The Thin Veneer of Civilization

David S. White

Principal of the Law Firm of David S. White & Associates, West Los Angeles, specializing in litigation, arbitration and mediation of real-estate-related disputes and litigation since 1977; www.dswlawyers.com


“The thin veneer of civilization,” Edgar Rice Burroughs, describing man’s inner savage, The Return of Tarzan (2d in the Tarzan series) (1912).

Recent major storms and their after-effects – NY and NJ after Sandy; Joplin, MO after tornados; Katrina in New Orleans; the Philippines recent mega-typhoon Haiyan; Atlanta, GA this past week, after only a 2 inch snowfall – remind us of how little it takes to penetrate the thin veneer of civilization, revealing the utter chaos of human affairs beneath.

Living, as we do, in a state crisscrossed by fault lines, the potential collapse of civilization after a disaster event is far more than an academic hypothetical.   For us in California, it is like asking about hard drive failures on your computer – it is a question of ‘when,’ and not ‘if.’  We are told that we are past the point where the San Andreas Fault should have seriously ruptured again, producing the dreaded “Big One,” as it did last in 1906, destroying a good part of San Francisco.

Viewing the Atlanta snow storm situation this past week, our 24/7 Talking Heads Media treated us to a few mornings’ stories of people trapped in their vehicles for 20+ hours, children sleeping on their school buses or in their schools, and highways full of abandoned cars and trucks when plowing did not keep pace with ice and the snow fall.  Atlanta is a place where the snow does not often fall, and it proved itself woefully inequipped to deal with what cities further north might regard as a mild snowfall.  In Atlanta, employees and school children were all sent home before lunch-time onto unplowed, and not ready streets, and the Mother of all Gridlock promptly ensued.  It happened also in Birmingham, AL.

In NY and NJ, power outages in some areas after Sandy lasted for weeks.  Our entire lives are now computerized.   In less than a generation’s time, computers went from being hobbyists’ playthings to our entire society becoming wholly dependent on them for absolutely everything we use and need in modern life.   Almost all of us now walk daily with our noses buried in smartphones, smart tablets.  Our days are filled with all manner of electronics, from our flat screen TV’s to our kitchen appliances to every modern car on the road today.   Life, as we have come to know it in the 21st Century, would unwind in far less than a day’s time should the looming threat materialize of massive power outages, such as, if (not when) all three sectors of our incredibly outdated North American electrical grid were to crash – because of terrorism, or solar flares, or simply because the old, tired hopelessly outdated and cobbed together infrastructure finally gives out.

It has happened before, in what is called a Carrington Event, in 1859, when a monster geomagnetic solar storm crashed telegraph offices in Europe and North America, shocking telegraph operators and causing chaos in a much simpler world of communications than today’s.

What maintains that ‘thin veneer of civilization,’ is our ability as a society to respond effectively to disasters.  That ability, as we have seen in Atlanta, and in NY and NJ responding to Sandy’s wrath, and many other places – like the Philippines, after their recent mega-typhoon Haiyan – is not nearly as robust as we think it is.  Remember after Hurricane Katrina, those horrific video images of tens of thousands of people hunkered down inside and around the Superdome, with dead bodies simply on the sidewalks like so much garbage, for days before those people could be resettled?  Recall how after the LA Riots of the early 90’s, or after the Northridge earthquake, also of the early 90’s, you realized that at some point, you were on your own and the police and fire departments might just be too busy to come if you needed them?

When was the last time you read a book , or saw a movie, about the future which was not a gloom and doom portrayal of Armageddon, or a society which had crumbled into chaos?

Of all the jobs of government, I imagine we could find consensus (even among the most budget thrifty of us) that its most important, #1 role is to provide for the well-being and safety of it’s citizens.  When government does not do so effectively, we have an Atlanta situation where parents wait helplessly all night because their children cannot get home from school, and where people who left work at lunch time were stuck on the road 24 hours later when the next lunch time came.  When government does not do its job effectively, we have the aftermath to Katrina or Sandy, with blocks and blocks of untended, devastated neighborhoods where, until the disaster, civilization had flowered.

We need to face up to the fact that we are not prepared adequately for the spectrum of disasters which we possibly face – some being ‘if, not when,’ like earthquakes and firestorms (the latter in particular as we suffer what we are told is a record drought for California) others – like a pandemic flu, a solar storm, an earthquake, failure of our electrical grid – being more in the Act of God category.  After watching Japan’s earthquake and tsunami of Spring 2011, we know that Japan and its power company, TEPCO, have not handled the radiation escaping in a manner to avoid radiation pouring into the Pacific, which it continues to do.  Yet, the very same nuclear reactors involved there, do domestic energy-producing duty in many places right here in America – reactors which were designed for 25-year lifespans, but whose active lives are being pushed further and further out by tweaking regulations.  Indian Point, the nuclear power plant just north of New York City, if it were to experience a Fukushima-style meltdown, would present the interesting, and quite hopeless, question of how to evacuate 8-10 million people.

We are experiencing changes in climate.  The vast majority of scientists now agree that these changes, though still not yet thoroughly understood, have been exacerbated by all the CO2 that we have pumped into our atmosphere since the early 1800’s, when the Industrial Age first began.  These changes are bringing about, or at least contributing to, weather extremes, both hot and cold.  The recent several instances of Arctic Vortices, causing what should be winds circling the North Pole to dip way down into the Midwest of the US, are a chilling, deathly reminder that unusual things are happening.   While California enjoys a mysteriously balmy and shockingly dry Winter, Americans in the Midwest and North East and Atlantic states have endured several bouts now of sub-zero temperatures, with wind chill factors appropriate for Antarctica in Winter, and the ever-present risk of frostbite should they venture outside and expose bare skin.

These changes are now painfully obvious, yet our increasingly dysfunctional government can agree on doing very little about strengthening our disaster responses and our disaster preparedness.  And, we are seeing on our TV’s, right in our own homes, daily, the direct results of being unprepared, and it is ugly.  Making government do its #1 job, to keep us safe and protect us in disasters, should not be a political issue – it is a human issue, a fundamental right of every citizen, and it is being wholly ignored, at our peril, in a different kind of storm, the storm of political discord which has seized Washington and many of our states these past few years.

David S. White, Principal of the law firm of David S. White & Associates, West Los Angeles, specializing in litigation, arbitration and mediation of real-estate-related disputes and litigation since 1977.

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