Letter to ISE community from Jonas Ben Telson

To my friends and comrades at the ISE,

I am writing from the Ramón González Coro Maternity Hospital in Havana, Cuba. The tedious job of monitoring expectant women near or in labor is relegated to fourth-year medical students like me. On this uneventful night I am passing the time reading downloaded news articles from Democracy Now and the New York Times, trying my best to keep updated on world events despite residing in the least-connected country in the Americas with the second-slowest bandwidth in the world.

The last four-and-a-half years that I have been living disconnected on this Caribbean isle  have spanned the time in which many world-changing events have occurred: the election of Obama, the earthquake in Haiti, the rise of the Tea-party, the rise of Wikileaks, the uprisings in the middle-east, and the ever-growing barrage of consequences from global climate disruption. The latest bombshell is, of course, the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan. As I struggle to grasp the meaning of such an event, the words of Uruguay’s beloved Eduardo Galeano come to mind: “Natural disasters? In a world that has the habit of condemning the victims; nature is blamed for the crimes committed against her”.

A month ago, I stood in front of tribunal of professors, defending my final paper for my Disaster Medicine course. My evaluation, hastened by an end-of-a-long-day impatience, came down to just one question: “Can a disaster be prevented?” The answer in the Cuban literature is an affirmative: . Our textbook reminds us (in a classic Spanish run-on) that “a disaster is never a natural phenomenon in itself, but rather the consequence of the impact that a determined phenomenon, be it of natural or technological origin, has on a society…” From this standpoint disasters can always be reduced if not prevented; their magnitude directly related to the risks created by the society and indirectly to the society’s preparation and response. This, of course, leads the way to a broad discussion of which kind of society is most vulnerable to a disaster.

Of course, this nuance is lost in most of the mainstream commentaries that would rather pander to the knee-jerk reaction: “Yes indeed, the apocalypse is on its way.” A strange mixture of the religious Right and neo-luddite primitivists are smugly delighted by what they see as the fruition of their prophecy. Only in the alternative media do we get thoughtful analysis. Communalism has recently published Brian Tokar’s insightful article, Toward Utopia or Apocalypse?, which denounces such deterministic fatalism while putting forth the idea that perhaps a brighter future is possible. He suggests “the climate crisis, along with the continuing meltdown [pun appreciated though not intended] of the neoliberal economic order of recent decades, can indeed help us envision a transition toward a more harmonious, more humane and ecological way of life”.

My fear is that this event will come to be known as the Chernobyl of my generation (it seems that the comparison is already being made). I don’t deny the obvious parallels, but what worries me is that this event enters the Western consciousness as just another cliché of the modern age: The world recoils from the terrible disaster, the reporters report, bloggers blog, the nagging environmentalists put on their best I-told-you-so face, and six months later the public has forgotten all about it.

Has anyone thought about Haiti recently? From all accounts they are worse off now than this time last year. So, is this initial outrage concerning Japan and use of nuclear energy doomed to subsequent amnesia as well? Or can meaningful change be spurred on the heels of paroxysmal catastrophes? Despite my inner cynicism, I’m going to rally behind the latter. The problem, after all, is not that we can’t effectively take advantage of a disaster to spur the movement towards a different kind of society, but that we come to be dependent upon such events to put forth our ideas.

Well, my hope is that we few and daring social ecologists can take the helm and steer the course of the current dialogue. We have seen the German government’s response, we have heard from the governor of Vermont and from Ralph Nader, but now our voices must be heard. And, later when others lose strength and falter we must become the driving force that keeps alive this new awareness. I urge my comrades to speak up and make a scene. What better time than now? What better place than here?

In solidarity,

Jonas Ben Telson


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