Monday, March 31, 2014

Deep Denial

You have probably at this point seen something about the immense landslide that buried portions of the small western Washington town of Oso.

I should say here that while I didn't know this specific locality or the geology of the particular hillside involved that the news didn't really surprise me. And that, frankly, it shouldn't have surprised anyone else, including the people in the little town that woke up last week to find themselves very much dead.

Tim Egan has a good summary of the geology and the politics behind the deaths here. I can't really do much better at describing why these people were buried than he does:
"...who wants to listen to warnings by pesky scientists, to pay heed to predictions by environmental nags, or allow an intrusive government to limit private property rights? That’s how these issues get cast. And that’s why reports like the ones done on the Stillaguamish get shelved. The people living near Oso say nobody ever informed them of the past predictions."
As Egan points out the "problem" is not the science. We knew what happened, why it happened, and why it was damn likely to happen. The geology is pretty straightforward; western Washington (and parts of western Oregon but the Puget glaciation makes things an order of magnitude or three worse in WA...) combines steep terrain, lots of water, and weak substrate into a deck full of pretty deadly cards.

Throw in clearcut logging and you have a real wildcard in the deck.

No. The "problem" was and is really the suite of massive problems surrounding the politics of this region and of a hell of a lot of the way we Americans think in general.

First, a whole lot of rural western WA is pretty much logging and nothing else. If you close, or limit, the logging in the steep timberlands around these little towns then little towns like this Oso just flat-out die anyway. Only without the, you know, actual dying.

And then there's the question of "private property rights". A hell of a lot of the sorts of people who live in this little town, including the ones now buried under a shit-ton of hardening landslide debris, believed that they had the absolute right, and that the timber companies had the absolute right, to do absolutely whatever they wanted to do on "their" lands. And that to do anything to change, or stop, those people and companies doing those things was wrong.

So that while a whole hell of a lot of people knew that this hillside was unstable, and that logging around it was problematic at best, and that the possibility for the whole goddamn thing to move downhill on top of these people's houses was not so much a question of "if" as "when"...nobody actually pushed someone to do anything about that.

In this case the nobodies and someones involved would have had to accept that 1) there are limits, and deadly sharp, critical, limits on our human ability to fuck about with natural systems, and 2) that it is in humans' best interests to have an overall authority - let's call it "government" because, really, what the hell - to define and enforce restrictions on that human activity before it crosses those limits.

And rural western WA and a hell of a lot of today's United States is full of people who accept neither 1) nor 2).

So this one falls under the general heading of, what's the quote, something like "The willingness of someone not to believe something is directly related to how critical it is to their perceived self-interest not to believe it."?

They saw their self-interest as "private property rights" and "limited government" and not "natural hazards" or "regulation".

In order to believe that they had to deny that this could happen.

And then one morning their denial rose up and buried them deep.


Ael said...

Thanks Chief.

I guess I really don't understand America. Last summer we had a big flood and both the provincial and federal government moved quickly with all sorts of measures. (Especially when it became clear that the provincial government had been sitting on a study which recommended that governments not permit building on flood plains)

It was very clear to politicians that their jobs were on the line and they responded accordingly.

But, in the USA, there have been a number of disasters (Washington, West Virginia, Colorado, etc.) and the media reaction has been pretty much a shrug.

What gives?

FDChief said...

Go read the linked NYT article. Does a perfect job describing the toxic mix of public stupidity and political idiocy that result in these things. We have way too many people who trust corporations and organizations more than "government" and are is ignorant of scientific methods as a cow is about the Council of Trent. And out current political setup gives the corporations and organizations unlimited cash to play with to brain-suck the stupid right into these dumb bastards, and then encourages the dumb bastards to vote for people and policies that will encourage the corporations and organizations to rape and fuck over the people and places these people live.

We've fetishized "rights" over responsibilities and turned corporations into people without accepting that as people they're fucking sociopaths. And then we're surprised when shit like this happens.


Syrbal/Labrys said...

The news coverage on this slide has made my brain boggle: I'm either retching over the sappy syrup of how "faith and community" are "getting them through the crisis" or wanting to pound heads against hard metal desks over the "none of us had any idea of the risk" bullshit.

I bought my house in Washington in 1987. I didn't buy on a flood plain, beneath a hillside, not atop a tall earthy bluff left by a glacier ripping a valley out. The denial crap didn't work for me. I absolutely do not understand how it works for anyone.

FDChief said...

Because if you don't turn Rush up to 11 and then jam your finger in yoru ears and shriek "LALALALALA!!!" you have to admit that 1) individual, corporations, and organizations are generally greedy, stupid, selfish pricks and letting "private property rights" and "FREEDOM!" stand for "Everybody do whatever they damn well please" is likely to cause hell and fucking disaster, meaning that 2) there really IS a "community" of people living in a certain area, that that community really does need to form some sort of political organization (known as "government" for lack of a better word), and that government really does need to do some intelligent oversight and regulation of all the fucking idiots.

And that, yes, sometimes this regulation will be excessive and, yes, sometimes the regulation will be expensive and, yes, sometimes it will be irking and frustrating.

But that doesn't obviate the need for it, and the without it you have fucking Zimbabwe.

The ONLY way to prevent at least considering all that is to absolutely deny that there is anything potentially harmful about letting your idiot neighbor do whatever his idiot heart desires on HIS property - regardless of what he's doing or the potential for his actions to cause a landslide (flood, nuclear meltdown...) that will hammer you and yours.

Ael said...

Ok, I understand that individuals and corporations are greedy, short sighted ignorant fools. And politicians are narcissistic buffoons. That is the way they are here too.

What I don't get is why the feedback correction mechanism is broken. When we had the Westray Mine disaster the media went apeshit and the politicians reacted accordingly.

In America the media seem to be totally ignoring great juicy investigative stories in order to literally cover dog shows

FDChief said...

I think that this has a lot to do with a couple of things.

First, like I said, a LOT of Americans really don't want to think about this stuff, don't want to hear about it. And, obviously, since the corporations and wealthy individuals don't WANT people thinking about it, and since they fund much of the news coverage the media corporations find it healthier for their balance sheet to cover the fucking dog shows.

Second, it actually takes some thinking to follow these sorts of stories. You have to really read and consider what's being said, by whom, and when and where. You can't just turn your brain off and watch the pretty pictures, which is what I'm convinced about 80% of everyone does when they "watch the news"...

This is really frustrating, because it pretty much ensures a fucked-up outcome. But that's human nature, it seems.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

If that distressingly common head in the sand behavior is "human nature" --- all I can wonder then is what is MY nature?

I can't find the off switch to quit worrying about shit like everyone else seems to be blissfully ignoring.

FDChief said...

The problem, my friend, is that there's a vast distance between worrying about - which is what we do and can do - and being able to DO something about. And it is that distance that is so murderous.

I feel like one of those mooks in the time-travel movie that knows exactly how and where the disaster is going to happen and can do nothing to prevent it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed. Worrying about what we are doing - or not doing - and being able to affect it in any way at all are very different things. I finally decided I was just making myself both tired and crazier by thinking, reading, or talking about the whole stinking, wrong-headed, corrupt mess and I've retreated to Brit Lit, gardening, being consciously kind to my family and neighbors, etc. I have no hope that things will improve or come right. So... "la-la-la-la."

Jay in N.C.

Anonymous said...

>>I feel like one of those mooks in the time-travel movie that knows exactly how and where the disaster is going to happen and can do nothing to prevent it.<<

Ever since Cassandra at Troy.

Personally, I take great comfort when confronted with human frailty that the Universe, Mother Nature, the Physical Laws that surround us, whatever name that it goes by, doesn't give a shit.

From the time we USians become aware, we are told by our culture, media, our many great pudnits that we are to live at the edge, there are no rules or limits, live fast & die young, or at least get a face-lift. The Boy Scoutish American Dream of making life better for our progeny transformed into Marketing Propaganda.

I don't know whether we have the moral courage and wisdom to re-route this thing or not.

Be nice if we did.