It was a Tuesday night in April, 1999. I was in a Sydney pub, talking about life and death issues with a local undertaker. The irony of the situation was not lost on us. It felt like the beginning of a joke. But what was about to happen was no joke. First we heard a loud bang, loud enough to stop us in our tracks. Then another bang, thud on the tin roof of the pub. It sounded like we were under attack. Everyone ran to the windows, and we saw hail stones the size of baseballs. I’m not exaggerating here. We had baseball shaped holes in our car and outdoor furniture to prove it. At home Meg was picking glass off our son whose bedroom window had been smashed by one of these massive stones. It only lasted about 40 minutes, but the storm created enough electricity to power the city for a day. After running home, we secured our own home and walked the neighborhood. It was like a war zone; debris everywhere, people wandering around in a daze. It was surreal, the strange calm after a storm.
Post storm, you see the best and worst of human nature. There are the predictable fundies who claim that God sent the storm to punish gays or whoever is the scapegoat du jour. There are politicians who use the storm for political gain. There are people in battle with insurance companies for months on end, looters of course, and charlatan trades people who move in for a quick buck. Then there are incredible stories of heroism and generosity; people reaching out beyond their own concerns to help others.
Experiencing extreme weather gave me some small insight into what it was like for those affected by super storm Sandy; the fear, the loss, the challenge to rebuild. My heart goes to all affected. Part of the challenge is to rebuild your trust and optimism.
Sandy showcased the best and worst of human nature. The worst was seen with the man who refused to allow the single mom with two young kids into his home during the storm. The two kids drowned. I don’t know the details. But self preservation clearly ruled this man’s decisions. And on the other side, there were the stories of new born babies being moved to hospitals that had power. Some of these babies were only hours old. 7 or 8 people, nurses and volunteers, accompanied each baby to safety.
Post storm, you see what you’re made of and you see what a community is made of. We all want to believe we would be heroic in the situation. But the reality is that we all have the potential for both good and selfishness within us. None of us knows how we would react in similar situations. We have within us two, sometimes competing urges; one to protect our own interests and the other to reach out. Self preservation and altruism. The reality is that it’s the one we feed in our daily choices that rules our minds in crisis moments. So if you practice generosity in small moments, it becomes a habit in big moments.
Sometimes you’ve got to reach out beyond your comfort zone to see the bigger picture. In this case, think about the number of pets and animals lost or killed in a storm. I heard that after Katrina, 250,000 pets were stranded. I have no idea how many pets were affected by Sandy, but the number is likely to be large. Thinking about animals affected by a storm is one way to broaden your perspective. This is not just a human tragedy. And yet we humans played a part in creating it.
1999 had the planet’s most extreme weather on record. But then again, so did 1998. And so did 1997. Weather has become even more extreme since 1999. Climate change may not be creating these storms, but it is affecting the severity and location of the damage. Super storm Sandy was the last of many extreme weather situations in 2012. 65% of American experienced drought in 2012. There were record wildfires, massive numbers of heat waves, loss of cattle etc etc etc. Sandy’s severity is partly the result of the 1 degree rise in global temperature in the last hundred years and the resulting rise in sea levels. Scientists are telling us the planet could warm by another 8 or 9 degrees in the next 80 years, a game changer that could leave Sandy looking minor in comparison.
Climate change has been off the agenda in this election cycle. But it needs to be talked about. As Al Gore says, ”Dirty fuel leads to dirty weather.” This year’s arctic meltdown wasn’t supposed to happen until after 2070 but its well ahead of schedule, which to be blunt puts the demise of life as we know it way ahead of schedule. Our children, and their children, could suffer far worse than we have, and all for our choices.
If something good is to come out of Sandy, I hope it’s the jolt we need to shake off our climate change denial and wake up to our role in creating the problem. If we truly see the reality of this situation we will realize that there’s no distinction between self preservation and altruism. We need to act quickly and drastically or we will ALL be in deep trouble. It may even be too late to stem the tide of damage. But even if it is, I hope we have the courage to take MLK’s words to heart,
Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
It’s our move. What will it be? In the Australian movie called The Man Who Sued God (2001) a disillusioned lawyer retires from his practice and buys a small fishing boat. His boat is destroyed when it’s struck by lightning. Insurance companies refuse his claim on the grounds that it was “an act of God.” The lawyer, played by Billy Connolly, sues the church as God’s representatives. If it’s an act of God, then God’s representatives should pay. If they deny responsibility, they are denying the existence of God.
It’s an interesting theme in relation to Sandy. For centuries, we have labeled natural disasters as acts of God. But now we understand that our lifestyles have contributed to global warming which plays a part in weather patterns. The whole idea of an act of God makes no sense in the context of climate change. We made the mess and we need to do what we can to clean it up. We’re all in this together. Maybe the victims of Sandy should sue the whole human race for damages. We could all help pay for the damage. Then again I guess we do. That’s the point of taxes and insurance premiums and federal funding of FEMA and other disaster relief.
Sandy’s wake-up call is a reality check about the connection between lifestyle and climate change. We need to remember that our choices affect the whole. We’re ALL in this together. And we ALL need to take responsibility for THIS; the good, the bad and the messy.
As the famous Rabbi Hillel once said,
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?