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Rebecca Solnit
Tom Dispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Tuesday 6 November 2012
“The climate -- the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.”

The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse

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The first horseman was named al-Qaeda in Manhattan, and it came as a message on September 11, 2001: that our meddling in the Middle East had sown rage and funded madness. We had meddled because of imperial ambition and because of oil, the black gold that fueled most of our machines and our largest corporations and too many of our politicians. The second horseman came not quite four years later. It was named Katrina, and this one too delivered a warning.

Katrina’s message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure, institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these was the climate -- the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.

The third horseman came in October of 2008: it was named Wall Street, and when that horseman stumbled and collapsed, we were reminded that it had always been a predator, and all that had changed was the scale -- of deregulation, of greed, of recklessness, of amorality about homes and lives being casually trashed to profit the already wealthy. And the fourth horseman has arrived on schedule.

We called it Sandy, and it came to tell us we should have listened harder when the first, second, and third disasters showed up. This storm’s name shouldn’t be Sandy -- though that means we’ve run through the alphabet all the way up to S this hurricane season, way past brutal Isaac in August -- it should be Climate Change.  If each catastrophe came with a message, then this one’s was that global warming’s here, that the old rules don’t apply, and that not doing anything about it for the past 30 years is going to prove far, far more expensive than doing something would have been.

That is, expensive for us, for human beings, for life on Earth, if not for the carbon profiteers, the ones who are, in a way, tied to all four of these apocalyptic visitors. A reasonable estimate I heard of the cost of this disaster was $30 billion, just a tiny bit more than Chevron’s profits last year (though it might go as high as $50 billion). Except that it’s coming out of the empty wallets of single mothers in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the pensions of the elderly, and the taxes of the rest of us. Disasters cost most of us terribly, in our hearts, in our hopes for the future, and in our ability to lead a decent life. They cost some corporations as well, while leading to ever-greater profits for others.

Disasters Are Born Political

It was in no small part for the benefit of the weapons-makers and oil producers that we propped up dictators and built military bases and earned the resentment of the Muslim world. It was for the benefit of oil and other carbon producers that we did nothing about climate change, and they actively toiled to prevent any such action.

If you wanted, you could even add a fifth horseman, a fifth disaster to our list, the blowout of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010; cost-cutting on equipment ended 11 lives and contaminated a region dense with wildlife and fishing families and hundreds of thousands of others. It was as horrendous as the other four, but it took fewer lives directly and it should have but didn't produce political change.

Each of the other catastrophes has redirected American politics and policy in profound ways. 9/11 brought us close to dictatorship, until Katrina corrected course by discrediting the Bush administration and putting poverty and racism, if not climate change, back on the agenda. Wall Street's implosion was the 2008 October Surprise that made Americans leave Republican presidential candidate John McCain's no-change campaign in the dust -- and that, three years later, prompted the birth of Occupy Wall Street.

The Wall Street collapse did a lot for Barack Obama, too, and just in time another October surprise has made Romney look venal, clueless, and irrelevant. Disaster has been good to Obama -- Katrina’s reminder about race may have laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, and the financial implosion in the middle of the presidential campaign, as well as John McCain’s disastrous response to it, may have won him the last election.

The storm that broke the media narrative of an ascending Romney gave Obama the nonpartisan moment of solidarity he always longed for -- including the loving arms of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But it’s not about the president; it’s about the other seven billion of us and the rest of the Earth’s creatures, from plankton to pikas.

Hope in the Storm

Sandy did what no activist could have done adequately: put climate change back on the agenda, made the argument for reasonably large government, and reminded us of the colossal failures of the Bush administration seven years ago. (Michael “heckuva job” Brown, FEMA's astonishingly incompetent director under George W. Bush, even popped up to underscore just how far we've come.) 

Maybe Sandy will also remind us that terrorism was among the least common, if most dramatic, of the dangers we faced then and face now. Though roller coasters in the surf and cities under water have their own drama -- and so does seawater rushing into the pit at Ground Zero.

Clearly, the game has changed. New York City’s billionaire mayor, when not endorsing police brutality against Wall Street’s Occupiers, has been a huge supporter of work on climate change.  He gave the Sierra Club $50 million to fight coal last year and late last week in Sandy’s wake came out with a tepid endorsement of Obama as the candidate who might do something on the climate. Last week as well, his magazine, Bloomberg Business week, ran a cover that could’ve run anytime in the past few decades (but didn’t) with the headline: “It’s global warming, stupid.”  

There are two things you can hope for after Sandy. The first is that every person stranded without power, running water, open grocery stores, access to transportation, an intact home, and maybe income (if work isn’t reachable or a job has been suspended) is able to return to normal as soon as possible. Or more than that in some cases, because the storm has also brought to light how many people were barely getting by before.  (After all, we also use the word “underwater” for people drowning in debt and houses worth less than what’s owed on their mortgages.) The second is that the fires and the water and the wind this time put climate change where it belongs, in the center of our most pressing issues.

 We Have Power! How Disasters Unfold

A stranger sent me a widely circulated photograph of a front gate in Hoboken with a power strip and extension cord and a little note that reads, “We have power! Please feel free to charge your phone.” We have power, and volunteers are putting it to work in ways that count. In many disasters, government and big bureaucratic relief organizations take time to get it together or they allocate aid in less than ideal ways. The most crucial early work is often done by those on the ground, by the neighbors, by civil society -- and word, as last week ended, was that the government wasn’t always doing it adequately. 

Hurricane Sandy seems to be typical in this regard. Occupy Wall Street and got together to create Occupy Sandy and are already doing splendid relief work, including for those in the flooded housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn. My friend Marina Sitrin, a scholar and Occupy organizer, wrote late last week:

“Amazing and inspiring work by community and Occupy folks! Hot nutritious meals for many hundreds. Supplies that people need, like diapers, baby wipes, flashlights etc., all organized. Also saw the first (meaning first set up in NYC -- only tonight) scary FEMA site a few blocks away. Militarized and policed entrance, to an area fenced in with 15-foot fences, where one gets a sort of military/astronaut ration with explanations of how to use in English that I did not understand. Plus Skittles?”

Occupy, declared dead by the mainstream media six weeks ago, is shining in this mess. Kindness, solidarity, mutual aid of this kind can ameliorate a catastrophe, but it can’t prevent one, and this isn’t the kind of power it takes to pump out drowned subway stations or rebuild railroad lines or get the lights back on. There is a role for government in disaster, and for mobilizing all available forces in forestalling our march toward a planet that could look like the New Jersey shore all the time.

When Occupy first began, all those tents, medical clinics, and community kitchens in the encampments reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake.  The occupiers looked like disaster survivors -- and in a sense they were, though the disaster they had survived was called the economy and its impacts are usually remarkably invisible. Sandy is also an economic disaster: unlimited release of carbon into the atmosphere is very expensive and will get more so.

The increasingly turbulent, disaster-prone planet we’re on is our beautiful old Earth with the temperature raised almost one degree celsius. It’s going to get hotter than that, though we can still make a difference in how hot it gets. Right now, locally, in the soaked places, we need people to aid the stranded, the homeless, and the hungry. Globally we need to uncouple government from the Big Energy corporations, and ensure that most of the carbon energy left on the planet stays where it belongs: underground.

After the Status Quo

Disasters often unfold a little like revolutions. They create a tremendous rupture with the past. Today has nothing much in common with yesterday -- in how the system works or doesn’t, in what people have in common, in how they see their priorities and possibilities. The people in power are often most interested in returning to yesterday, because the status quo was working for them -- though Mayor Bloomberg is to be commended for taking the storm as a wake-up call to do more about climate change. For the rest of us, after such a disaster, sometimes the status quo doesn’t look so good.

Disasters often produce real political change, not always for the better (and not always for the worse). I called four of the last five big calamities in this country the four horsemen of the apocalypse because directly or otherwise they caused so much suffering, because they brought us closer to the brink, and because they changed our national direction. Disaster has now become our national policy: we invite it in and it directs us, for better and worse.

As the horsemen trample over all the things we love most, it becomes impossible to distinguish natural disaster from man-made calamity: maybe the point is that there is no difference anymore. But there’s another point: that we can prevent the worst of the impact in all sorts of ways, from evacuation plans to carbon emissions reductions to economic justice, and that it’s all tied up together.

I wish Sandy hadn’t happened. But it did, and there have been and will be more disasters like this. I hope that radical change arises from it. The climate has already changed. May we change to meet the challenges.

See Tom Engelhardt's response here.

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ABOUT Rebecca Solnit

San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit is the author of thirteen books about art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. She has worked with climate change, Native American land rights, antinuclear, human rights, antiwar and other issues as an activist and journalist. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a contributing editor to Harper’s and frequent contributor to the political site and has made her living as an independent writer since 1988.

Hi Jeff, Nice to know that

Hi Jeff, Nice to know that Romney can go back and begin counting his money again, although, as you allude to, he "should" be counting a whole lot less. You state, concerning Willard, "He is an example of the rapacious tendency Woe speaks of; thankfully, few humans are as rapacious." And I'm saying, "but given the opportunity......" Think about it. Money is power. Absolute power (or even minor amounts of power) corrupt absolutely. Has this basic character trait of humans "really" changed in thousands of years? If five of your neighbors "suddenly" inherited 10 million dollars apiece, would they be the "same" people you know today? Shakespeare wrote that "gold is the common whore of humanity." He was correct...everybody wants a piece. I like your ideas concerning taxes and energy however.

I will die an idealist (given

I will die an idealist (given the current track record of five plus decades). I thoroughly agree that power corrupts, and money is power in our so-called civilized world. But I earnestly believe that the majority of people, in their heart, are golden-rule types who feel guilt and angst if they come away with too much. The corruption by the (growing) minority of psychopathic types is contained with proper regulations, coupled with accountability. Keep it all transparent and you have a very difficult environment for lesser people to dodge accountability.

Frankly, the core problem with corporations is that they create structural designs that simply separate action from accountability, thus empowering less virtuous types to conduct more rapacious predations. Our Congress amended the tax codes to enable (even encourage) leveraged buyouts and other Private Equity activities, and Romney was a leader in that gang-bang. Our Congress repealed Glass-Steagall, and a few years later the mortgage bubble popped.

I would like us to come around to recognizing that, with any tax return in which an individual or corporation submits figures seeking to reduce their taxes ... when honored by IRS, this is essentially a subsidy in which all of us are (eventually) covering the lost tax payments. As such, any tax papers submitted to reduce tax obligations should be PUBLIC RECORD. This would be a simple and proper form of transparency. Same thing with any benefit or payment from the Fed to any individual or corporation; all papers fully transparent. If you did not want to share your info, you would not itemize, nor would you submit papers to bonus depreciate your $10Million jet. The questions about Romney's tax records should NEVER have been at issue; all of his tax dodging practices should have been obligatory release, first because he documented to obtain a monetary benefit back from the Public, and second because of the law of obligatory disclosure for all elected officials (which we need to pass, decades ago). Period.

So, to wrap up... people are not bad. But, given the right environment and no consequences, more and more will go bad. Transparency yields the truth for engaged citizens to view, in plain sight, so that their engagement may empower an effective democracy. Without this transparency, we are all reduced to votes to be manipulated in multi-billion dollar biennial electoral orgies. As Justice Brandeis said, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." So, let's open up the books.

I wonder what happens to the

I wonder what happens to the Republican party when the farmers realize that they are the biggest victims of climate change, will they realize it was not an "honest mistake," but a willful disregard for their interests in favor of those of the fossil fuel industry.

I still say that all citizens

I still say that all citizens and restaurants make ice blocks eight gallons a day
and throw the ice blocks into the nearest river or ocean. Even a spot near a storm drain would do. It may be symbolic but as of today no one can calculate
the total number of refrigerators in use today throughout the entire planet.
No one can figure out just how many tons of ice this would produce but it would be substantial and if this ice were to be made it would cost nothing as everyones refrigerator is running anyway but the results could be planet changing.
I would suggest making ice from December to April or may of each year and watch the climate come back. Even if you put the ice in a field the reflective white would help as well. I challenge the scientific community to figure out how many tons of ice can be produced and the impact. If any thing it would give us all something to hope for and a sense of community.

Yer a real hoot, kiddo! All

Yer a real hoot, kiddo! All the electricity it would take to make enough ice to cool the oceans would cause all the rest of the world to go black for a summer or two. All the heat from all the ice makers would further heat the atmosphere to more than offset the ice effect. The funniest thing about this suggestion is that there are probably thousands of American voters who will start cranking out ice cubes and flushing them down the toilet!

YER missing the point! is

YER missing the point! is not the refreigerator already on and running hence
the energy output would be zero as I can freeze 5 one gallon blocks per night in my freezer. I believe that ther are at least 200 million refrigerators in just the U S A each gallon weighs 8.22 pounds so that is about 42 pounds of ice daily times 200 million equals 8 billion 400 million pounds daily not including other nations. Why not leave all that ice on wall street and in front of bank doors. I still challenge the scientific community
to contest this idea of making ice.

Very good article Rebecca.

Very good article Rebecca. I'd like to share your optimism concerning a change in policies for the future but I'm finding it difficult. As an amateur historian and poet it's been my learned experience that man, as so configured, is nearly "exactly" what he was 10,000 years ago. Rapacious...Parochial...Bigoted...Deadly. Forgive me for sounding jaded but its my belief humankind will go right on pillaging the Earth until we've either all succumbed or the planet itself shakes us off much like a dog getting out of the water. If you haven't read Mark Twain's autobiography may I suggest it. Pay particular attention to a segment entitled "The Character of Man." A comment you made in your article got me thinking. You hoped that victims of Superstorm Sandy are "able to return to normal as soon as possible." "Normal" implies going back and doing things the "same" way in terms of environment and energy. I, too, hope all the victims get their lives back to some semblance of normal. I just think we have to re-define what normal is and create a new "normal" that's less damning to us all. I enjoy your articles (even when the subject matter is grim). Thanks!

Agreed that this is a good

Agreed that this is a good article; you laid out the big events, Rebecca, and connected it more to the environment than to terrorism, as it should be.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Romney for helping us to see this more clearly. He is an example of the rapacious tendency Woe speaks of; thankfully, few humans are as rapacious. In fact, look closely at the incredible polarization per state in the election and you cannot help but realize that people tend to follow far more than lead. Most of us are wired to follow the example set by those around us. With this observation, I suggest there is great hope we can move forward on the climate change issue.

One thing for sure, though, is we must have solid leadership. Someone (Bloomberg appears to have done it best, so far) willing to put money where it belongs. But, also, someone passionate to educate the masses to accept the big changes. These should include a very large carbon consumption tax, to bring our gas costs to a par with costs elsewhere in the world. Much of the revenues should be directed toward clearing all the accumulated debt, as well as to worthy energy efficiency and jobs programs. A Green Corps, for example ... a modern CCC equivalent, employing young adults toward green improvements. So much could be done with this.

We can do far better. And I have no doubts that, once we manage the Romneys better with the right laws and tax codes (abolish the idiocy of carried interest for PE vultures), we can get the majority of good people to work together and make this a far better world. Yes we can...

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