Saturday, February 28, 2009

Smirking at Volcanoes

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal raised eyebrows a few days ago when he poked fun at the U.S. government’s interest in volcanoes. He picked it out as an item for his short list of examples of what he considered wasteful spending. That was not just a self-serving comment from the governor of a state that doesn’t happen to have volcanos. Jindal’s smirk was not just a way of showing indifference to the people who might be harmed by volcanic eruptions and the related problem of earthquakes in places like Alaska and California. It represented the worst problem in American politics these days — the “What’s in it for me?” attitude that sees government as a profit opportunity, a chance for personal gain, rather than a chance to work together for the good of people collectively.

Jindal can laugh at volcanoes, and say in so many words, “I don’t care if California falls into the sea,” but people who follow his example may turn around and say, “I don’t care if Louisiana falls into the sea.” A country like the United States can’t work unless policy discussions start from a basic feeling that we are in it together. Essentially, Jindal can’t join the national policy discussions in a way that means anything as long as he is looking at the country’s volcanoes and thinking of them as “those volcanoes,” or as “not my problem.”

To change this, Jindal only needs to change his point of view. It is almost as simple as mentally changing “those” to “these,” “that” to “this.” I am sure if Jindal were to visit one of the country’s active volcanoes, then visit one of the towns or cities nearby, he would never again be able to smirk when the subject of volcanoes came up.

When you learn about them or see then up close, volcanoes are fearsome and nothing to laugh at. The city of Pompeii was famously destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79. More recently, in 1980, a catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens caused widespread damage across Washington and spread volcanic ash to 10 other states. Seismologists are doing better than ever at predicting volcanic events, and have succeeded on a few occasions in forecasting major eruptions long enough in advance to safely evacuate the surrounding area. To the extent that they can do that, the economic benefit is enormous. One can debate the extent of government resources that should be brought to bear on seismic activity. But to just say “volcano monitoring” and chuckle, as Jindal did, doesn’t count as engaging in a discussion of policy.