Saturday, September 24, 2011

What happens when we dodge a thunderbolt? A further Tim Prentice update

Weeks after Hurricane Irene came and went, I followed up with the brilliant sculptor down the road, Tim Prentice, on how he protected his kinetic outdoor sculptures. His preparations were small, it turns out. He moved a caged lobster made of sheet metal named Fred into his barn, even though Fred demanded to face the gale unassisted. Tim's prudence turned out to be unnecessary. The storm was a non-event in Cornwall, if you ignore the power being out for two days. Some of our neighbors did get walloped, but nothing like the devastation to the north in Vermont.

Tim said, "We lost a few branches here and there, but that just means we have plenty of firewood for the winter." Fred has since moved out of the barn back to his usual post.

Were all the warnings about Irene justified? Luck steered the storm away from Carbon Based and our neighbors. We could have skipped all the preparations. We know that now, but we can't be sure what will happen the next time. Had the storm followed a slightly different track, we could have experienced Vermont-level destruction.

A risk that doesn't happen doesn't mean that the warnings were unnecessary. Of course, psychology being what it is, the next mega-storm may get short shrift because people will remember that Irene wasn't so bad in their neighborhood. They will think that way, even though Irene resulted in some $3 billion in losses.

This gap between direness of the warnings and the actual outcomes is endemic to discussions of long-term risks. How do we stay prepared for chronic dangers that will be around for decades-- like climate change? The classical environmental campaign, at least in caricature, involves scaring as many people as much as possible, to spur citizens' willingness to act. But in the long term, this is counterproductive. Most of us quickly get exhausted by overused alarms.

Climate change demands that we maintain our willingness to act for decades. We have to find ways of staying vigilant without triggering resistance in all of us, and without getting tired of the Cassandras.

In short, we have to learn to hover in the breeze like one of Tim's sculptures, and learn when to ask to be taken inside.

Above, Tim Prentice's open-air porch, with one of the worst-insulated windows ever. Below is Fred, the wimpy lobster. Photos by Brian Thomas

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