A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and the need to hold on to Enlightenment values.....

The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was not caused directly by God; nor was it caused by Mr. Bush, nor the Great Satan of America; nor was it a divine punishment of a wicked city steeped in vice and corruption.

Hurricane Katrina was an entirely normal atmospheric phenomenon, the science of which has been known for a long time, that affected an old city, built below sea-level and on a swamp, with many wooden buildings and a large percentage of disadvantaged, poor people. The event was not even 'chaotic', in that New Orleans lies within the standard track of many late-Summer hurricanes. In 1965, the city was likewise struck by Hurricane Bets(e)y (now recalled in a play), which flooded the steets to a depth of 2m and which killed over 70 people. Moreover, despite the media feeding-frenzy, Hurricane Katrina was not a particularly strong hurricane, varying between 2-4 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. In power, for example, it was no match for Hurricane Camille (Category 5, with winds of over 200 mph) which hit Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi in August 1969, killing some 275 people. And the most recent peak in hurricane activity still lies within the late-1930s and 1940s.

In the future, we are well aware that hurricanes will again affect the towns and cities of the Gulf of Mexico coastline. This is a fact, although the precise timing, direction, and strength of these hurricanes can not be known in advance. The only human culpability - if it is of any value at all to think in such anthropocentric terms - in the current tragedy is the failure to recognise the inevitability of this natural reality and to exercise enough effort and money to plan landscapes that can cope with the predictable risk. However, such fall-short failures in planning can not be laid at the feet either of God or of a single human being - even Mr. Bush, certain utterly ridiculous and dangerous German politicians please note.

We are currently living in increasingly dark days, in which religious fundamentalism - from perverted forms of Christianity and Islam to 'modern' environmental paganism (not to mention sheer stupidity) - are challenging our hard-won Enlightenment understanding of the world, an understanding that has helped to release humankind from the bondage of superstition and irrationality. We are wilfully confusing the different philosophical spheres of science and religion. Suffering remains the deepest question of theology, and it lies at the heart of theology to ask: "How is such suffering allowed to happen?". By contrast, the physical mechanisms of Hurricane Katrina are neither theological nor political; they are totally explicable in the terms of known Enlightenment science, and we must hold on to this fact in this dimming world of mental fear, one in which a self-indulgent media [see my final quote below] is too ready to pander to older and more fickle 'gods'.

The Enlightenment has helped to set us free, granted in a naturally dangerous world, but also one that is wonderful to understand. We must resist with every intellectual sinew those who would plunge us back into the world of capricious and dangerous 'gods' and simplistic and over-simplified evil.

"Écrasez l’infâme!"

And the most disgraceful statement of all? It is possibly this from Jon Snow, if, that is, he has been correctly reported in today's The Times - the sneer is so crass one can hardly believe that, as a newscaster, he could spout it: "Best of all, though, was the contribution of Jon Snow, enthroned as the objective voice of British media at Channel 4 News, who chortled: 'How ironic that the world's No 1 polluter is now reaping the 'rewards' that so many have warned would flow.'" I think it nearly merits a formal complaint to the broadcasting authorities.

Philip. Breakfast.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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