When normally sober and stoic scientists start draining the barrel of awful superlatives to describe a summer day off the Gulf Coast, it’s time to pay attention.
On Monday, most of us were still trying to fathom what 9 trillion gallons of water would feel like — that hydraulic cube over downtown Houston, 4 miles square and 2 miles high. And then the cube doubled to become the most extreme rain event in U.S. history.
I’ve seen a volcano explode — the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, with 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I ran in fear ahead of the flames consuming Yellowstone National Park in 1988. And I spent months talking to the last survivors of the worst environmental disaster in our history, the 1930s Dust Bowl.
None of it compares with what we’ve experienced this past week in Texas. When normally sober and stoic scientists start draining the barrel of awful superlatives to describe a summer day off the Gulf Coast, it’s time to pay attention.
The question is: Will this be our shared moment, when raging nature makes all of us feel small, vulnerable and petty? Can there be a humbling, a dent in our hubris, in The Week the Earth Stood Still? And lest we view everything through our own national lens, more than 1,000 people have died thus far in catastrophic flooding in South Asia, with rain volumes 10 times the usual monsoon.
I felt small and very helpless weeks ago, when smoke from a surfeit of Canadian wildfires smothered Seattle. For several days, the air quality was worse than Beijing’s. I fled to a mountain summit in the Cascades, looking for the natural air-conditioning that usually flows in from the Pacific. No relief. I could barely see the valley below.
No amount of bluster or wealth or denial could buy you a cleaner breath of air in the city for those few days. From Bill Gates to the homeless woman sleeping under the freeway overpass, we were stuck in that bowl of awful air together.
I was hopeful that the total eclipse of the sun, when the star that brings life to our planet was briefly blocked in a swath of totality from Oregon to South Carolina, would be a moment of shared standing down. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line in “Gatsby,” as he summons up a sailor gazing upon North America long ago, “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
But the eclipse came and went. And what many people will remember about it is that the world’s most powerful climate-change denier, President Donald Trump, ignored the advice of scientists and stared up at the half-blocked sun. It was the most emblematic Trumpian moment — I’m bigger than the eclipse.
His government is following his character. So just two weeks ago, Trump revoked President Barack Obama’s edict that federal agencies account for rising seas and raging storms in assessing infrastructure projects in places that flood repeatedly. I can build anywhere I want!
Now we have Harvey, the third 500-year flood in the Houston area in the past three years, dumping enough water in southeastern Texas to equal almost 20 times the daily discharge of the Mississippi. And the vow from some quarters is to pave over more of the dwindling sponge of the Houston metro area, to defy physics and nature and set the stage for more tragedy when the next 500-year flood hits, very soon.
But certainly, judging by the lines of people waiting in the rain to volunteer to help, by the heroic rescues of strangers and animals, the storm has left many people feeling that we’re all in this together. You realize that sooner or later, it comes for you. It comes for the Texas Republicans who voted against aid for the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy’s devastating punch. It will come for Mar-a-Lago, squat in a state that is among the most vulnerable to rising seas.
If we won’t listen to science, maybe we’ll listen to science fiction. I keep thinking of a movie I saw as a kid, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” about a time when all the world’s trivial matters were briefly put aside to gasp in awe at a spaceship landing on Earth.
“It’s no concern of ours how you run your own planet,” says the alien, Klaatu, “but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.” The reference in that 1951 film was to nuclear annihilation. And today, the smartest military men count the global insecurity and chaos of climate change as an existential threat on a par with nuclear disaster.
Many people experienced a standstill moment after that stunning picture of an earthrise came to light, taken by Apollo 8 astronauts during Christmas week of 1968. There from the infinity of space was our insignificant little blue and white orb — us! — a grain of sand in the universe. The image roused our capacity for wonder, and dread.