Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 12, 2005
Katrina's bell tolls for all of us
The fate of the city of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina raises disturbing questions about the future of Western civilization in the coming decades. While New Orleans was flattened and drowned by a natural disaster - aided by scandalously inept preparation and response to a predictable catastrophe - all of Western society faces the unnatural disaster that will arrive when non-renewable resources have been exhausted and our riotous consumerism collapses.
After hurricane Katrina's initial impact, the world witnessed what might have seemed like an apocalyptic made-for-TV movie. Levees collapsed, a major city was under water, the poor huddled in a football stadium and convention centre abandoned without food or water, looters took to the streets, and violence became commonplace. Government, whose most basic purpose is to protect its citizens from outside dangers, was nowhere to be seen for days.
Before it is too late, we need to ask: Is this what the future holds for a society addicted to consumerism when natural resources have all been used up? In some ways, New Orleans was unique. It was a major city built on a highly vulnerable site and, even in normal times, it had a high level of poverty and violence.
But the affluent society is also highly vulnerable. And while we have a high degree of order in society, would order survive when there are no more motor vehicles? How would we cope when food was not being regularly trucked into our cities, our sewer and water systems began to collapse, and we were unable to easily travel to our places of work?
Will people serenely accept an ever-declining standard of living? Or, will the plunge into post-consumerism be like a fall off a cliff because either governments, corporations and the people refuse to accept that the end is near or, when they see it coming, they hoard the last bits of the consumer paradise for themselves?
A hangover of some sort cannot be avoided. But Western society would be better prepared, not only if it looked seriously at economic alternatives, but also strengthened its spiritual, moral and psychological moorings.
Crucial to improving these "soft" foundations of society are strong, stable families. The Compendium of Church Social Doctrine says, "The solidity of the family nucleus is a decisive resource for the quality of life in society, therefore the civil community cannot remain indifferent to the destabilizing tendencies that threaten its foundations at their very roots" (n. 229).
The centrifugal forces weakening the extended family over, say, the last 50 years have been enormous and diverse - high mobility, expanding material expectations, the dependence on cars to carry out any activity beyond the home, sexual freedom, birth control, TV as the main form of entertainment in the home, sexual freedom, day care and widespread divorce.
People can make choices to overcome several of these centrifugal forces. But there must be leadership at a high level in society that says the home should be ruled by sharing and solidarity among generations, and not be the victim of market forces.
So far, the topic of economic and ecological limits (to say nothing of moral limits) has been the forbidden topic. Political leaders will not go near it; businesses only want to focus on growth and expansion.
The Church would seem to be the main body with the capacity to address this issue.
The material limits to expansion, just like the natural threat to New Orleans, are real. We can continue to live in a bubble and pretend the day of reckoning will not come. But if it comes and we are not prepared, we can expect the sort of societal collapse and anarchy that so quickly engulfed New Orleans. But if society has developed a strong spiritual and moral fibre, while we may not avoid mayhem, we may at least mute its worst effects and have a basis for rebuilding from the ashes.
- Glen Argan
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