One-Hundred-Year Storm

photo of house with flag over fence
A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

With another hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast this weekend (Delta? does that mean they ran out names for this year? Yes, yes it does), the NYRB reviews a new book about New Orleans – Katrina: A History, 1915-2015:

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

It’s all one story – the land development, the discovery of oil, the expansive canal digging, the sinking, the demolished wetlands, the unprotected infrastructure at risk from large storms exacerbated the very activity of said infrastructure – that bleeds out into a completely understandable loss of civic faith. A few get rich, many suffer, told and re-told over and over again, from slave markets to oil refineries. Katrina, a long time in the making, can but remind us of other slow-motion catastrophes coming due just now.

In Her Own Right

I’m reading this terrific book by Elizabeth Badinter, a little every day and it’s at once a great exercise and fascinating in its own right. The book is a history about the 18th century scholars and philosophers of the Académie française, their writing, quarrels, vanity and thirst for fame that led to all manner of behavior that looks positively decorous by today’s standards. The scientific nationalism she describes is curious but understandable in the context of the newtonians versus cartesians. Badinter had once petitioned the Mayor of Paris about Madame du Châtelet, who was known as Voltaire’s lover though Badinter insisted she should be known as France first female intellectual:

Educated at home, the young Émilie learned to speak six languages by the time she was twelve, and had lessons in fencing and other sports. Even from a young age she was fascinated most by science and math, much to her mother’s displeasure. Such interests were not viewed as proper for young ladies, and her mother even threatened to send her away to a convent. Fortunately, her father recognized her intelligence and encouraged her interests, arranging for her to discuss astronomy with prominent scientists he knew.

Émilie also had a flair for gambling, applying her talent at mathematics to give herself an advantage. She used her winnings to buy books and laboratory equipment for her scientific investigations.

When she reached age 18, she knew she had to get married, and she accepted the proposal of Marquis Florent-Claude du Châtelet, a distinguished army officer. This was a convenient arrangement for Émilie, because Châtelet was often away from home, leaving her free to indulge her interests in studying math and science on her own.

She was also free to carry on an affair with the writer Voltaire, one of the few men who appreciated her intelligence and encouraged her scientific pursuits. Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire renovated Châtelet’s large estate house in the countryside. The house included several rooms for scientific equipment and space for experiments, and a large library holding over 20,000 books, more than many universities at the time.

Although she was frustrated at being excluded from scientific society and education because she was a woman, she was able to learn mathematics and science from several renowned scholars, including Pierre-Louis Maupertuis and Samuel Konig, by inviting them to her house.

In 1737, after several months of conducting research in secret, she entered a contest sponsored by the French Academy of Sciences on the nature of light, heat and fire, submitting her paper Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu. In it she suggested that different colors of light carried different heating power and anticipated the existence of what is now known as infrared radiation. She did not win the contest, but her paper was published and was positively received by the scientific community.

She also developed a strong interest in the work of Isaac Newton, which was somewhat controversial at the time in France, where Cartesian philosophy was favored over Newton’s ideas. Émilie and Voltaire jointly wrote a book, Elements of Newton’s Philosophy, which explained Newton’s astronomy and optics in a clear manner for a wide French readership. Only Voltaire’s name appeared on the book, but he acknowledged her important role.

Émilie also worked on another manuscript, Foundations of Physics, in which she considered the philosophical basis of science and tried to integrate the conflicting Newtonian, Cartesian, and Leibnizian views.

One of her most important contributions to science was her elucidation of the concepts of energy and energy conservation. Following experiments done earlier by Willem ‘s Gravesande, she dropped heavy lead balls into a bed of clay. She showed that the balls that hit the clay with twice the velocity penetrated four times as deep into the clay; those with three times the velocity reached a depth nine times greater. This suggested that energy is proportional to mv2, not mv, as Newton had suggested.

While conducting her scientific work, Émilie du Châtelet still carried out her duties as a mother to her three children and as a hostess for her many visitors so she was always busy, and had little time for sleep.

At age 42 Émilie du Châtelet discovered she was pregnant. At that time, a pregnancy at such an old age was extremely dangerous. Knowing she would likely die, she began working 18 hours a day to complete her biggest project, a French translation of Newton’s Principia, before she died.

For many years, hers was the only translation of Newton’s Principia into French, amazing considering the context and just goes to show how obtuse we can be, even at the heights of civilization.

Wynema: A Child of the Forest

The illusion itself is a reasonable encapsulation of our fascination with Native Americans. And the unfortunate bigoted bullying that compels our childish attention to the sewer to and from which so much is presently flowing does also provide an opportunity to remind.
Despite even the earliest Experience of William Apess (1829) to reject the stereotyping of Indians, our wider ambivalence about native identity in the face of slaughter, genocide and Christianity (I know) has left most Americans on the wrong side of a deep divide. We need to learn so much more than our cartoon histories allow. So let’s do.

Creek writer Sophia Alice Callahan wrote the first novel written by a woman Native American called Wynema: A Child of the
Forest, which was published in 1891. The novel stresses how a white girl’s progressive adoption of an
identifiably Native American perspective enhances her relationship with a Native American girl named
Wynema.

By ensuring mutual comprehension and respect and, on a larger level, promoting intercultural
bonds they break down the barriers that their own cultures had enveloped them with. As the story
progresses, both the white girl named Genevieve and Wynema learn more about one another’s cultural
customs, and this cross-cultural appreciation fortifies their loving relationship.
While Wynema starts out as Genevieve’s student, she soon becomes her friend and her sister, which the novel suggests evolves not
simply with the passing of time but rather from Genevieve’s increasing understanding of and respect for Muscogee people. As
Genevieve becomes more assimilated into Muscogee life, she refers to Wynema specifically as “a friend” rather than as a pupil or
protege. Moreover, Genevieve’s acceptance of Wynema and Robin’s marriage and, thus, of Wynema as a sister coincides with a
profound shift in the way that Genevieve refers to the Muscogee. Whereas she once referred to them with the objectifying label of “this
people” (emphasis added), by the end of the story she tenderly deems them “my people” (emphasis added). The novel further
highlights that the Muscogee are “her people,” a sign of her acculturation, when they welcome her back after her return from a trip to
her mother’s home with all of the unbridled enthusiasm and “warmth” afforded to any member of the tribe, including Wynema.

Other Native American writers are listed at the link. A wonderful contemporary Native Canadian writer, Joseph Boyden, is the author of an amazing novel about World War I, Three Day Road.
Familiarize yourself. Don’t let a stupid bully hung up on a childish reference be the stand-in for anything in your consciousness. Reject the caricature, if not on behalf of its target than in solidarity with its origin.

Image of Sophia Alice Callahan via wikipedia.

Slowness

There are at least a couple of things to which we might accede:

Through the twin slow-motion catastrophes of resource depletion and environmental degradation, human activity will be forced into a different scale than our post-industrial age trajectory has otherwise led us to infer.

General recognition of a need, if not regard, for a lessened carbon footprint is growing. We increasingly recognize the wisdom of native populations, for example, in being proper, long-term stewards of the earth, as opposed to our standard operating procedures. The extents to which we create fetish and fashion from some of native practices, as absurd as they may seem, often represent the initial entree some of these practices have into a society which made them obsolete. Micro-biotic is just a fancy name for eating locally, par ex.

The tragi-comedy kicks in as we try to imagine moving toward reconciling these realities, but on our terms. We want to ‘go green’ and live more sustainably, but we still want all of our stuff. The heavy contradiction here is re-enforced as some of our stuff begins to disappear as a simple consequence of the above conditions.

Not that any of it will magically be taken away. It’s painfully slow, just as absolutely everything was, from our perspective, up until about 100 years ago. The whole concept of slow is a modern artifact itself; even more, the modifier adding duress to it. But, we begin to let a few things go away here and there as we move back into the greater slip-stream of biotic activity on earth.

Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud’s three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to “descent from an animal world”; and, finally (in one of the least modest statements of intellectual history), Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind. In this wise and crucial sense, the Darwinian revolution remains woefully incomplete because, even though thinking humanity accepts the fact of evolution, most of us are still unwilling to abandon the comforting view that evolution means (or at least embodies a central principle of) progress defined to render the appearance of something like human consciousness either virtually inevitable or at least predictable. The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life’s enormously arborescent bush – a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.

The current availability of information is such that we seem to get what we can from a little news here and there and hope for the best. It’s quite a place to find ourselves – so surrounded by means and so trapped by their implications. We see these things happening in the world, but we continue on with much the same map that brought us here, altering our route slowly, because our terms dictate what we can and cannot live without, as such. Is optimism knowing just enough to keep the jury out indefinitely? Abstract issues like energy and pollution bear down on us in some ways, but with a little information, we can trust that someone somewhere is doing something about it – that, as this one runs out, technology might deliver us to the next free energy plateau that will permit our thriving to continue. The missing part of the picture, obscured perhaps by the massive amounts by which we make inferences about the smallest things, is the scale down. Living differently in ways that we require less will conjure all sorts of changes and many of them will be very positive.

I’m trying to fight the tendency to offer a summation on these points, but how does something end and continue on at the same time? In other words, this is our post-industrial age trajectory.