Sunday, August 28, 2016

Why Aren’t We More Freaked Out About Louisiana?

Climate change is conditioning us to accept natural disasters as “the new normal.”

Richard Rossi and his four-year-old great-grandson, Justice, wade through water in search of higher ground after their home flooded in St. Amant, Louisiana. (Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters) Click to Enlarge.
Louisiana has been utterly wrecked once again, and all anybody can talk about is how nobody is talking about it.

In the aftermath of flooding in and around Baton Rouge that began two weeks ago, 13 people have lost their lives.  The deluge has destroyed or seriously damaged more than 60,000 homes, and so far more than 100,000 residents have registered for federal assistance.  That last statistic certainly factored into one recent estimate that put flood-related losses at upwards of $20 billion.  Nearly one-third of Louisiana has been declared a disaster area.  (President Obama visited the state on Tuesday.)

It’s being called the worst natural disaster the country has seen since Hurricane Sandy.  And yet—as many have already noted—one of the most remarkable aspects of the calamity is how scant the coverage has been relative to other “major” stories dominating the news cycle over the past two weeks.  While flood victims need much, much more than publicity at the moment, their indignation isn’t misplaced.  If you were forced to wallow through waist-deep water, all the while trying to avoid snakes and alligators and floating coffins, you, too, might wonder why reports of Donald Trump’s campaign staff shakeups or Ryan Lochte’s drunken exploits were knocking your story off the front page or the evening news.

I suppose the culprit here could be classism, or disaster fatigue, or even the peculiar provincialism of so-called coastal media elites.  All have been cited as possible explanations for the difference between how the media have covered other natural disasters and how they’re covering Louisiana.  But I worry that it’s none of these—and that the real explanation for this discrepancy, while less offensive on its face, says something deeply troubling about the way that we’re collectively processing the horrors of climate change.

What if this sort of disaster just doesn’t feel like news anymore?

Psychologists have a word for this:  desensitization.  Put simply, the more we’re exposed to a negative stimulus, the weaker our emotional response to that stimulus becomes over time.  Desensitization is what allows a professional window washer to do his job on the 43rd floor of an office building without panicking, or a surgeon to deal with blood and internal organs all day without feeling queasy.

We want and need certain individuals to achieve a level of desensitization for the work they do, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that desensitization therapy is highly effective in treating phobias and other anxiety-based disorders.  But when an entire culture becomes inured to a negative stimulus, it’s usually cause for alarm.  One measure of a society’s health is its capacity to be shocked by violence, injustice, or depictions of human misery.

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