger and thirst and the poisons released into water and air.

Each of these failures was rooted in human arrogance--arrogance toward the earth and its oceans, toward the poor and people of color. Each was rooted in a form of idolatry, of carving out from the Unity, the Universal Flow of life, some partial piece and worshipping that piece as if it were the Whole. Elevating into godlets our own pride, greed, ambition, domination--and bowing before them.

As the Torah passage teaches, doing this brings upon us a disaster in the order of nature. Doing this disorders the rain and the wind and the warmth that bring us prosperity, bring us our food, our homes, our jobs, our cities. The process by which Pharaoh's oppression brought on the Ten Plagues, the Ten Eco-disasters, was not a miracle, not weird. It was the ordered response of an orderly world to the disorderly acts of those who held unaccountable power.

We label the Katrina disaster "natural" in order to hide from our own complicity. Especially to hide from the complicity of those with great power. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, "In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible." To shoulder our own responsibility requires that we also discern who is guilty.

In most of these actions that made a problematic storm into a continental catastrophe, the key element was the addiction of American society to oil. The Iraq war, the destruction of the wetlands, the heating of the Gulf so that a storm took on ferocious strength -- all born from addiction to oil, and from the arrogance that both nourished and grew from the addiction.

Addiction = idolatry.

Its only cure is connection with Wholeness. Turning from arrogance to compassion. Not only the instant compassion of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless--but also the deeper, the longer-range compassion of healing the earth, sharing our wealth, rebuilding so that the poor are not isolated, not made invisible.

We must welcome fully into our community all human cultures, all living beings, and those we have not conventionally thought "alive"--like the ozone layer and the proportion of CO2 in our air. Because they are all suffused with God; because the God's holy name YHWH can only be "pronounced" by breathing, "Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh"--and "the breath of all life blesses God's name," as the prayerbook says (Nishmat kol chai tivarech et shimcha).

Specifically, what would this mean?

  • Deciding that our first national priority is drastically cutting CO2 emissions through energy conservation, reshaping our cities so that almost everyone can easily walk or bike or Internet to work, rejuvenating our railroad system to European and Japanese standards, installing thousands of windmills--all in order to heal the wounded climate system that sustains all life.
  • Making a Newer Orleans the model city for the pink, brown, black, and green faces of God to live in community with each other--not by imposing on them a corporate diktat but by starting from the grass-roots up to plan new neighborhoods, restore old wetlands. Indeed, finding the Katrina refugees where they have fled and using both face-to-face and Internet connection to replan the city together.
  • Bringing home from Iraq all the soldiers of the National Guards of all the states and retraining them not for war but for dealing with disasters, issuing them lifeboats rather than machine guns, water-decontamination kits rather than armored cars, helicopters that carry water to put out forest fires--not bombs to destroy cities.
  • Retraining large parts of the regular U.S. military in the same way. Since the climate crisis of global scorching is already upon us, they will be needed not only in North America but in many other regions of the planet.
  • Raising the minimum wage to where 40 hours of work will lift a family of four above the poverty line--a living wage with livable hours. Forbidding anyone to do paid work for more than fifty hours a week. Supporting neighborhood folk festivals, paid family leave time, a paid year off to learn in mid-life. Reshaping the tax system so that no household ends up with an income of more than two million dollars a year.
  • Ending the occupation of Iraq, redefining its people (and all peoples) as our partners in the great adventure of moving the world from Oiloholic addiction to the moderate, long-tern use of oil as part of a sustainable energy system.
  • Treating all human beings and all earth as part of the One, the Whole.

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