Katrina’s Environmental Subplot

I am a reluctant environmentalist.  I like people more than animals, animals more than plants.  I’ve come around to caring about our mismanagement of the environment because of the devastating effects of that mismanagement on human beings.

There is not a more vivid metaphor for the human costs of environmental incompetence than the direct links between the destruction of Gulf Coast wetlands and the horror show that unfolded in the Superdome on 8/29/05.  As Time’s Michael Grunwald wrote in 2007, in his scathing exploration of Katrina and her enablers:

….FEMA was the scapegoat, but the real culprit was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bungled the levees that formed the city’s man-made defenses and ravaged the wetlands that once formed its natural defenses. Americans were outraged by the government’s response, but they still haven’t come to grips with the government’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

Ravaged wetlands are not a central part of the narrative we’ve built around Katrina, at least not up North.  When we do acknowledge the human missteps leading to the not-so-natural disaster, we invoke Brownie’s “heckuva job” and W vacationing while whole neighborhoods drowned.  That’s the story we like to tell around Boston.  Sometimes we bring the Corps into it, usually for its engineering mistakes with the levees themselves.

But Grunwald and others have made a powerful case that the most tragic leadership failures can be traced to the “U.S’s cockamamie approach to water resources,” a decades-long, pork-filled drama that doles out responsibility across generations, sectors and Congressional aisles.  Everybody got it wrong by razing wetland barriers, and the most vulnerable among us paid the ultimate price.

One of the challenges of mainstreaming the environmental movement is its lingering sentimentality.  Another is its emphasis on valuing the future more than the present, a message that is often heavy with moral authority.  Katrina reminds us that smart, strategic stewardship of the environment matters right now.  I’m unlikely to ever hug a tree for the tree’s sake.  But when that tree starts teetering towards my fellow citizens, I find that my affection for it grows.

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