Thursday, September 22, 2005

Coming Full Circle

"Right now, it's a wait-and-see and hope-for-the-best."
- Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mitch Frazier, on the approach of Hurricane Rita.

There's an old Guido Sarducci routine that offers a new theory regarding the demise of the dinosaurs. In case you've forgotten the old theory, it basically had it that a large meteor struck the earth many millions of years ago and that as a result of this collision--gaseous clouds, rise in temperatures, change in ecosystem, whatever--the dinosaurs disappeared. The joke picks up from here by offering an alternative to this theory. What really happened, the joke tells us, is that intergalactic travellers arrived to the earth in metal spaceships and were so enamored of the dinosaurs they saw walking the earth that they decided to round them up and take them back as pets to their own galaxies. Over several years the aliens rounded up the dinosaurs and herded them into their spaceships and took them into outer space; they did this until there were only two dinosaurs left--a male and a female--and leaving these two remaining specimens to repopulate the earth, the aliens left.

And then what?

And then the meteor hit.

Bu-dum-PAH. (Or whatever available percussion sound best highlights this punchline....)

In fact, the word dinosaur itself is synonymous with backwardness and lack of progress when compared to our modern societal achievements. Which makes Frazier's quote all the more striking in its candidness. How did people prepare for hurricanes in the days before our technologically inspired society built levees to hold out the water, and pumps to keep our cities dry, and sea walls to break the storm surges?

Well, they probably held their breath in a helpless sort of "wait-and-see" and "hope-for-the best."

And what do we modern citizens do?

Well, we build levees to hold out the water. We build pumps to keep our cities dry. We erect sea walls to break the storm surges. We ship in truckloads of bottled water and ice. We build artificial barrier islands. We fly planes in the eye of the hurricane to track its course. We send storm satellites into space. We invest in large engineering projects. We promote science and research. We encourage children to learn the hard sciences in schools--whether they like it or not. We underfund education. We pass laws requiring standardized testing at the elementary level. We clone sheep. We ban aerosol cans and organize community-wide recycling programs. We pull out of global accords. We devise exit strategies. We conduct computerized enactments of disaster situations many years in advance. We call in the military. And the National Guard. We put sheets over our electronics and plywood over our windows. We block off incoming traffic so that the lanes can be used for a mass exodus from the city. We issue warnings to looters. We board up our shops. We write our social security numbers on our abdomens. We stand and wait for the Army's Corps of Engineers to offer sober reassurance that everything we've believed in since the Industrial Revolution has not been in vain. We turn off our computers and pull the plugs from the wall. We bundle our medical supplies. We ready our solar-powered flashlights. We wait.

And then...?

And then the meteor hits.