Saturday, September 27, 2008

Philosophical Lessons from Ike

The following essay was written by Warren S. Ross.

There are some extraordinary philosophical lessons to learn from hurricane Ike, for those attentive and philosophically astute to learn them. In this dire emergency, caused by the direct hit of a near category 3 hurricane on the fourth largest city in the country, more than two million people were without power, an entire nearby resort island (Galveston) was demolished by flood waters, and food, water and power were in short supply for several days to a few weeks. Some observations about the aftermath of Ike are worth cataloging as a preliminary:

· Even the most basic necessity – water – depends on the continuous use of machinery – pumps – to keep the positive pressure to ensure no bacterial intrusion. Clean water also depends on chemistry – chemicals such as chlorine to kill bacteria, plastics to bottle the clean water people must drink when tap water is nonpotable; the science of chemistry to identify, test for and understand the medical implications of ingesting a whole host of naturally occurring microorganisms. When for four days Houston had low water pressure and had not completed the myriad of testing required to be rationally certain of purity, Houstonians had to boil water or drink bottled water.

· A lengthy causal sequence is required to supply the potable water and basic food needs of a city. The pumps that keep positive water pressure are driven by electricity, which in turn is generated by the burning of hydrocarbons, and the transmission of the generated electricity to the plant that houses the pumps and cleans the water. Without the transmission means (high tension power lines, connected by a complex network of switches and directed by computers, cumulatively called “the grid”), or without the hydrocarbons, the water cannot be produced for human consumption. The food needs of a city are delivered by those who use the hydrocarbons (fuel for the trucks) to bring the food from the point of original production to the warehouses and ultimately grocery stores that supply them to ultimate consumers. Part of what is needed to complete this process of production is electricity to drive the pumps that pump fuel at fuel stations into trucks, as well as electricity to light and most importantly refrigerate the warehouses and grocery stores. Additionally what is needed is a network of interconnecting roadways from farms to points of distribution.

· The causal sequence is not only lengthy but complexly organized in mutually enhancing circles. For example, electricity is produced from hydrocarbons but electricity is needed to dispense hydrocarbons.

· The mayor of Houston, Mayor White, as well as his counterparts at the county
level, have an unusually good grasp of these issues, at least at the economic level. Mayor White admonished the media, who were accusingly asking why the government “points of distribution” – PODs – were not up and running faster, that it makes no sense to deliver food to a location without a means of access by either trucks or the public. He also had to remind the media that a service station may have fuel but it is useless if the service station has no electricity (this in response to accusing questions as to why fuel trucks weren’t bringing gasoline to all service stations). Like ignorant third graders, the media were petulantly demanding everything “now,” and the mayor reviewed for them these basic facts about the logical hierarchy of production.

· Mayor White is an unusual man, a democrat but originally a businessman rather than a career politician. He understands not only these economic issues but some fundamental moral and political issues as well. He praised Houstonians for acting responsibly to assess and remediate their own situation, not waiting for government to do it but doing it on their own (clearing streets, removing trees, checking on neighbors and helping them through the emergency). He used the word “individual” repeatedly, stating that individual responsibility and effort were what set Houstonians apart from others (an oblique but generally well understood reference to the angry mobs of lethargic welfare recipients crying for government aid and egged on by politicians in the New Orleans Katrina debacle). White told one reporter that no one needs government permission to help a neighbor or friend. He told another that the private sector was the ultimate “point of distribution” in the form of grocery stores and fuel stations, not the small number of government PODs. Mayor White also repeatedly stated that the primary agent of restoring power is not the government but a private company – Centerpoint Energy. Although the Mayor was understandably frustrated with the slow pace ofrestoring power, he never once harangued Centerpoint Energy or tried to threaten or bully it. He never hinted at a “takeover” or accused it of greed or incompetence (nor did he menacingly assert that its management was being overpaid). He let Centerpoint, and encouraged citizens to let it, do its job. I do not agree with a lot of what Mayor White has done in his administration – increased taxes, attacked private property in the form of “land use” restrictions and attacks on sexually oriented businesses – but I am convinced from his actions during this crisis that at some level he is pro-reason, pro-individual, and pro-free market.

· Centerpoint Energy did and is doing an extraordinary job of restoring power, reconnecting half a million customers within two days, then incrementally expanding coverage by about 100,000 per day. This company, with its expertise at maintaining the infrastructure of a complex power grid, has organized skilled workers and machinery in a truly remarkable effort analogous to a military campaign. Bringing in linemen from across the state, the country and even from Canada, staging them in 24-hour-per-day shifts, fueling their trucks, feeding and housing them, organizing their effort in a rationally hierarchy of restoration (attack that part of the problem which affects the most customers first, then the next most customers, etc.), is a truly gargantuan effort of productive achievement.

Here are some of the deeper philosophical lessons to be drawn from the above:

· Man’s life depends on modern industrial civilization, with its complex chain of production, its reliance on machinery and chemicals and oil drilling and roads – all the disruptions to raw “nature” that the environmentalists are continuously complaining

· Man’s mind, used rationally to solve the problems of life, is the fundamental means of survival, not welfare handouts. An extraordinary amount can be achieved by individual effort with or without government aid. In fact, comparing Houston to New Orleans (where government at the city, state and national levels was predominantly in the position of responsibility) is a textbook experiment in the differences between the two types of aid, and their consequences. As one concrete illustration, consider that three years after Katrina New Orleans is still not rebuilt and that the media report that 2300 homes that have been rebuilt are built below the physically necessary elevation to survive another flood. Only a welfare-type mentality, confident that government will once again bail him out of the risk taken by rebuilding irrationally, would act in such a way.

· Government aid is quite possibly dispensable, even the short duration emergency type aid everyone has come to expect, if industry with its motive of profit and its knowledge and capability in this complex causal sequence is permitted to act
without restrictions.

· The truly gargantuan achievements referred to above with respect to Centerpoint Energy, but equally applicable to the fuel suppliers, the grocery chains, the tree-clearing companies, the roofers, the home-supply stores, the trucking industry, is unusually visible in an emergency like this (although even there, as the media interactions with Mayor White suggest, such visibility requires a conceptual approach, not staring blankly at brute facts without integration). What most people don’t realize is that this is the achievement industry engages in each and every day. This entire complex causal chain is something that is enacted on a daily basis and keeps the food on our tables, the water flowing from the tap, and the cars moving. And it is enacted on a daily basis in every other industry, such as communications,
construction, entertainment and finance, to the extent that these industries are left free to operate without government controls.

Were these the lessons grasped by the intellectuals and media spokesmen? Initially, it was difficult to know what the rest of the country was saying about Houston because we were under a storm-imposed blackout in which only the three local stations were broadcasting. However, even comparing these three stations and their broadcasts shows important differences in interpretation and philosophical perspective.

By far the best station is KHOU channel 11. This station repeatedly emphasized the issues of production and the causal sequence, admiringly broadcasting stories about the complex organizational chain to bring necessities to Houstonians, and the men and women who were engaged in this process. The other two stations were starkly different. At the bottom of the list is KTRK channel 13, which broadcast stories in “investigative reporter” mode, attempting to uncover conspiracies in what government and others were doing that caused them to not get Houston on its feet fast enough according to the station’s timetable. Its main investigative reporter, Wayne Dolcefino, asked “what don’t they want us to know” when officials understandably blocked reporters (along with everyone else) from going to the Bolivar Peninsula, a hard-hit area of Galveston Island that needed to be kept clear while search and rescue crews combed the area for survivors.

In the middle of the heap but not particularly higher than channel 13 was KPRC channel 2, which didn’t stoop as low as channel 13 but spent a good bit of its air coverage emphasizing a few glitches (which did exist) in the setting up of the PODs, calling them “huge disconnects.” Neither of these other two stations came close to the level of understanding of the production chain as did channel 11.

At the national level, the interpretations could be seen once the blackout was lifted by the return of power and internet connectivity. At first it was a shock to see that Houston was not at the very top of every national report, in fact it had a very small place. We had been immersed in the emergency so fully for so many days that it took a little reorientation to realize that it isn’t the only thing going on in the world. In fact, this is perfectly appropriate approach to reporting.

Emergencies aren’t the essence of life. They are temporary life-threatening situations that at worst threaten a small segment of any country’s population. After the initial shock, it was refreshing to read about what was going on in sports, financial markets, the election and foreign affairs (not that the news in any of these areas was particularly good, with the possible exception of sports, depending on which teams you support). The reports, from the New York Times, Reuters, and others, were factual and sometimes alluded to the points identified above, in a limited way. On the other hand, after the first few days when the emergency was acute, the national media coverage faded to an almost insignificant amount considering that the fourth largest city in the country was still struggling to get back on its feet. The normal recovery of a city of rational individuals and industrial workers, laboring to restore their lives, loses its luster to those in the media who want the drama of chanting crowds, with scenes of homeless people asleep on cots in large stadiums.

One cannot but speculate that at least part of the reason the national media coverage is so limited and matter of fact (especially compared to their unending, monotonous coverage of the New Orleans Katrina aftermath) is that Houston is just not helpless enough for their world view. Certainly, the plentiful material for philosophical implications was barely reported in the national media. Nor were any such implications drawn. An emergency, which highlighted the fundamental issues in human survival, and which afforded a richly outfitted laboratory for philosophical insight, became just another 2nd page story, and hence a missed opportunity.~

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