In important ways, war and flood are connected
September 08, 2005
by: John Mohawk / Indian Country Today

At the beginning of the current war in Iraq, President Bush was adamant that Americans would be asked to make no sacrifices, pay no price, for the war. Indeed, the war would go forward along with tax relief (mostly for the wealthy). He didn't talk much about plans for reductions in domestic spending, and there was an inadequate ring of information that somebody, someday, was going to pay.

In fact, it is future generations who will pay because the war is being fought with borrowed money, and the debt will come due for today's children and grandchildren. And now we have Hurricane Katrina, the second disaster during the Bush administration. It has thus far been met with the same lack of planning as characterized the invasion of Baghdad, and this time the American people will pay. The death toll is unknown at this time but certain to be high. The dollar toll is going to be immense.

The hurricane dealt two blows to New Orleans. The initial blow, the storm, was a near-miss and the city survived it largely intact. The second blow happened when the levee walls were breached and water spilled into the basin that is the city, which meant, in important ways, that the event was man-made. It could turn out to be the greatest disaster in U.S. history.

The local newspapers had long complained that the levees needed strengthening, yet the Bush administration was spent less and less money protecting New Orleans from the water. Some complained that the war in Iraq had left the area with fewer National Guardsmen, and that a lot of equipment that could have been used in the rescue was overseas. Others complained that the guardsmen and the equipment that were available were not deployed due to a lack of leadership. People waited days for help. It was an experience they will not forget.

As the water rose, a man calling in to National Public Radio offered an opinion. The people trapped in the city, he said, had only themselves to blame for their problems. What about those too poor to flee, and too sick, and too disabled, he was asked.

It's their personal responsibility, he said.

There have always been cold-hearted people in America, but the idea that personal responsibility cancels collective rights has grown in recent years. The flood has revealed to the world a dark side of American life, a spiritual flaw.

America is the most self-professed Christian nation in the world, but the message in the New Testament that urges compassion for the poor and powerless is unpopular. Among industrialized nations, America ranks near the bottom in all categories on how it treats its most needy. Things are such that just a week earlier, a national religious icon called for the assassination of a head of state. The message in the New Testament warning against false prophets is drowned out too.

More than one-quarter (28 percent) of New Orleans residents live in poverty, and 84 percent of those are black. Most of the white people escaped. Most of those left behind were black.

The last great flood, in 1927, was on the Mississippi and it left about a million people - 1 percent of the population - homeless. The next year, Congress passed the Flood Control Act, and the federal government assumed full responsibility for protecting its citizens along the river. The Army Corps of Engineers is coming under intense criticism for its management of flood control - which has, by some accounts, been doing more harm than good.

People in Holland, much of which is below sea level, were astonished at the pictures of the puny wall that protected New Orleans from the water. The technology exists to do the job, but the administration has had other spending priorities. It turns out that shoring up those levees would have been money well spent. The argument that other administrations also failed to fix it doesn't wash.

There have been strong feelings among the black community that the reason the money wasn't spent to protect them and the reason for the slow rescue response was racism. There was some of that, as well as discrimination against poor people generally, but racism and classism don't explain everything.

One can gauge the quality of leadership by how a leader wields his or her authority, by measuring outcomes. A person who manages an institution does so to benefit himself and his group, or to benefit the whole of society and even the future generations. In the same week that New Orleans was filling with water, a woman who blew the whistle on no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton was demoted. Bush/Cheney associates enjoy plunder, and their critics are demoted and otherwise punished because in their view the main purpose of government is to protect the properties and privileges of the wealthy. This administration sees to the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

Poor planning has also characterized the presidency of the man who takes five-week vacations in Crawford and whose disastrous war is getting expensive. About 14,500 U.S. troops have suffered injuries in the war that was supposed to be a cakewalk, and the projected cost of treating those injuries is $7 billion a year for the next 45 years. The Iraq war itself is costing $6 billion per month and, if it lasts five more years, could cost about $1.5 trillion.

The Bush administration, along with its allies in Congress, has facilitated the most massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich in history. They had plenty of warning that the levees could be breached by a big hurricane; but they rolled the dice, hoping it wouldn't happen on their watch, and didn't bother to spend the money to protect people. Instead, they carried on with their war agenda which was accompanied by a ''starve the beast'' strategy to defund needed public works projects, medicines and food for the poor, and other previous commitments.

It's the federal government's responsibility to build levees that do not breach. No one wanted the flood, but flood control was their responsibility and they failed at it. War and flood are connected disasters with their epicenter in the Oval Office. And now, today's Americans are going to pay in the form of a mountain of corpses and a population of displaced people, huge property losses and higher energy bills, and the very real possibility of recession.
© Indian Country Today
Hopi prophecy pointed to climate change
November 05, 2004
by: John Mohawk / Indian Country Today

Beginning about 70 years ago, some traditional Hopi formulated a message to the rest of the world that there was a rising danger that humankind's lack of spiritual attention to the world was going to lead to disaster. The form this disaster would take was that there would be violent storms and all kinds of disruption that would eventually threaten human beings around the world. It had happened before, they said, and all signs, including ancient prophecies, are that it will happen again. The individual who emerged as spokesperson for this was Thomas Banyacya. A very interesting element to the message was that proof of their message was to be found in the American's own libraries and scientific papers.

There is every evidence that this is happening, just as the traditional Hopi predicted, and the major leadership of the world is not acting in an effective way to meet the threat. This August, the Bush administration finally issued a statement acknowledging that human activity may be contributing to global warming. If you think that radical Islamic terrorism is scary, wait until you see global warming.

Scientists are certain that greenhouse gasses, especially CO2, have a history of altering global climate patterns, a history that goes back perhaps at least 900 million years. A dramatic but widely-held theory is that 600 million years ago the earth was an ice ball trapped in a glacial period and that it escaped this seemingly permanent condition when volcanoes released enough CO2 into the atmosphere to create a greenhouse effect which warmed things up to perhaps an average temperature of 120 F, causing hundreds of thousands of years of rain which trapped the CO2 and put it back in the earth. Eventually the earth stabilized. That was when the dramatic proliferation of life forms, including multi-cellular animals, appeared. There is pretty good evidence to support this theory. The ice may have been a kilometer thick. Greenhouse gases do cause climate change.

The earth is getting warmer and its average temperature has risen about one degree Fahrenheit since 1830 - at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The last 20 years have been the warmest in 12,000 years and the warming trend is worldwide. People who study tree rings find evidence that in the last 20 years there has been an unprecedented rate of change in the climate and among the best evidence for the effect of this change is that glaciers, worldwide, are receding and disappearing. There are glaciers in the Central Andes. Even there, glaciers have been retreating dramatically. Some are retreating at the rate of almost 100 feet per year. They could be gone entirely in 50 years. Forty percent of the ice has disappeared in some places. In others, numerous glaciers have already disappeared. For thousands of years, glaciers have maintained a record of what has happened over the centuries. Scientists collect ice cores from the tropics and the polar regions. They contain the history of climate going back to a half million years. Ice cores record that CO2 never got higher than 300 parts per million. Today, we find 360 ppm, strong (even irrefutable) evidence that humans are contributing to dramatic changes in the composition of the atmosphere. Scientists suspect there is a threshold beyond which dramatic and irreversible and unpredictable climate change could be triggered.

The impact of the climate change we have already can be seen in Alaska. In just 30 years, Alaska's temperature has risen an average of five degrees and glaciers there are melting. Since 1995 some have receded 10 to 20 feet a year. And the rate of change may be accelerating. Climatologists are alarmed. In 50 years there may be no glaciers in Glacier National Park. Fossil fuels are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. It is the northern areas that will experience this warming first. In Alaska, the first thing is the melting of the permafrost. This thawing could spread in just five years. Already telephone poles are leaning and the ground is opening up in places, leaving holes in the land. The Alaska pipeline was built on the permafrost, but there was no planning for the possibility the permafrost might melt and the pipeline is threatened.

But the most devastating short-term impact may be from the unexpected. There are 120 million acres of forest in Alaska, and these forests are beginning to die on millions of acres. The destruction has been rapid and devastating and trees on three million acres have already been killed by insect infestation. Some species which threaten forests thrive in warmer weather, like the spruce bark beetle, which eats the bark. These beetles arrived with the onset of warmer weather and in some places there are so many beetles that people have been forced to abandoned their homes and cabins. In southern Alaska, more trees have died in a few years than in the previous 70 years.

In East Africa it rained excessively in traditionally arid lands and this led to extensive flooding which overwhelmed the water management systems. One result was a cholera epidemic from contaminated water. The mosquito population exploded and a malaria epidemic ensued in places in Kenya where mosquitoes were previously rare or unknown. People blamed El Nino, but global warming probably had a hand in the disasters. The problems didn't end there. As the earth heats up, the land dries up. Moisture is released through evaporation into the atmosphere, making it available for weather events. Thus there is flooding, record rainfalls and sometimes storms stronger than previously. While one place is experiencing flooding, other places experience drought. California is flooded, while Indonesia experiences drought. It is just like the Hopi warned.

The natural climate system can change rapidly. If it happened rapidly in the past, it could happen in the future. Temperature records are being broken. It seems inevitable that we will reach four times the CO2 levels in the atmosphere from a century ago and maybe soon. Of all the emissions sent up today, fully half will still be in the atmosphere 100 years from now. By the time we can prove beyond a doubt that human activity is causing the warming, it will be far too late to do anything about it. American politicians, who compete among themselves selling visions of wishful thinking from everything from the economy to terrorism have not performed well in facing this threat. Earlier this year a movie, ''The Day After Tomorrow'', dramatized (and action-adventurized) sudden global freezing (an after effect of warming), but even if the climate changes are much less dramatic than depicted in this movie, the question arises: what about the day after the day after tomorrow? The U.S. government does see climate change as a national security threat, but it's actually much greater than that. It is a threat to species survival. Ours, and many others.
© Indian Country Today
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an associate professor of American Studies and director of Indigenous Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.