Monday, October 23, 2006

The intimation of catastrophe, part II

/Continued from previous post.../

An article about invasive species and customs inspection in the Honolulu Weekly from August this year had a sidebar (not included in the online version, as far as I can tell) in which one of the interviewees noted that, if Hawaii's import lines were to be cut off, there would be sufficient stockpiles of food and other supplies to last eleven days. I'm in no position to verify or challenge such a figure, though it seems to embody a number of dubious "other things being equal"-style assumptions... but it strikes me as rather obvious that Hawaii is perhaps uniquely susceptible to this kind of severe disruption. And it certainly begs the question, what sorts of things might we expect to happen around day twelve?

This is most isolated island chain in the world, living at United States levels of energy consumption many times that even of Europe (let alone Asia or Africa); some 1.3 million residents and seven million visitors per year, all of whom arrive and leave by plane. Almost everything eaten here is imported. Over 90% of electricity in the islands is generated by the burning of oil. We mustn't elide the enormous differences between an earthquake and, say, a global oil crisis. But neither should we pass over this important opportunity to consider the extent to which the Hawaiian lifestyle in the early twenty-first century resembles a socio-ecological time bomb.

Since arriving here to live in August 02005, I have heard a number of people refer to Hawaii as a sort of social laboratory (e.g. for ethnic intermingling), a microcosm of broader patterns (e.g. in the development and destruction of native flora and fauna), and -- less chirpily but no less accurately, perhaps -- a canary in the coalmine of global history. The earthquake here last week provided an opportunity, for those willing to make out its unpleasant contours, to consider the prospect of having the power go out, and planes grounded, for some time. A day's disruption was what we got. How might it feel for that to stretch out to a week? Or two? Hawaii's isolation may make it more transparently vulnerable to a disruption of routine than the continents, but its fragility is ultimately no different in kind from that of the planet as a whole, wherever on it you may live. And nothing brings that lesson home like the sensation of the world shifting beneath your feet.

The other earthquake that has happened while I've been within trembling distance, occurred one morning in June, as I slept peacefully over a faultline in San Francisco. Thinking long-term means gradually awakening to tectonic forces, glacial grumblings well beneath the pitch of ordinary hearing -- the slow stuff. (In this case, though, it was me that was too slow, and I failed to awaken at all when it happened.) I completely missed that gentle tremor, that reminder of the fragility of all that seems so solid. But when it comes to mind, I wonder how often the thoughts of the average denizen of that beautiful city turn to the imminence -- geologically speaking -- of the thundering collapse of everything they know? Hard to measure, I guess, but interesting to contemplate.

I think of the aerial view as my plane left San Francisco, the brittle exoskeleton of the city draped over a rolling sculpture. The hills of Marin County receding in late afternoon sun, ripples pinched neatly into a velvet handkerchief. Those colossal bridges across the bay, which sent a thrill through me every time I crossed, with their sheer scale and engineering audacity, look like matchstick models from the air. From up there it's easy, disturbingly easy, to picture them carelessly torn asunder by the hiccup of a sleeping giant.

And I think back to when I emerged, bags in hand, from the subway, blinking in the crisp morning air of Market Street on 8 May, to start my summer's work with The Long Now Foundation. One of the first things I noticed was a MUNI bus rolling by, bearing a 72-hour earthquake awareness billboard, with a slogan to the effect that San Franciscans ought to be prepared for The Big One at any time. It's all borrowed time, spend it how you will. (That was not the slogan, but it could have been.) I don't think headquartering the Long Now Foundation in a city on a precipice is necessarily a fatal irony; it's a valuable one. Life on a fault line simply crystallises the mortal predicament.

Living on an island in the middle of nowhere with almost all its energy eggs in one basket -- oil importation -- should also make us think twice.

What happened last Sunday in Hawaii was an opportunity to reflect on the underappreciated truism that the unexpected can crop up at any time. It didn't bite us hard this time, but we saw the flash of teeth and perhaps had some intimation of what a real catastrophe could be like.

The last thing I want to be accused of is harbouring morbid expectations and spreading gloomy premonitions. But there are some things we simply don't pay enough attention to, and this is one of the big ones. So, let me spell it out. The following ought to be self-evident, yet apparently is not: in a matter of just a few centuries of history, modern society has denatured its urban members, and made us, for the most part, incapable of supporting ourselves outside a highly elaborate and interconnected agricultural, industrial, and now informational framework of relations. To make it personal: had Magoo's kitchen not come to the rescue with a piping hot cheese-steak sandwich, I might have been able to set about stockpiling cans of this and that, like the queuing multitude at the Star Market... but if push came to shove, would I be able to grow my own stuff? Tricky to do; with neither land, nor farming experience, nor opportunity to plan/t in advance.

Attendant upon this whole arrangement, then, are certain risks, and, though they may make their presence felt only every so often, it is on those few occasions that we really ought to revisit this historical bargain we've somehow struck, asking how well it serves us. If we're feeling particularly bold, we might also ask this question from the standpoint of other species, or indeed of future generations. But I'm not sure we'd like the answers.

1 comment:

shali_isdes said...

And to think the majority of the public begs for more oil-powered generators instead of more solar panels. Education is definately the biggest hurdle to freedom.