Lessons for the Future


The philosopher George Santayana is perhaps best known for his quote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Of course, the problem is, if we do not know the past, we cannot remember it. And that makes the condemnation even more severe.

The present thought in Congress, especially the House of Representatives, is that all spending other than military and security spending is to be cut and, if at all possible, eliminated. I know what the arguments for doing so are but they seem a little bit short-sighted.

If the House of Representatives had had their way, money for NOAA would have been cut. It is NOAA that oversees the operation of the tsunami warning system. We saw what happened a few years back when money for weather service reconnaissance aircraft was cut; it threatened to remove part of our ability to track hurricanes.

We are on the verge of destroying our educational system under the guise of educational reform. We say that we are holding the system accountable when we insist on test after test in the classroom (I have another post being prepared on that issue). In the end, what we will have is a number of individuals who know things for the moment but don’t know anything tomorrow. And that will make Santayana’s prophecy even more frightening.

Now, let me ask you a question. Where will the next big earthquake strike in the United States? The answer is not California but southeast Missouri near a town called New Madrid. The last really big quake in this area changed the course of the Mississippi River and church bells rang in New York City and Boston.

Now, it is very hard to predict the exact moment of an earthquake or its severity. Recent events tell us that. But we can look at the history and see what it may say about the future. For the New Madrid fault, it appears that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater occurs every 80 years or so (the last one was in 1895). An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 or greater occurs every 200 – 300 years or so. The New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12 was actually a series of some 2000 shocks over a course of 5 months with the greatest having a magnitude of 8.0. (FYI, the Richter scale is logarithmic – a change in 1 unit on the scale, say from 6 to 7, is a ten-fold increase in energy.) (Information on earthquakes in the heartland of America can be found at http://www.scchealth.org/docs/ems/docs/prepare/newMadrid.html and http://www.ceri.memphis.edu/index.shtml.)

Also, I do not believe that the earthquake swarm that has been occurring in Arkansas recently is related to the New Madrid fault but to our lack of understanding about the geology of the area. But again, our lack of understanding is proving to be detrimental to our well-being.

The problem that we are faced with at this moment is that should the New Madrid fault slip anytime soon, we are not prepared for it. There would not be a tsunami like what hit Japan but practically every bridge across the Mississippi River would probably be damaged to point that it would be unsafe to cross. And we have quit using ferries to cross the river and trains don’t use ferries so we would have major, major problems as regarding interstate commerce.

And as we found out after Hurricane Katarina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, we do not have the ability to utilize the National Guard as a first responder since most of the equipment is over in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And if we totally gut the social safety system, as many in Congress so want to do, how will we solve this problem? Even Japan is beginning to suffer under the ability to care for its people because the country’s communication and transportation systems have been devastated. I do not wish to be a prophet of doom but I fear that what is transpiring in Japan right now may very well be an image we might see sometime in the next thirty years in this country. We are not prepared to deal with such a crisis at this time and unless we change our mindset about what our responsibilities as individuals and as a society are, we will not be able to deal with any time soon.

Let us take the lessons of the present and make sure that we have a future.

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