Civilisation: dry clean only

Recent events have made me realise how thin the veneer of civilisation is.

New Orleans, a major city (albeit a poor and geographically disadvantaged one) in the United States, the richest and one of the most developed countries of the world, has been devastated by nature. It is quite possible that much of the damage could have been avoided if the levees had been stronger; if they had been built up in preparation for a foreseeable disaster, which a hurricane definitely is in that part of the world.

However, even though one can mitigate against natural disasters, they are fundamentally impossible to prevent. What’s really shocking is how quickly the city has lost law and order, and how easily people have regressed into criminality and open urban warfare.

More shocking still is the US government’s devastatingly incompetent handling of the matter. They have been slow to react and still appear to have no coherent plan to cope with a growing disaster. I watched ITV news this evening. All four of their correspondents (three in the Gulf, one in Washington) were scathingly critical of the ineffective official efforts, and visibly moved by the suffering they had witnessed: hunger, dehydration, panic, and despair. I hope that at least some of the American stations are disseminating the same information.

President Bush incautiously allowed himself to be photographed playing a guitar when he should have been paying attention to more important business. Yes, I know it’s a matter of perception, but the comparison with Nero fiddling while Rome burned is hard to avoid.

Something that is also a matter of perception is the scarcity of fuel. “A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on.” Mark Twain hadn’t seen the internet, though, with its amazing capability to disseminate rumour at the speed of light, or electrons in a cable, which isn’t much slower. At times like this, the psychological carrion crows of the world seem to enjoy spreading disinformation. Supply chains are such that even the suggestion of a shortage can cause panic buying; this actually does deplete reserves, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is indeed a scarcity in some places, and refinery output in the US has dropped, but it shouldn’t be critical. But when the POTUS goes on television and says, “Don’t buy gas if you don’t need it”, he might very well not be helping matters. Something tells me that a genuine, widespread oil shortage in the US would not be a pretty sight.

The rapid deterioration of order in New Orleans gives an insight into how and why Iraq has done the same. Granted, the stimulus in Iraq was different, but a relatively well-developed and civilised country turned anarchic very quickly. The comparison with New Orleans shows why the strategy of removing the entire government and law enforcement system of Iraq led to the collapse of social order in so many places.

The equilibrium between civilisation and anarchy is always ready to tip toward chaos. If the much-portended human-to-human-transmissible bird flu epidemic actually materialises, it could have widespread consequences above the obvious medical aspects.