Friday, September 02, 2005

There is another factor that seems to have contributed to the ongoing catastrophe, besides a weak sense of the public good and the role of governments in it, and perhaps a prejudice or blindness that leads to neglecting the poor and the sick and non-whites. Though it is different from them, it is related.

It is the failure to plan for the future. Star Trek fans are used to seeing Starfleet officers gather in the observation lounge or at Starfleet headquarters to describe an anticipated problem, suggest ways to solve it, debate those solutions and develop a plan. In fact, lots of science fiction films---even not very good ones---often show scientists and government leaders coming together to discuss a future threat and then devote whatever resources are necessary to combating it.

That doesn’t seem to happen often enough in our time. Scientists and engineers have known for years how vulnerable New Orleans is to hurricanes and floods. It’s been written about in the National Geographic and elsewhere. New Orleans lies below sea level; Sebastian Junger (author of “The Perfect Storm”) speaks of the sensation of looking up to see oil tankers on the river above.

The levees protecting the city were built to withstand a category 3 hurricane, when the stronger category 4s are less common but still expected, and the category 5 is always possible. The federal government under the current administration cut back funds to complete needed work on the levees. (This is one possible way the resources devoted to the war in Iraq also was a factor. Most controversial is that nearly half of Mississippi’s National Guard is in Iraq, as is more than a third of Louisiana’s, including the 3,000 member brigade with the kind of equipment most needed now in New Orleans.)

Moreover, other problems were known: for example, the city was protected by outlying wetlands, but as a result of development they have been shrinking and weakening. This exposes the city to more of a hurricane's power.

But what is most tragically apparent is lack of preparation. There apparently were no emergency plans or provisions in place for what scientists said was the most likely natural catastrophe in the US. There especially was no plan, and there were no resources provided, for evacuating New Orleans, other than telling people with the means to leave, when to leave.

Mr. Spock would find this illogical, and it’s likely that most Star Trek fans would agree. But even if a human propensity for denial, and the inefficiencies and illogic of bureaucracy are factored in, the reasons for this failure to plan for the future are still incomplete.

Planning for the future requires more than the know-how and devoting some attention to more than today. Planning for the future requires that you care about the future. It is an act of compassion, not only for people of the present and the present world, but for people in the future. That necessarily means all the people of the future.

This requires commitment to the common good, not only of now, but of the future. It requires commitment to diversity not only of the moment, but of posterity.

This basic principle does not require a leap in human evolution. It may have been the human species greatest advantage. Anticipating the future and planning for it is a chief rationale for human cultures. Even traditional cultures hand down their traditions because they fervently believe this is the way to live and approach the future.

It is, after all, one of the great traditional cultures of America that gave us a profound guide to thinking about the future, in the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee: “In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation to come.”

Anticipating problems and preventing them almost always is less difficult and less costly than trying to rectify the damage. Yet anticipating future problems also means devoting resources in the present to something that may not happen, and therefore may not be necessary. In a present-centered culture, this is very difficult politically.

So in this sense, to go forward is to recover an aspect of cultures of the past. Even now, there may be a residual sense that our leaders and governments should take responsibility for at least preventing predictable near-future catastrophes, and certainly be prepared for emergencies that may never come. Reponse to the New Orleans catastrophe may tell us what this culture expects in its leaders and institutions, in taking responsibility for the common good, and acting responsibly for the future.

But even that is not quite enough. We need to anticipate and plan more positively, for the common good and the common future. This is an important role for Star Trek and Star Trek fans. The future depends on establishing cultures that not only consider the impact of present actions on the future, but actively believe in the future as a value and a priority.

This is a role for Star Trek viewers because they have seen this better future--that is, they have seen what it could be. They have participated in it through the imagination of those who created Star Trek and their own imaginations as viewers. This is also an important process in learning empathy, compassion and concern for the common good, as well as concern for the future. Drama makes the future real now.

If we can create a culture that cares about the future, perhaps our 24th century will also have a vibrant, diverse and connected New Orleans in it, where Starfleet officers can touch earth again, grasp the reality of the human family and the generations, while savoring some Creole cooking created before their eyes, but with an age-old recipe, and ageless care.

1 comment:

Rocket Pistol said...

It makes me sad to think that a person as articulate and thought provoking as yourself is not involved with Star Trek in an official capacity. This catastrophe is the result of our people's failure to show compassion to our poorest citizens before they are on the brink. Star Trek seems to point a way out of this madness and that is what is missing from the "franchise". It needs a powerful guiding visionary offering humanity a better way.

Rocket Pistol