Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dodging Disaster

Dodging disaster was one of the recurring themes of 2012. This was nowhere more apparent than in New Orleans. A major hurricane with the potential to flatten half the city came by, but passed by downstream, missing New Orleans by five miles. Something similar could be said two months later in New York City, which took major damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but it could have been much worse if the hurricane had turned toward land four hours later. Loss of life in New Jersey could have been much worse but for a well-coordinated evacuation. When this storm passed by my own house, there were frightening winds, but the trees that might have damaged the house had they fallen had been cut down three months earlier.

Dry weather in the middle of North America cut corn production by about one fifth, but that came within a couple of thunderstorms of wiping out twice as much of the crop and creating spot food shortages. In all, more than half of U.S. counties were official disaster areas at some point during the year, something that had never happened before.

And that was just the weather. We started out the year worried about whether Iran might blow up the Persian Gulf. That didn’t come to pass, and throughout the year, there were more reasons to thank our lucky stars for political disasters in the making that either passed by harmlessly or stayed more contained than seemed possible.

On top of all that, of course, there was the Hollywood prediction that the world would end in a fiery planetary collision on December 21. That was the last date in an ancient Mayan calendar, and though there were credible prophecies of lasting changes occurring around this time, the end of the world was not one of them. It was just something for people to worry about, and to an extent, people did.

Obviously, dodging disasters one after another is not a healthy long-term strategy. It is a sign of a weak foundation. When we put our faith in low-lying roads, glitchy mail servers, uninspected food supplies, and everything else that is just good enough to stand up, we can only expect that things have to go wrong, and often. It is a kind of wardrobe malfunction: too much of the fancy hats and not enough of the sturdy shoes.

Changing that, though, is easier said than done, and in the meantime, the more times we can steer clear of the damage, the more easily we may get to the point where we don’t have to be so frequently concerned about unexpected events.