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Among Natural Disasters, a Very Greek Tragedy

When the warnings of the “chorus” go unheeded

By Michael Mountain

There’s a lot we don’t know about tornadoes. While we do know that climate change is leading to higher sea levels, more powerful hurricanes, and, just generally, more extreme weather conditions, we don’t know how it affects tornadoes.

That’s still a mystery.

Climate change predictions suggest that the weather in tornado country will become wetter, which may mean more tornadoes. But other predictions of a warming planet suggest that the jet stream will grow weaker, which could mean fewer tornadoes. We just don’t know.

There’s no question, however, that April was a record-breaker for tornadoes, including 160 reported in one day last week, breaking the previous “super outbreak” of 148 one day in 1974. And of the four biggest tornado clusters ever reported in the United States, two of them occurred last month.

And these tornadoes are just the latest in an ongoing series of extremes of heat, cold, flood and storm that’s now afflicting the whole planet.

But strictly speaking, there’s a difference between disaster and tragedy.

Ironically, at the same time as states like Alabama are reeling from these storms, and as levees are being opened along the Mississippi to relieve potential flood disasters, there’s a serious drought taking place not far away, where parts of Oklahoma are suffering the worst drought on record – worse even than during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In the town of Boise City, which is enduring the longest dry spell since they started keeping records 100 years ago, farmers say that this year’s crops are already doomed.

When we talk of disasters like these, we often refer to them as tragedies. And for anyone caught up in them, the effects are desperately sad. But strictly speaking, there’s a difference between disaster and tragedy.

The word “tragedy” was born in ancient Greece, where poets and playwrights like Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote powerful dramas that involved the demise of a “tragic hero” due to forces beyond his control but very often buried in his own nature and character. King Oedipus, for example, spends his life believing he has the intelligence to outwit the dark prophecy of what will happen to him, only to discover, at the end, that every move he’s made has played into its fulfillment.

Chief among the tragic flaws explored by the Greek poets was hubris, an overreaching arrogance that led people to forget that however powerful, intelligent or strong they might be, we are all subject to natural law – not just the external world of nature, but our own inner nature, too.

At the end of the play, with the tragic hero either dead or rendered a sadder and wiser person, the accounts were settled, both physical and moral, and order was restored to society. For the audience, the conclusion was known as a catharsis, through which they, too, felt purged of their own flaws and shortcomings, and were ready to resume daily life again.

In our own time, we’ve had enough tragic heroes to fill an amphitheater: presidents, politicians, corporations and celebrities who, like those kings and queens of old, are felled by their own tragic flaws and weaknesses.

But on a wider level, we humans, as a species, are the stuff of classic tragedy ourselves – most particularly in our relationship to the world of nature.

As part of nature, we can never ultimately control it; we can only learn to live in harmony with it.

As a society, we’ve come to believe that the Earth and its animals exist largely for our own benefit. In our arrogance, we believe ourselves to be superior to nature, which we see largely as a warehouse of food, entertainment and spare parts for our human convenience.

When oil spews from a well in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a disaster; but when we go drilling for oil in dangerous places and cut corners on safety measures, that’s hubris, and the outcome is tragedy. When an earthquake and a tsunami hit the coast of Japan, it’s a disaster; but when we build nuclear power plants near the fault line and believe them to be invulnerable, that has the makings of tragedy.

As we find ourselves subject to more extreme weather conditions, there are more and more disasters. But when the Congressional delegations of six states badly affected by recent weather disasters vote overwhelmingly (HR 910 and McConnell Amendment 183) to reject the evidence that it’s dangerous to be polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, as they did, that was another example of hubris that has the makings of tragedy.

In the ancient Greek dramas, at the side of the stage stood the proverbial Greek chorus, calling out at key moments to warn of the inevitable outcome.

In today’s world, you could say that the role of the chorus is played by those who are trying to tell the rest of us what’s unfolding, and by the people and organizations who are trying to protect the most helpless among us – innocent humans and other animals – from the havoc we’re wreaking on them.

In the end, just as at the conclusion of every Greek tragedy, natural law will be restored, whatever the cost to the players in the drama. Right now, that drama is just beginning to unfold, and we are beginning to see the consequences of hubris on a global level and the early lessons that will lead to a restored order, a new balance, and perhaps a more respectful relationship to our fellow animals and the world of nature.

As part of nature, we can never ultimately control it; we can only learn to live in harmony with it. Anything else is pure hubris.

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