After Katrina hit the coast, and caused some of the greatest devastation yet seen at that time, I was giving a talk on Zen practice at the Japanfest, which at that time was held outdoors in Stone Mountain Park. Suddenly a woman interrupted me, asking “Well, what would you do if you were in Katrina — just sit there?” I was taken aback a bit, having never run into a Zen heckler before, but responded that I had no idea what I might do in such a crisis. Run for safety, try to help others — who really knows, until you are actually faced with such a nightmare?
But I made the point, that if she thought somehow she, and I, were exempt from the hurricane, simply because we had dodged that particular bullet — or that of Andrew or Hugo for that matter. The latter made a slope of rubble of the building in Charleston where our Zen affiliate met — one brave or foolish member climbed up to the floor level where the zendo had been and dug out the drum and gong from the pile of brick. If so, then she had another think coming. We are all in the eye of a hurricane, whether we know it or not. And the wall is coming our way, eventually.
We are all beginning to experience a bit of fatigue, I assume, with the vicarious disaster du jour that we are faced with each day on the media. How many times do we look at images of unremitting tragedy until it becomes the new normal? The heroic attempts of our first-, second-, and third-responders, to rescue and restore the damage; and the pathetic antics of our leaders in politics and religion to manage damage control, and to rationalize such events as the will of God, for example; only add to the sense of déjà vu as each new horror slogs through the “breaking news-biggest ever-putting this behind us-gaining closure-healing” routine with which we have become all too familiar, as the standard public reaction, and acknowledgement of living in interesting times.
Next comes the inevitable finger-pointing and fault-finding, and the assurance that we are taking measures to “make sure this can never happen again.” It is not lost on many of us that it did not have to be this way, whether in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, or Mexico City. And that in the past few weeks. When Hugo hit South Carolina, one of our members there, who was a home-builder, decided to wait out the storm in one of the homes he had built on the coast, with some friends. They didn’t lose a shingle. He designed, engineered, and built hurricane-proof homes. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes are used at the DEW line at the arctic circle, partly because they can withstand hurricane-force winds. They are based on a 60-degree system, imitating Nature’s closest-packing of molecules to generate structure, rather than the 90-degree model typical of most buildings, which is not inherently sound, but requires cross-bracing.
When the school building collapsed in Mexico City, it was standing next door to larger buildings that did not collapse. The fact that it pancaked three stories into one suggests that the structural integrity of the support system between the floors was woefully inadequate. This further suggests that the builders may have made some extra profit — on a building for schoolchildren in a known earthquake zone. This point has already been floated, cautiously. We have seen this in other parts of the world.
The dam in Puerto Rico that is now threatening 80,000 people living downstream is not a natural structure; it is holding back a “man-made lake.” Its structural damage, “caused by the rain,” is also caused by insufficient estimates of the maximum capacity the dam would have to be able to withstand, and making sure the strength exceeded that load. When and if it collapses, the chaos wreaked on the villagers will not be owing to Mother Nature. It will be man-made.
The major point to be taken here is that these are no longer natural disasters. We may find, ultimately, that all such “accidents” are attributable to our poor choices. They are the combined result of Mother Nature, and our self-interested meddling with her. This is not an original idea, but it is resisted by those climate change deniers and others with a financial stake in the outcome. Which recalls the famous adage from Upton Sinclair, that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Of course, the term “salary” may now appear naïve and laughably out-of-date, with the scale of wealth and political stakes involved in population centers.
These large-scale events are now, arguably, a combination of causes and conditions augmented by effects of human activities on the atmosphere, the ocean, and the natural forces that are unleashed both seasonally, and when a large change in climate comes about. Those who argue that cold snaps demonstrate that the climate is not warming are either dangerously ignorant or ignominiously disingenuous. It is to be expected, I think, that extreme vacillation would characterize the onset of such a global shift, before settling into the new normal, at one extreme or the other. There may even be a scientific term for this dynamic, but if so, I am not familiar with it. Even so, it would seem prudent to err on the side of caution, when the downside is so great. If those who profit from a cavalier attitude were made to bear the true cost when they are proven wrong, we might see a shift to the side of caution, as we do with insurers.
The images we see from space of these mega-hurricanes, the sheer size and scope of them, begs an interpretation on the human scale, in human terms. They seem to express a high level of anger toward the victims, be it that of Mother Nature, or of God. But this merely serves to excuse poor planning on the part of certain humans, amounting to a crisis on the part of others. When commentators and people in charge remark that “no one could have prepared for this,” they are mistaken. The reasons that people build, and re-build, in hurricane alleys and floodways, are economic, largely. It is no accident that the poorer areas of town always seem to take the brunt of the destruction. Irma may be the first major case of non-discrimination in this regard, having leveled Puerto Rico without regard to wealth, class or other social stratification.
Others make their livings, and even vast fortunes, in the process. Building codes and standards are in place to protect vested interests, such as the local building trades and businesses. Bucky found this out when he tried to manufacture and distribute his Dymaxion House, which at the time could be delivered for a fraction of the cost of traditional housing, and could be yet today. Precisely because it was mass-produced, of aluminum, essentially with the same technology that mass produces airplanes. The only two prototypes ever built were eventually stacked, one on top of the other, somewhere in Texas, by their final buyer, probably as a curiosity. It stands as a ridiculous monument to the futility of going against entrenched interests.
Surveying the damage in the wake of these storms, one has to wonder why a roof cannot be securely moored to the building, or the ground, such that the wind cannot rip it off so easily? Why do the wall structures necessarily have to be built of soft wood sticks, stuck together with wire staples from “nail guns,” built for speed? The inadequacy of this way of building was perfectly captured in the song, “Little Boxes,” by Melvina Reynolds, first popularized by Pete Seeger:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
And they all look just the same
They all look just the same, and they are all built to the same low standards of construction of other houses, those that do not happen to be in a floodway or a tornado alley. Housing does not have to be built this way.
The point is, the destruction of Hurricane Irma not only was not unanticipated, it was predictable. Though the innovative “spaghetti” traces of potential variations in the final path provide some semblance of scientific control of the situation, the arbitrary landfall betrays the false sense of security provided by weathermen bolstered by sincere “meteorologists.” And the trend seems obvious. Storms are becoming more frequent, and more powerful. The running joke is that we are still using outdated language, like “500-year flood” for weekly occurrences.
Like a huge grinder or eraser, air moving at several hundred miles an hour is compressed into a dense wave — functioning more as a fluid, or even a solid, than a gas — with known outcomes assured. We can only hope that the current monster misses us by some stroke of fate, but it is only a matter of time until our luck runs out.
Then, once the horse is out of the barn, we see the earnest but foolhardy pledges to rebuild, as if this somehow celebrates human resilience, rather than a compulsive stubbornness. But, of course, without assuming our responsibility, without recognizing our role in helping to cause, and our lack of preparedness in preventing, the latest tragedy. Or the choice we made to rebuild again and again, expecting different results, a definition of insanity writ large.
Those preachers who facilely attribute these cataclysms as divine punishment of a vengeful deity must explain, to three million-plus people on an island, how their collective sins could be so much greater than those of the members of their own flocks. Even Sodom and Gomorrah could not have been that great an exception to the rule, wherein down to the last person, all were equally guilty of an unforgivable offense, as if we know what could possibly offend God the Creator.
No, I am afraid that we must begin to shoulder our fair share of the burden. If we want to live free of threat from storms, floods, quakes and fires, as well as the pestilence that follows on the heels of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it is going to demand a lot more than lip-service to reform, whether conceived as moral or structural, and knee-jerk, reactionary hand wringing and posturing, after the fact. Amongst other reforms, it will demand abandoning disaster-prone areas altogether, or engineering site-specific kinds of dwellings, such as our ancestors did, building on pylons above the maximum flood stage, which continues rising. Ironically, many of the flooded houses have been raised from the ground, with funds apparently available to the lucky few.
But, rather than try to design for all exigencies, it may be far more practical to simply accept that this world is not a respecter of persons. That is, there is no intent, malicious or otherwise, behind the latest hammer to come down on us or our fellow citizens. When a tornado capriciously levels one house, skips the next, and then levels a third right next door, it is not God playing whack-a-mole. The survivors are not “blessed” because they are more righteous, or because God has a plan for them. There is no anger, no conscious motive behind the forces that create the causes and conditions of the disruption, other than those of the human beings who are party to the original construction and/or reconstruction, and may be partially culpable, owing to self-serving striving or neglect of due diligence.
This suggestion is not meant to convince anyone that, on a societal level, we should just give up all efforts at trying to do better for ourselves or our fellow citizens. But simply that, on a personal level, we should probably face up to the fact that we — you and I — may not appear all that special in the eyes of some god, buddha or bodhisattva. Instead of “Why me, Lord?”, the lament of Job, we should simply assume, “Why not me?”, a more Taoist, or Zen, attitude.
Hurricanes, cyclones, monsoons, typhoons and tornadoes seem to follow a ubiquitous, universal form, from the Great Red Spot on Jupiter to the recent NASA photos of the giant hurricane at the north pole of Saturn, the eye of which is estimated to be 50 times greater than any (so far) on Earth. The rotating, whole-planet storm generates a beautiful, hexagonal jet stream, an effect harking back to Fuller’s Geodesic Geometry, in a dynamic context. The Red Spot is a constant storm, larger than the entire planet Earth. Irma is an eddy on that scale.
So the hurricane may be taken as a metaphor for all life situations, whether in a zone of immediate danger, or not. We may experience a lull from time to time, but it is temporary. The calm before the storm can represent all self-delusional states of apparent safety and security. Even sitting on the cushion, in a relatively controlled environment, the sense of peace can be deceptive.
Buddha warned that the mind imposes a “false stillness” on reality. When this stillness is disrupted, by emergency or a change in circumstance, we may experience a broad range of reactions, from irritation to outright panic. And it is necessary that meditation is calm and uneventful, in the beginning. But Matsuoka Roshi assures us that if we persevere, we will eventually be able to sit through a thunderstorm, or an earthquake, with equanimity. In order to do so, it is necessary that, facing the wall in zazen, we recognize the presence of the emerging event — the wall — looming just over the horizon.