Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: Enough with myths

By
opinions editor
Monday, September 11, 2017

I’m not a particularly devout person. I don’t subscribe to any cults or fringe subcultures. (In the interest of transparency, I do follow Kylie Jenner on Instagram.) And I’ve never really wondered what happens to us after we kick the proverbial bucket. But if there ever is an apocalypse that reduces human civilization to smithereens, I’m pretty sure it’s going to look like the past few weeks: the unprecedented convergence of hurricanes in the Gulf, wildfires in California, and an earthquake in Mexico. Taken together, these disasters have claimed the lives of at least 60 people, left tens of thousands displaced and could siphon close to $300 billion from the American economy.

Yet, for our nation’s professional mythmakers, this dystopia was actually cause for celebration. President Trump claimed that the disasters demonstrate “the best in America’s character — strength, charity and resilience.” Slideshows of heroic volunteers and emergency workers have proliferated on the internet. Even pets, left behind by evacuating families, have been able to bask under the limelight: It was widely reported last week that Southwest Airlines flew 80 cats and dogs from Houston to San Diego to be adopted.

Cobbling together some optimism in the face of devastation is an admirable thing. The courage of our policemen and firefighters; the extraordinary selflessness of ordinary rescuers; the local organizing of immigrants  — all these are worth celebrating and deserve our sincerest gratitude. But, in the long run, our national habit of making myths out of even the most hellish of circumstances — out of rubble and watery ruins — while willfully sugarcoating the true horrors of disaster will spell our undoing. Harvey and Irma, after all, are not only stories of resilience and sacrifice; they are also tales of abject failure. In fact, every daring rescue made in the aftermath, every evacuee flying out of Florida, every vessel of the storied, all-volunteer Cajun Navy constitute failures of our society — our people’s collective negligence to heed the warnings of climate scientists; our policymakers’ failure to obey the evidence, not personal whim; and, worst of all, our entire culture’s failure to consider the human costs of climate inaction.

More broadly, a sanitized, sentimentalized version of natural disaster does us no good. When we deliberately downplay the trauma and suffering with romanticized heroism, we undermine our own ability to proactively confront the causes and consequences of environmental crisis. We know that climate change — which many in our government and civil society have denounced as alarmist fiction‚ drastically increases the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires. We know that we need smarter urban planning regulations to discourage development on exposed coastlines. We know we need to invest in infrastructure and better emergency planning to mitigate the effects of extreme weather in the future. But none of what we know can be meaningfully put into action if we’re too busy cheering the moments of valor and neighborliness and forget to question why that valor and neighborliness were necessary in the first place.

On the whole, I’m glad disaster brought out the “best in America’s character;” I just wish we had been better, sooner, so that our best didn’t have to take the form of dangerous rescues and makeshift shelters. It’s become clear, now, that how we idealize our humanity during crises has proven to be a grave liability. Up until a few days ago, as droughts ravage sub-Saharan Africa and water advances on the low-lying shores of Bangladesh, the most destructive effects of climate change have spared the United States. But the reality of climate change is starting to encroach on our little idyll, in the once-impregnable upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere. We can no longer afford to get caught manufacturing myths for online virality, letting them blind us to the truth.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.