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Disasters not made in heaven
August 30, 2010 - 5:45pm

President Obama, speaking on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, made the point that the scope of the disaster -- as opposed to the incident itself -- was clearly man-made.

Similar statements have been made about current flooding in Pakistan. And about mudslides in Haiti. And wildfires near Los Angeles. Not to mention obviously human-caused events like bridge collapses, chemical spills, nuclear meltdowns, undersea oil geysers.

Yet, as a society, we seem to be deeply invested in the idea that, while mistakes might have been made, no one was really responsible and (by implication) nothing could (or should) really be done. What we, as an economy, have always done is the only (short-term, private) profit-maximizing course of action, and no other (long-term, societal) benefit-maximizing option was, is, or ever will be available.

Just how ridiculous that is, yet how strongly we insist on believing (or at least acting as if we're believing) it is a subject of The Big Uneasy, a new film by Harry Shearer. Shearer is associated with such entertainments as The Simpsons and (if you're old enough to remember/appreciate it) This is Spinal Tap. But his new movie is deadly serious, and I mean both of those words. As the title implies, it tells of New Orleans, and Katrina, and some of the actions which created the catastrophe. But he also tells of some of the folks who labored long and hard to make that information widely known, and of how their good deeds have not gone unpunished.

I suspect that The Big Uneasy will get shown on many college and university campuses over the next year or so. But I also suspect it will most often be sponsored by a student group as a social/political event, rather than by an academic department/institute/center as an educational one.

I hope I'm wrong on that last bit.


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