written 9 August 2020
published 16 August 2020
Disasters are the consequence of systematically ignoring reality, because of fanatical and uncompromising philosophic zealotry, incompetence, or corruption.
An example is the recent blast in Beirut, Lebanon, an abrupt disaster that was years in the making. In 2014, a bankrupt Russian ship, anchored in the harbor for over a year, was at risk of sinking. For prudence, the orphan cargo of 2900 tons of ammonium nitrate, a hazardous material used for fertilizer and the manufacture of explosives, was unloaded into a port warehouse. Despite repeated warnings from the Port Authority, nobody took further responsibility for dealing with this dangerous material. Lebanon's government has barely functioned for decades, as rival political and religious factions have created stalemate, corruption, and incompetence. Last week, welders working in the area apparently started a fire that eventually burned into the stored ammonium nitrate. The powerful detonation, about 10% of the Hiroshima bomb, destroyed the port and much of the center of the city.
A second example is the American Covid-19 disaster, slower to express than the Beirut blast, but longer in the making. The philosophic zealotry of corporate capitalism has eroded public health investment for decades. Combined with limited privatized medical care through employer based insurance, the general population has less access to real health care than most industrialized countries. In addition, the GOP has increasingly derided scientific and medical expertise, rising to extreme levels under Trump. At the same time, human expansion into new bioregions exposes us to new diseases, and globalization of trade and travel allows rapid spread around the planet. Despite decades of warnings, American epidemic planning and research has been reduced to save money.
Though it was initially delayed by internal Chinese corruption, the world was eventually put on notice about Covid-19. American hubris dismissed the issue, squandering precious time to prepare. When the disease finally appeared on our shores, the federal response was not to respond. As the pandemic burned through the New York region, states were told they were on their own. Critical time was wasted producing flawed domestic tests, while refusing help from abroad. Rather than organizing supply of essential materials, the federal non-response created a desperate cage match fight between the states, creating critical shortages to this day. Trump's aversion to taking advice from anyone, particularly medical scientists, produced inadequate and conflicting messaging from the top, turning the entire public health response into a partisan battle.
The hardest hit areas managed to control the outbreak through lockdown, but created harsh economic consequences. Governmental subsidies had sustained the economy in other countries, but capitalist priority of profits over people, combined with Trump's re-election concerns, pushed for a rapid return to economic "normality", completely ignoring the raging pandemic.
The zealotry, incompetence, and corruption of the Trump administration has insured that there is no effective federal response to either the public health crisis or the economic collapse. We are living the results. America has the worst infection and death totals on the planet and the worst recession since the 1929 Depression. Persistent massive unemployment, and the prospect of rising evictions, sets the stage for even further economic decline.
The third example of disastrous consequences created by ignoring reality is climate change. The Trump threat to democracy, and the immediacy of Covid-19, have distracted attention from the continuing climate collapse, but it hasn't gone away. The foundation was laid centuries ago, and has accelerated every decade. Corporate capitalist dogma and corruption have deliberately confused the issue for 40 years, touting the false dichotomy of economy versus the environment. Covid-19 shows there can be no economy without public health. Similarly, there can be no economy without environmental health.
The Beirut explosion and the pandemic expressed in a relative short period of time, but it is easy to ignore climate change because disastrous effects build slowly. Each year the frequency of stronger storms increases, droughts are more severe, sea levels slowly rise with more "sunny day flooding", coastal erosion increases, temperatures get too hot to work outside, and key species disappear.
We are frogs in the slowly boiling water, ignoring the warnings because they inconvenience our lives and we have been taught to suspect "experts". If we learn anything from the pandemic, we have to pay attention to reality. Ignorance is lethal.