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Feature Article - October 13, 2005

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October 13, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

Hitting the Wall

by Gray Merriam

‘Hitting the wall’ is a popular phrase for suggesting the worst consequences of uncontrollable problems with the interactions of our environmental-economic-social-political systems. David Suzuki uses it a lot.

The recent sequence of Katrina and then Rita hitting New Orleans and the Gulf coast of Texas gave us a taste of ‘hitting the wall’.

The short-sightedness of letting a vibrant city grow below sea level, wedged between a lake and the delta of a major river was brought home when levees failed. About 80 percent of the residents had never been outside New Orleans, they were not rich, and even if they were, they had no place to go and no way to get there. Homeland Security bureaucracy was no help.


When Rita veered into part of the refinery belt of the Gulf coast, she showed what happens even when the residents do have money, a car, and someplace to go. Heading inland, many were stopped by jammed highways and many more just ran out of gas and there was none.

The global economic system had dictated that the number of refineries in the U.S., and in Canada, be allowed to decline ever since the1970-80’s peak. But since then, the demand for gas had increased both for private cars and for delivery trucks, outpacing the refineries capacity to meet the demand The economic system did not demand more refineries until the hurricanes knocked out some and the people's need for fuel peaked twice in a short period.

Not only were refugees unable to move but the modern business mode called ‘delivery just in time’ also failed. No deliveries were possible; merchants had adopted the new mode so they no longer warehoused much stock. The trucks were stopped and the local supply of goods went to nothing in hours to days.

The socio-economic system also failed profoundly. Canadians in Hartland, New Brunswick were dropping coins into boxes in Tim Horton’s under signs that promised the money would go to the Canadian Red Cross to support victims of hurricane Katrina. Maritimers and others with not so much cash were trying their best to help refugees in the richest country in the world. As Canadians saw it, their economic system and/or their priorities had failed and they needed our help.

The economic system had distributed resources, not to those with the greatest need, but only so that profits were maximized. The economists’ definition of ‘efficiency’, the distribution of goods according to the consumers’ demands, does not refer to need or to social service. Corporate bankers were reportedly debating the best way to profit from the catastrophe. Capitalize on the death and destruction phase or profit from the rebuilding to come. The economic system was not serving the people.

Environmental issues, such as the thousand square mile dead zone carved out of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems by the everyday toxic plume of the Mississippi, and others, were set aside almost completely in the face of these more pressing disasters. And, with rising gas prices, how will the U.S. Senate, and the President, be able to give any serious consideration to NOT drilling for petroleum in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the critical calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd?

These all are signs of a very unstable system--the one that runs much of North America’s affairs. But the image we get from ‘hitting the wall’, that of the test car hitting the wall and smashing the dummy, probably is too simple and too sudden. A more appropriate image may be one of our global civilization being carried along a trajectory into a funnel. As incidents of instability such as the ones we have had recently affect us, we glance off the funnel’s wall. As we ricochet off the funnel wall more frequently, we become ever more frequently unstable. And so our clear path becomes narrower. Narrowing because resources will become more limited, our consumption will increase, and our interacting systems will become more strict in their tolerable limits. Think of the size of our culverts and the height of our bridges as the variation in weather becomes more extreme and we get more frequent extreme storms. Many other parts of our environmental, our economic, our social and our political systems will face similar troublesome limits as we travel down that imaginary funnel. What if we chance to receive the simultaneous influences of rising sea levels because of global climate change, together with a global epidemic of a new strain of flu, another terrorist attack, and two quickie class four hurricanes landing in the Gulf coast refinery patch? All real recent events. Will our systems of global economics, of democracy for export, of weak-kneed environmental protection, and of torn social safety nets be able to handle such a destabilizing confluence of disasters?

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