Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Hurricane Sandy is yesterday’s news, but its effects promise to be with us, at least in these parts, for a very long time. I shall not bore you with another post about the fine old trees blasted, splintered, and strewn about the back end of my property. The real damage was done along the shoreline—we are fifty miles from it—between Cape May and New York harbor. There buildings with combined values in the billions have been washed away, destroyed, or damaged beyond repair. In the press, somber accounts of continuing misery vie with upbeat stories about our national resilience, pluck, and frontier spirit. Dozens of strangers, all volunteers, descended from the higher and drier parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan upon my son’s neighborhood in ravaged Red Hook to help out with the inglorious labor of bailing out sewage water. And who would have guessed that the indefatigable drivers of huge garbage trucks of the New York Sanitation Department would emerge as the heroes of an updated Dunkirk flotilla?
My personal injuries are modest in the extreme. I was stranded for several pleasant days in Tennessee when no planes were flying toward New York, and my garden is a mess. But I still find myself strangely disquieted. The hurricane unquestionably demonstrated the potential dangers of living along the edge of shoreline of the Mid-Atlantic States; but in a larger sense, perhaps, it dramatized the degree to which we are all living on the edge.
In this regard I’ve been thinking about two European intellectuals of the middle of the last century, authors of books that have made a big impact on me. The first of them is Georges Lefebvre (1874–1959), the great expert on the French Revolution and one of the founders of “people’s history” or “history from the bottom.” The second is José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), the Spanish philosopher and literary critic. Between them they seem to me to have made a more probing analysis of the crisis of Hurricane Sandy than anything I have read in the contemporary press. When people tax me for spending too much times with old books—as opposed, perhaps, to the current offerings of the New York Review—I must answer with Milton. “Many a man lives a burden to the earth, but a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
José Ortega y Gasset
Lefebvre was interested in the French peasantry, and in one his books he makes the following comparison. On the eve of the Revolution, he writes, the French peasant was like a man standing in a body of water that just reached the crest of his lower lip. So long as absolutely nothing troubled the waters of his subsistence economy, he could survive, if barely; the slightest ripple would swamp him. The book of Ortega y Gasset that most impressed me in my youth was his Revolt of the Masses (1930). It is justly famous for its prescient apprehension of the twin pathologies of its age, Fascism and Bolshevism. But what struck me at the time was what he said about automobiles, just about that time becoming something like a mass commodity. Modern Europeans, he said, are becoming entirely dependent upon the automobile. Yet not one driver in ten really understood the operation of the internal combustion engine. Modernity’s contract with convenience had rendered it subject in perpetuity to a technological indenture that only a small priestcraft could claim to understand.
While the relevance of the maxims of Lefevbre and Ortega are merely suggestive in their application to Hurricane Sandy, the suggestion ought to be enough to alarm. The world’s population has now become so large, its urban population centers so dense, our systems of communication and transportation so heavily used and so interdependent as to render us all, like the French peasant of 1789, permanent brinksmen. A single pebble dropped into the water may not prove fatal, but it doesn’t take a great deal to swamp us. Close one tunnel under the Hudson River for a single day, and chaos will ensue. A blizzard in Chicago can mean disruption of a quarter of the flights coming out of Atlanta.
As for Ortega's automobile and its internal combustion engine, it was, comparatively speaking, a piece of cake. Even I understood it, sort of, up until about 1960 when its electronic augmentations began to transform auto mechanics into priestcraft. About the same time, I think, I heard for the first time the strange phrase “fossil fuel”—with or without the word “crisis” attached I cannot remember. What Hurricane Sandy demonstrated to millions—to the “masses” of old 1930s-speak—was our utter dependence upon a vast web of technology, some of it very high tech indeed, which few understand and fewer still can do much about. There are large areas of my vital daily “infrastructure” that I didn’t even know were there until they weren’t. We have some very large potential problems for which the suggested panacea—purchasing a gasoline-powered generator from Lowe’s—may prove inadequate. The questions, my friend, are blowin’ in the wind.