Smaller government, smaller dreams, smaller people

The Weather Channel last night failed in its duty to help me drift off to sleep, instead showing a fascinating documentary on the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

I was dimly aware of the historical fact that such a storm had occurred, and recalled seeing it at the top of those grim lists of American natural disasters, but I hadn’t ever heard a complete telling of this story. And I had never been even dimly aware of the remarkable story of what Galveston, Texas, did to rebuild after the devastation of that Great Storm.

As it happens, among the items in my newsreader this morning was this story on a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute: “Poll: Most in U.S., except evangelicals, see no divine sign in disasters“:

Nearly six in 10 evangelicals believe God can use natural disasters to send messages — nearly twice the number of Catholics (31%) or mainline Protestants (34%). Evangelicals (53%) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll found that a majority (56%) of Americans believe God is in control of the earth, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38% of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29%) has less support.

That 29 percent — close to the baseline crazification factor — still apparently believes in the abusive-parent God with really bad aim. Sigh.

So Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are still with us. Still foolishly wrong, but still with us after all these thousands of years. The book of Job does such a thorough job of mocking this view into silence that it’s a wonder it still lives on. Yet apparently it does.

I would invite the 38 percent who believe God dispenses judgment through natural disasters to read this account of The Sisters of Charity Orphanage and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900:

More than 6,000 men, women and children lost their lives. Among the dead were 10 sisters and 90 children from the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum, operated by the Sisters of Charity. …

At the orphanage, the children and sisters heard the crash of the boys dormitory as it collapsed and was carried away by the flood waters.

The sisters cut the clothesline rope into sections and used it to tie the children to the cinctures which they wore around their waists. Each Sister tied to herself between six to eight children. … Eventually the dormitory building that had been the sanctuary for the children and sisters was lifted from its foundation. The bottom fell out and the roof came crashing down trapping those inside.

Only three boys from the orphanage survived: William Murney, Frank Madera and Albert Campbell. Miraculously all three ended up together in a tree in the water. After floating for more than a day, they were eventually able to make their way into town where they told the sisters what had happened at the orphanage. One of the boys remembered a sister tightly holding two small children in her arms, promising not to let go.

The sisters were buried wherever they were found, with the children still attached to them. Two of the sisters were found together across the bay on the Mainland. One of them was tightly holding two small children in her arms.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar would say that those 10 sisters and the 90 orphans lost in the storm had it coming for some reason. That is why the Bible regards Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar as fools.

More astonishing, and just as moving, was the end of this documentary on the Galveston Hurricane — the account of the city’s audacious plan to rebuild and the execution of that plan. This story is inspiring and depressing.

It’s inspiring because they did this — real people really did this. They built a 17-foot-tall seawall along the Gulf side of the island.

And then they raised the entire city.

More than 500 city blocks. They raised it 17 feet higher nearest the seawall, gradually sloping downward from their all the way to the other side of the island. This involved jacking up every building in the city — mostly by hand. That included a massive stone church, which they lifted with mulepower. Then, with hundreds of buildings raised up to the proper height according to their location in the slope, they pumped in more than 16 million cubic yards of sand and slurry from the shipping channel in the Gulf.

This was an amazing feat of engineering and muscle, accomplished more than 100 years ago with hardly any of the technology we would employ if we were ever to attempt such a thing today.

And that’s the depressing part. We would never attempt such a thing today. We’re no longer capable of pulling it off. We’re no longer capable of even trying.

Consider this account of the rebuilding and re-engineering of Galveston. Consider the scope and audacity of the project — the cost, the labor, the years it took. Does any American city, or America itself, still have the courage, vision or capacity to attempt such a thing? I don’t know. I doubt it.

We seem to have become a small-minded people obsessed with smaller government, smaller visions, smaller aspirations — a crimped, cramped people from whom it seems unimaginable to expect or ask for this kind of hard work and investment and long-term foresight.

Here is Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang, concluding an excellent, helpful post about the perils of nuclear energy by placing those dangers in their proper context:

We have lots of good reasons to be appropriately afraid of [nuclear power]. The problem with energy and the environment — as I see it — is that we aren’t afraid enough of coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which are worse for the environment than nuclear. …

But if I were in charge, and I had my choice of how to power the world, what would I do? … Let’s take a good look at what solar panels are actually out there. The best ones can get about 19 percent of the incident solar energy converted into electricity. At sea level, that means about 19 percent of 700 Watts for every square-meter of solar panels we have.

See the “A” on the map above? Make a solar array about that size — 35 miles by 35 miles — and you can power the entire United States. Period. Day or night, winter or summer, rain or shine. No emissions, no pollution, no risk of radiation, no dependence on oil, coal, gas, no damage to the environment.

And if we did it — if we invested in it and made it happen — I think it would fix a huge number of our domestic problems: the economic ones, the employment ones, the manufacturing ones, etc.

But that’s never going to happen. Won’t even be tried.

We have better tools than the rebuilders of Galveston had. We know more. And we are far, far wealthier as a nation. But we seem to lack their courage, their will, their vision and their determination to make the world better.

We seem to have become a shallow, convenience-obsessed people supporting the kind of shallow, convenience-obsessed leadership that will allow us to lead shallow, convenience-obsessed lives uninterrupted by concern for the future or any attempt to be better than that.

It’d be really cool if we did or at least tried to do something to prove me wrong about that.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “What we need to do is stop having so many kids. China had the right idea, though the method, coercion, is appalling. The result is fewer mouths to feed (far fewer, since so many Chinese still insist that their one baby be a boy), fewer to need gas and electricity, fewer to use the limited resources available. IMO anyone who has more than two kids is the problem. I don’t advocate China’s methods, but that means each individual has to choose to have less than three kids. If you are not willing to do this, do not talk about being “Green”.”
    I think three would be fine, but an average of only slightly more than two is a generally good idea… of course, it wouldn’t be massively wrong to have more than 3… especially after resources get sorted.

    That said, the average birthrate in the ‘Western World’ already *is* around 2. The population stress is in the 3rd world, which doesn’t use nearly as many resources – in part because they have less – overpopulation is relative, and the current boom is just that – a boom. That said, when the developing nations finally *do* develop, the resource demand will increase substantially – we’ll need a new energy source, at least.

    “The people on that generation ship, now they’ve got all their eggs in one first-adopter basket…”
    They’d have the resources to upgrade and repair… for a while, at least…

  • Caravelle

    IMO anyone who has more than two kids is the problem.
    Why two ? It can’t be because you’re concerned about replacement : tons of people prefer to be childless or have only one child or are for some reason unable to produce children. So if replacement is at all an issue then many people will have to have more than two children.

    And if replacement isn’t an issue (it’s not like we’re in any danger of running out of people after all. Age pyramid concerns might come up though) then there’s no reason why the cutoff number for problematic child-having people should be “two” instead of, say, “one”.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Why do we need to replace ourselves? Couldn’t we say that there are already too many people. If we could find a painless way to reduce the population wouldn’t we be happier with more to go around and less trauma to the earth?

  • Caravelle

    Why do we need to replace ourselves?

    Where did I say we did ?

  • Thalia

    @Froborr–Too late, answering what you said five days ago, but I’m sure the issue will come up again,”If you are correct that any increases in efficiency will result immediately in increased consumption (and it is really not at all clear if this is a universal truth of human behavior or a product of our current culture), …”

    Reading Daniel Quinn gave me some reason to think that efficiency (as a form of increased supply) resulted in increased consumption, based on all life forms trying to reproduce to the limits of their available growth. I don’t know how well that’s stood up, but I see he has some links on YouTube, so maybe I’ll go see what he’s said lately.

    “…then our environmental problems are not solvable.” Oh, I hope not. I hope, and still think, it’s finding the fulcrum to which to apply our lever.

  • Thalia

    @Froborr–Too late, answering what you said five days ago, but I’m sure the issue will come up again,”If you are correct that any increases in efficiency will result immediately in increased consumption (and it is really not at all clear if this is a universal truth of human behavior or a product of our current culture), …”

    Reading Daniel Quinn gave me some reason to think that efficiency (as a form of increased supply) resulted in increased consumption, based on all life forms trying to reproduce to the limits of their available growth. I don’t know how well that’s stood up, but I see he has some links on YouTube, so maybe I’ll go see what he’s said lately.

    “…then our environmental problems are not solvable.” Oh, I hope not. I hope, and still think, it’s finding the fulcrum to which to apply our lever.

  • Guest

    “I don’t advocate China’s methods, but that means each individual has to choose to have less than three kids. If you are not willing to do this, do not talk about being “Green”.”

    No. It is completely possible to be Green without policing other people’s reproductive choices. A good starting place would be this essay http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2011/02/global_population_speak_out.php#more by a sustainability activist who happens to have four children.

  • Anonymous

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

    On the contrary, it is Big Business who has neither heart nor mind, only greed and grasp. Government is quite capable of long term planning, but corporations aren’t. They can’t afford to do long term planning because forgoing present profit for future profit is considered irresponsible in their screwed-up viewpoint.

  • Anonymous

    In a democracy, the government IS The People. Yes, we rely on the government too much, but it’s a damn site more reliable than corporations. It’s the government’s job to keep up infrastructure — that’s what we form a government for. The reason government is too strapped to do infrastructure now is because all of the “lower taxes, smaller government” people’s influence.

  • Anonymous

    Lowering the population would help.

  • Anonymous

    If we stop patronizing the big corporations, they will run out of money and fold like a house of cards. Can we?

  • Anonymous

    You are half right. We need to completely restructure our economy. Capital markets have outlived their usefulness. We need a regionally sustainable economy based on worker-owned and worker-run businesses whose purpose is not only profit but good jobs.
    However, we also need to support innovation in sustainable energy: we know from personal experience that no one is helping “garage inventors” make new improvements in solar, wind, or geothermal. Obama’s help for solar is only for companies who already have over a hundred employees — that is, they are not interested in truly new ideas. We are inventing something that will revolutionize solar energy. but we are going to have to hand-make them one at a time.

  • Anonymous

    Why can’t we just kick out all the rich and start over with a country run of the People, by the People and for the People? :-)

  • Anonymous

    Too bad we didn’t learn much from the 1930s. Or have we just forgotten it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1029543253 Benjamin Thomas

    I am a big fan of renewable energy, but the idea powering the US with a solar array the size of that google maps icon is just absolute rubbish. It simply doesn’t work like that. If all the energy for the country came from a single source the induction kicks every time a cloud drifted over would destroy every distribution substation in the country, for a start. To go totally solar would require huge overcapacity dotted around the whole US, a totally new distribution system that would have to be designed and built from scratch (a smart grid) and huge storage facilities like electric mountain in wales to be built all over the place.

    I’m as pro-renewables as they get, but uninformed ridiculosities like this just make the renewables lobby look stupid. The real challenge is much, much tougher.


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