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Inept responses are not the problem in New Orleans. The problem is that New Orleans was an occupied city in an unsustainable state steadily deteriorating further. A 2001 Scientific American article predicted that a hurricane could flood it, but anybody could predict that a hurricane could flood it. It's a huge depressed bowl, and only survives rain through heroic temporary measures that ultimately accelerate the destabilization. The damage in New Orleans is the essentially ensured result of the systematic and laborious placing of a giant and hopelessly idiotic bet.  

And the problem in New Orleans is the same problem in Aceh and the Sudan and Tokyo and San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York. It is, basically, the problem on Earth. We have built our civilizations in precipitous locations and eroding conditions, and relied on luck and frantic myopia to preserve us from inevitable disasters just long enough for them to kill somebody else. This was arguably excusable when we were ignorant of the statistics and the astronomy and the tectonics, but now we know. And still we do little more than sit and pray. New Orleans sat and prayed. And if there are gods, they just pissed in the bowl until it was full.  

So we obsess about FEMA response protocols and bureaucratic compassion and whether people are admirable or insane for attempting to stand waist-deep in a cesspool until they're allowed to take their dogs out with them, all of which are real issues but not significant ones. The immediate problems of individuals must be solved, but they are dwarfed by the single underlying problem that ubiquitously confronts humanity, and that coddled Americans have just been able to complacently ignore more often than most other people: we are not the blessed tenants of a benevolent paradise. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis are real, and they will not spare the optimistic or the wealthy or the devout. Global warming is real, resource exhaustion is real, overpopulation is real, ecosystem destruction is real. Evolution is real, and implacable. We pour massive energy into self-distraction and self-destruction, and an almost inconceivable amount of it must be redirected from the fleeting arbitrage of trivial impulses into an epic investment in human survival.  

Actually, it's even worse than that. Not only are our models of "civilization" wildly misprioritized, but our most elaborated modes of dissent are little better. Not only are there are too many of us to live in naive "harmony" with nature, there is no harmony, or at least none in any of our musics. The planet's harmonics pulped the dinosaurs, and will happily sing a similar end for us. This is the dividing line between primitive social humanity and some opposite that we don't even have a good word for: one is defined by random fortune and the suffered play of outside forces, the other by self-awareness, and deep understanding of system dynamics, and pervasive considered design. As a kind of creature, we stand at the point where we must go from thinking like hungry pets to thinking like there are no other gods than us, and thus from being constant victims to being immortal. It's not at all clear that we have the collective willpower to make this shift in our social priorities, but if we don't, we will be cheerfully erased. The planets won't miss us. The gods, if there are gods, will go elsewhere for relief.  

So don't pump out New Orleans and recross our fingers and hope it won't happen again until it's people we don't know chopping through their own roofs to get out of attics that we forgot to tell them weren't going to be high enough. And don't abandon it and let it turn into a distracting capital of illusionary rebellion and ultimate defeat. New Orleans is not a battle between policy and contingency, it's a battle between the past and the future, and the only good answer is so much bigger than anything we're currently daunted by, and that's even without comprehending that the same thing also applies to every other city that hasn't been drowned or crushed yet. We must level it and start again, and this time do it right, not to the best of the meandering free market's tactics and the fickle attentions of elected governments and the miserly metrics of economies, but to the best of human understanding and abilities with all the perspective and limitlessness and moral identity we can manage as a culture. We must do it right with the awful awareness that the ground rules are very literally provided by the ground, and the outcomes will be derived and determined and discovered, not stipulated and bid upon. We must be willing to learn that the only ways to live there are none of the ways we know. We must be willing to learn that the only ways to keep living here, anywhere, are none of the ways we have grown up in.  

And here is the necessary first step, and if we don't do this, not only are we admitting we have learned nothing yet, we are admitting that we aren't willing to pay the cost of learning at all: don't pump that sludge into the Gulf or the Mississippi or anywhere else. Forget about any reconstruction measured in days or months. Forget about getting back to business. Business is what got us here, in the path of this water. New Orleans is now filled with our entrails, and thus constitutes a test, not for the Army Corps of Engineers but for human wisdom. This is not a cleaning project, this is an autopsy of a failed society, a society that didn't fail in a day in a storm, but failed for centuries that ended with a storm. We must start making the lists of everything we did wrong, in all that time, and what it now means to do it correspondingly right. We must look into the bowl of our blood and poison, because that's all that ever comes out of gods, and see how to become our next and purer selves.
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