Apocryphal Apocalypse: Thoughts on Hurricanes and the Human Condition

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Over the summer break, I helped a family friend move some boxes from a storage locker into his apartment. He’s a reasonable, intelligent, highly educated man who happens to be a tenured professor at a reputable Canadian university. He is also a survivalist. In his apartment, he has enough freeze-dried food to last 10 years, along with cooking fuel and other equipment, and half a dozen legally obtained firearms. To most of us, this over-preparedness in anticipation for a post-apocalyptic scenario seems silly, verging on absurd. However, the recent series of hurricanes battering the southern United States turned my past skepticism about survivalism into a new-found curiosity. Why do most of us feel like nothing bad is ever going to happen, and why are we so unprepared when it inevitably does?

Hurricane Harvey is the first large hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005. It devastated the Caribbean, Texas, and parts of Louisiana. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were flooded, and at least 70 people have perished as a result. Estimates for the long-term economic impacts of this storm are already in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Only days later, Hurricane Irma began ripping its way through much of Barbuda, Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico was also badly hit. In Florida, 6.5 million residents, or two thirds of the entire state, are currently without electrical power at the time of this writing. The state of Georgia was also hit hard. The list could go on, and the damage has not been fully assessed; but there’s no productive purpose in comparing which disaster was worse.

Inevitably, whenever catastrophic climatic events unfold, climate change activists come out of the woodwork, only to be challenged by climate change deniers. While most of the data suggests that climate change is indeed responsible for the ever-increasing quantity and magnitude of such events, we must also focus on improving our infrastructure, emergency services, and public awareness in order to tackle these issues as they unfold. This overall lack of preparedness is reminiscent of the North American ice storm that crippled Toronto in 2013. As we are forced to contend with such events, something interesting happens. Our arrogance is shattered by the brutal indifference of the universe. This provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the fragility of life, and to simultaneously appreciate what we have accomplished as a species. These disasters also offer us some insight into the best (heroism) and worst (looting) examples of human behaviour.

On February 14th, 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe turned its camera around as it was leaving our solar system to take one last photograph of our planet at a distance of 6 billion kilometers. The now famous shot entitled Pale Blue Dot captured the Earth as a single pixel set amongst the vast, dark backdrop of space. Renowned astronomer and author Carl Sagan would go on to share his reflections on the image in 1994:

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. [...] Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

While it is possible that “the great apocalypse” isn’t imminent, we - as a species - might benefit from a change of perspective in the wake of recent natural events. We need to elevate our behaviour and discourse for the betterment of the planet we so often take for granted.