Saturday, December 29, 2012

The day the dam broke--a Carbon Based original

    On December 26 in a local church, a neighbor read several stories by James Thurber.  One of these was "The Day the Dam Broke," which recounts a stretch of two hours in 1913 when sudden rumors of a failed dam in Columbus, Ohio, provoked a mass panic.  Thurber says, "The fact that we were all as safe as kittens under a cook stove did not, however, assuage in the least the fine despair and the grotesque desperation which seized upon the residents of the East Side when the cry spread like a grass fire that the dam had given way." 

    To comic effect, Thurber dwells on the terror that erupts instantly and the citizens' shamefaced return to their lives when no waters appear.  (Actually, a similar theme crops up in a number of Thurber stories, such as, "The Night the Bed Fell Down.")

    Residents fled east to avoid the rushing waters of the Scioto River. There were none. Authorities worsened the alarm.  Soldiers patrolling the streets announced that the dam had NOT failed.  Everyone heard as, "The dam has NOW failed.

    But were the citizens of Columbus so irrational to flee? Dams do break, and it's usually disastrous when they do.  In fact, in a real dam break, everyone downstream must act quickly to reach higher ground.  Thurber observes that everybody ran because the starting the cars of that era required a crank, and presumably that took too much time with an inundation gushing at one's heels.  

    The irrational part lay in not bothering to check for water, even after some minutes.  But coastal dwellers today, if they heard a tsunami warning, would remember the horrifying YouTube videos of the Aceh tidal wave coming ashore in 2010.  They would flee in an instant. I know I would.

    Nothing in Thurber's story considers the dam's soundness and its state of repair, or the quality of its management.  But presumably, after the panic of 1913, the leaders of Columbus probably checked the dam and made inquiries into what they could do to prepare for an actual dam break.  But that's a much less amusing story.

    This is how everyone wants climate change to turn out -- a hasty alarm that we slink away from when its foolishness is revealed. But of course, that doesn't fit the climate change pattern.  Evidence from direct observations, the paleoclimate record, and climate models all corroborate anthropogenic global warming.   This means intensified water cycles, more weather-related disasters, and a variety of other effects.

    What's more pertinent is speed. Climate change as a whole does not suddenly appear full blown. It builds slowly and on any given day doesn't impinge on people's minds or their lives. A catastrophe right in front of us grabs all our attention, but sorting out the climate signal it contains is not so obvious, nor is it the most pressing task when the waters are rising. 

    The analogy between Thurber's story and climate change would be even better if there were a well-funded movement in Columbus whose goal was to stop any effort to maintain the dam. Actually, something similar has happened to infrastructure in the United States, as state and local governments have allowed bridges, roads, dams, water treatment plants, and so on to fall into disrepair.  Decades of skimped maintenance has resulted in degraded service and outright failures.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives US infrastructure a "D," and estimates a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion will be necessary to bring everything into good repair.

    We have time to prepare for slow-moving risks.  The cry of denialists notwithstanding, it's worth spending money today to avoid a catastrophe tomorrow.  Of course, we've already lost decades in the battle against climate change, thanks to fossil fuel industry's propaganda onslaught.  But there is still plenty we could do, and we will need to spend decades at it.

    Not long after our neighbor finished his Thurber reading, a sleeting snowstorm began, and was still underway a day later.  But everyone returned to their homes in an orderly way.

Thurber's own illustration for "The Day the Dam Broke"

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