New Orleans: The New Atlantis

While many people have dismissed Al Gore and his ilk as tree hugging liberals bent on curbing our way of life, there is one thing he is dead right about.  Something strange is happening to the earth’s climate.  Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, and the Tsunami in the Asian pacific may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of imminent climatic threats to the world, and should give us pause to consider whether or not rebuilding New Orleans is really such a good idea.

While Gustav’s bark proved to be much worse than its bite, the fact that the collective consciousness viewed it as a serious enough threat to halt a political convention over a thousand miles away speaks volumes.  People are genuinely concerned about whether New Orleans can survive as a city.  With each successive season, and despite herculean feats of engineering, the sea takes a little more of the city back into its bosom.   Many have mused about the significance of the sea’s encroachment on New Orleans.  Some moralists have even gone as far as to say that the hurricanes are God’s punishment to the people of New Orleans for their decadent ways.  Others have claimed that the spate of bad storms in the Atlantic are a result of global warming caused by the overuse of carbon-based fuels.   Nature, they argue is correcting the imbalance.  Still others, the armchair philosophers among us, reason that everything is change, that land turns to sea, water to air, and so on.   Climatic changes barely get a rise out of these stoics.

But whatever one’s perspective, whether moral, philosophical or scientific, it is obvious that change is afoot.  Anyone who is humble enough to observe the signs and obey the message they portend can see that New Orleans will eventually be snatched back into the sea.  This begs the question: Why go back? Why try to rebuild a city that is doomed?  As human beings and as a country it seems we all have a hard time letting go.  We think that our wealth and blessings are proof of our control over nature, when in actuality we are as subject to the whims of nature as any civilization that came before us.

After all, we are not the first civilization to have achieved a degree of technical mastery.  The ancient Egyptians had very scientific and technological defenses against nature.  They knew that the tides were related to the Moon’s gravity; they could predict with accuracy the flooding of the Nile; and they developed elaborate irrigation and water management systems designed to harness the river’s strength and bounty.  Yet, over time, the desert inexorably encroached upon the Egyptian empire, swallowing its great monuments, parching its lush orchards and turning what was once a land flowing with milk and honey into a vast, arid expanse of sand and wind.

In response to hurricane Gustav, city officials opened both sides of the highway to exiting traffic.  They should keep the traffic going out and not back into New Orleans.  However, in the wake of Katrina, New Orleans has become a favorite political football – a testing ground for all sorts of ideas about social and economic development that our leaders cannot afford to let go of.  In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, school choice advocates wanted to use the destruction to instigate a whole new system of privately managed (but publicly funded) education.   Real estate developers of all sorts converged on the city to capitalize on the disaster, tearing down slums and condemning homes in the name of progress.  They marveled at the opportunity the disaster offered to finally rid the city of its unwashed rabble and turn New Orleans into a playground for the rich and well connected.

The irony of it all is that nature doesn’t care about class and status.  Just ask the people of Pompeii, Italy.  When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it found a town of cosmopolitan elite unprepared to move.  After all, they had constructed what they believed to be the perfect getaway from the bustle of Rome, replete with villas, frescos and ornate public baths which drew warm water from the volcanic springs.  The ruins of Pompeii have been thoroughly explored by archeologists, who note that the initial eruption occurred hours before people actually began to flee.  This mistake, the failure to heed the signs and wake up from their life of leisure, cost thousands their lives.

When it comes to New Orleans, people need to get out while the getting’s good. There is no solid foundation there upon which to invest and build.  Rather, attempting to rebuild a city that has been reclaimed by the sea will only lead to a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.  The only good thing to be said for staying is that future scientists studying the ruins of New Orleans will have plenty to write about.