Unprecedented

Reporting from Brooklyn here, post-Frankenstorm, Hurricane Sandy, The Perfect Storm, Storm of the Century (Really? We are only 12 years into this century? Who thought up that insightful moniker?) and the multitude of other names that been coined to describe what just happened from the Caribbean, to the Southern states, to the Jersey Shore, to the New York metropolitan areas, to as far as Ohio. We are on temporary (?) Hurrication here in New York City (another new term–Hurricane + vacation which also holds a deep twist of irony since we New Yorkers are hurrying nowhere as of late…). Kids are out of school for the week, the City in chaos as the transportation system is down and out, and all of us wondering what life will look like once the pieces are picked up and put back together again. Can they be?

The word that has begun to rub me raw is the term used to describe this storm: UNPRECEDENTED. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard that word while watching storm porn (a term my husband and I created to describe the endless news coverage of the storm for days before, the time during, and the days after and how jacked up that news makes you feel), I would own a brownstone in Park Slope by now. A storm like this was UNPRECEDENTED. My god, world, wake up.

Now let me make the important disclaimer here that I am not a scientist. Not in the least. But I READ. A lot. Imagine that.

Coupled with reading, I have a possibly unhealthy obsession with dystopic/apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature. This began right after I became a mother. Correlation? Oh, yes. Suddenly I was responsible for a very small, helpless, and painfully important life and I needed to know how to survive with this tiny life should an epidemic of blindness, disease, crazy fundamentalist government, or mysterious end-of-days happen. I have read every book of this genre that I can find, possibly twice or three times. Some I read annually, as if they are manuals for survival. These books are mostly works of literature, but there’s one non-fiction work that came into my circulation after the Hurricane Irene freak out last year. These texts speak larger truths than most of us would like to believe, and I believe they hold much more than an imagined future within their pages.

In two of the books I read regularly, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood are two novels that occur in overlap to one another about a future society and its end. One of the traits of this future society is that there are storms–large storms–every afternoon. Tornado, hurricane, cyclone-like storms that you must take cover from lest you be killed or seriously injured. They happen after a blazingly hot sun cooks the day. The storms are the new normal of a life post-global warming, when the world has significantly and permanently warmed. In these books, there are deserts in central United States, New York and all Eastern Seaboard cities have been long underwater, and the coasts have moved inland. Does anyone out there believe this won’t or can’t happen?

Which is why this word UNPRECEDENTED just gets my goat. This is our new normal. There was a crazy freak snowstorm at this *exact time* last year that stranded us in Connecticut with four kids and four adults in a house with no heat, electricity, or water. We got out by the grace of homeowners with chainsaws, and we left them behind as they sat and froze for almost two weeks with no power in 18″ of snow. On Halloween. Frankenstorms are far from unprecedented. And it makes me want to scream when I hear it–again and again–as if we are all so stupid that we don’t realize our world is changing. The writing is on the wall, friends, and in the books.

My favorite books of these genres:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. (I swear this woman is an oracle.)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Anyone with a son must read this. What life could look like after its all gone and you’re left with your kid.)

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (The imagined geography of Panem will give you pause.)

Blindness by Jose Saramago (Don’t see the movie. Read the book. He won a Nobel Prize in Literature for good reason.)

1984 by George Orwell (Oh, the terrifying parallels to government today…)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Oh, the terrifying parallels to pharmaceuticals today…)

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Two of the story lines deal with a very feasible yet far future world.)

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley (The one non-fiction work on this list, but it’s a great read about how who we are determines our survival rates.)

Someday, I dream of teaching a class using many of these texts. I have taught The Hunger Games and the students were fascinated by the future geography of the United States. There are dozens of imagined maps of Panem online, so I am guessing that others are fascinated, too. It’s important to have these discussions, to teach the students to think, read, and write critically about this topic, and to prepare for a potentially very different future. There is no manual for this. All we have are books. These events aren’t UNPRECEDENTED in the least–not if you read.

Added: A great op-ed today by Nicholas Kristoff here: Will Climate Change Get Some Respect Now?

Another article: It’s Global Warming, Stupid!

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