Wednesday, July 25, 2007


It could happen. The trouble is that if the Thames did flood, we would be the last to be prepared because media groups like Associated Newspapers have spent so much time commodifying the disastrous aspects of human experience that we simply become inured to it. We do face a range of risks as a species, but the information we get about these is filtered through entertainment and media industries that are frequently contributing to the problem, and who, moreover, make their living from aestheticising disaster. They are incapable of doing otherwise. The daily block headlines and striking images of flood water deliberately mimic those in the Hollywood parent productions. If it can't be commodified (or if it may be politically inconvenient) it doesn't get a look in, as per the destruction at the Japanese nuclear facility after last week's earthquake, which disappeared from the news very quickly.

Catastrophe is only saleable inasmuch as it is an aesthetic object in itself. This is most obvious in docu-dramas, television emergency simulation spectaculars, and in movies, like The Day After Tomorrow, in which the most striking thing is precisely how gorgeous and alluring disaster and its means of destruction happen to be. For example, it may one day be the case that an earthquake in the ocean basin will produce a series of twenty- to forty-foot waves speeding toward the American mainland. Who is to say the first thing you think of wouldn't be that fucking stupid film? Twentieth Century Fox had already succeeded in preemptively capitalising the spectacle of pillars of wind and walls of water devastating American cities long before Katrina made landfall. This is why historical and present context, and sustained attention, is always missing. Few of the news reports about Katrina, for example, really spent much time discussing even what preparations Ray Nagin or the various private enterprises contracted had made, never mind why the aid was being blocked and why the Department of Defense called the city's desperate population an insurgency. They haven't returned to spend much time examining why the victims haven't had their houses rebuilt or their insurance paid out, and why the ethnic cleansing hasn't been reversed. There has been the very occasional nod to the possibility that carbonising the atmosphere could have contributed to causing the disaster, but on the whole it remains a freak accident. There is presumably an effort in some bureacracies to 'learn the lessons', but then there always is. Whatever the lessons are, we won't get to hear much of them: it will be new footage, new angles, shocking photographs, and then the weather.

Meanwhile certain looming threats tend to slip out of sight once the novelty goes out of them. Mike Davis has been warning about the risks from avian flu for a few years now, but it is only transiently placed in the headlines. The H5N1 virus is in fact spreading, and among the infected there is a 60% death rate. There are things that can be done, such as stock up on Tamiflu and similar antiviral drugs, although there are now resistant strains developing. Essentially, a massive international effort is required, and what is being offered is an uneven set of local initiatives based on early warnings systems. We might soon see a repeat of the 'Spanish Famine' (it wasn't particularly Spanish, but Spain reported its incidence more accurately than other countries) which, beginning in September 1918, killed about 20 to 40 million people worldwide and infected about a quarter of the US population. And then the employers will be yapping their heads off because of the high absence rate. But again, we will have been sacrificed in large numbers because we had no input into the response.

We are given no information, or such information as we are permitted to have is either false or extremely vague. Take terror, the most overrated threat to the human species since it was widely believed that masturbation would lead to blindness. America has colour-coded terror alerts, and since 2006, MI5 has operated a similar system based on the words 'Critical', 'Severe', 'Substantial', and so on. Tells us nothing, but it sounds cool. It's an ideal media management tool, a labour-saving device that purports to boil down complex realities (and/or fictions) to a single phrase or colour. We are thus encouraged to adjust our sense of how much we need the state in its punitive and coercive capacity to expand its operations, (even as its meliorative and public service functions are gradually disengaged), on the basis of little actual information. We are not encouraged to do anything, except be more suspicious of the neighbours.

A ubiquitous public understanding of risks and how to handle them is fatal to power, because the sources of these risks are quite commonly embedded in our social structure. In the United States, for example, an exercise called Dark Winter was run in June 2001 by the John Hopkins Centre for Civilian Biodefense. It involved several senior national politicians and former security and intelligence directors. Its findings were perfectly predictable: one was that the political leadership was fairly clueless about how to handle such things as bioattacks; another was that America's healthcare system didn't have the capacity to deal with such eventualities; another was that the response of ordinary people would be key. The latter is very often the case: the response of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 was in some ways a model in disaster-prevention - they stopped the attackers from finding a much better target than a field in Pennsylvania by collectively discussing the situation and then acting decisively. But the broader point is that to understand the risks we live with is not merely to have a handle on the failings of a particular administration. It is to strip away the mostly unnecessary secrecy of official deliberations and planning. This would render us both more effective at dealing with problems and less susceptible to scaremongering. It is also to understand properly the nature of the social world that we are reproducing (and may choose to stop reproducing at some point).