I'm occasionally asked to run columns on things I got wrong, so here's a lulu - from exactly twelve years ago in The Daily Telegraph. Hurricane Katrina was, as hurricanes do, a-comin', and the thesis of my piece was that people "relish the opportunity to rise to the occasion".
Well, they didn't, not in New Orleans. Being accustomed to life in a reasonably functioning part of America, I had failed to take into account the kleptocrats and incompetents who run state and local government in the Big Easy, and more broadly the dismal human capital, some of whose most malign and corrupt exemplars - the foul-mouthed Mayor Nagin, for example - rise quite extraordinarily high in the bureaucracy.
On the other hand, my point has been triumphantly confirmed by the response to Hurricane Harvey - where all levels of government and the citizenry at large have indeed risen to the occasion. So maybe I wasn't wrong, but merely right twelve years too soon. Nevertheless, the calm efficiency and public spiritedness are especially welcome after weeks in which "citizen activism" has mostly meant violent mobs trashing their civilizational inheritance up and down the land, and beating up anyone who disagrees while their media cheerleaders turn a blind eye.
My other point still stands. The human spirit still knows how to respond to something sudden dramatic "events", from Dunkirk to Harvey. But the subtler, suppler, remorseless corrosion of, say, the Islamization of Europe or the cultural assault on the entirety of American history is harder to push back against. Here's that column from the United Kingdom's biggest-selling broadsheet on August 30th 2005
If memory serves, the last British hurricane warning was the one delivered - or, rather, non-delivered - by Michael Fish on the BBC: "A lady's just called in to say there's a hurricane. Hur-hur," chuckled Michael dismissively, shortly before it swept in and destroyed all seven oaks in Sevenoaks.
On Sunday, the New Orleans bureau of the National Weather Service, the Met Office's US equivalent, was rather more specific:
Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. All gabled roofs will fail. The majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional. All wood-framed low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. Power outages will last for weeks. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards. The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted. Few crops will remain.
All gabled roofs? All low-rise apartment buildings? All windows? As the weekend wore on, this weather forecast of biblical proportions turned out to be one of the more understated voices of doom. Associated Press reported:
Estimates have been made of tens of thousands of deaths from flooding that could overrun the levees and turn New Orleans into a 30ft-deep toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from refineries, and waste from ruined septic systems.
Not to mention the snakes and crocodiles and all the dead bodies from the city's above-the-ground burial plots. I switched on the television to find one expert speculating on the impact of a vast increase in West Nile mosquitoes on those Gulf Coasters who are HIV-positive. And, if that seems a fairly unlikely combination of factors, how about the scene at the New Orleans Superdome? The last refuge of those trapped in the city, the sports stadium was expected to have its lower two stories flooded, while up above huddled 40,000 people with little light, no functioning bathrooms, no air conditioning and temperatures up in the nineties. That's if the roof holds in the 160mph winds.
Anything else? Only the devastation of a big chunk of the oil industry. The estimated $30 billion economic damage was scheduled to begin with a 20-cent-per-gallon rise at the nation's petrol stations by this weekend.
By the time you read this, it may all have come to pass, and West Nile-infected Aids victims may be swimming through the toxic soup of the flooded French Quarter dodging crocodiles and thousands of corpses. But as the cable news speculation and anticipation wandered off down ever more recherchÃ© byways in the 24 hours before landfall, it occurred to me that these days Harold Macmillan's bit of alleged political wisdom has never been more wrong. Asked what he feared most, Macmillan replied: "Events, dear boy, events." But today in the developed world we don't "fear" events; quite the opposite. It's not that we exactly look forward to them per se, but that we relish the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
And, on the whole, we do. Oh, to be sure, there are always folks who panic, or loot. But most people don't, and many are capable of extraordinary acts of hastily improvised heroism.
I wrote about the phenomenon of "social co-ordination" a few weeks ago apropos the Air France crash in Toronto, and I'm sure there's plenty of it going on in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. "Events" we can cope with. If life were a disaster movie, we'd be fine.
You might recall last year's hilarious eco-doom blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, in which (warning: plot spoiler) a speech by Vice-President Dick Cheney brings on the flash-freezing of the entire northern hemisphere.
I'm not an environmentalist, but I'll take their word for it that that's scientifically possible. If it happens, we'll get over it. In the film, the so-called "money shot" of New York's harbour frozen solid looked to me like a typical February day at the Saguenay fjord in my beloved Quebec. No doubt if you're a commodities broker or an assistant choreographer on Hello, Dolly!, it'd be a bit of a bummer, but you'd be surprised at how quickly you pick up the basics of ice-fishing and snow insulation.
The real problems are the non-events - the things that aren't sudden but gradual, the frog-in-the-slow-boiling-water stuff. It's not just that we don't notice the slow-boil threats, but that, insofar as we do take the long view, we obsess on utterly fictional dangers.
Jared Diamond currently has a bestselling book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. A timely subject, so I bought a copy. More fool me. It's all about Easter Island going belly up because they chopped down all their trees. That's why they're not a G8 member. Same with the Greenlanders, and the Mayans, and Diamond's other curious choices of "societies". Indeed, as the author sees it, pretty much every society collapses because it chops down its trees.
Poor old Diamond can't see the forest because of his obsession with the trees. Russia is collapsing and it's nothing to do with deforestation. Conversely, Diamond's book is a huge bestseller with those who see it as a warning on the perils of excessive consumerism - even though, in fact, America returns land to the wilderness every year, and my own town is far more forested than it was in either 1905 or 1805. Diamond's book couldn't be any loopier than if he'd argued that deforestation of Arabia was responsible for September 11.
So the real test of this hurricane is whether, after the event, there's still the will to tackle the long-term questions. For example, as further refutation of the Diamond thesis, in 1981 America had 315 oil refineries in operation; today, it has 144. Louisiana has 17 of them, operating - pre-hurricane - at capacity. Which is why petrol will be up 20 cents a gallon by the weekend. Why, in the middle of a war centred on unstable petro-tyrannies in the Middle East, is it still politically impossible to upgrade the capacity of the domestic oil industry?
As the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate, mankind has got very good at responding to acts of God. We're not so hot at responding to the acts (political and cultural) of man.
~from The Daily Telegraph, August 30th 2005. As always, Mark Steyn Club members who dissent from Steyn's take should feel free to rain on him all over the comments section.
Speaking of The Mark Steyn Club, tomorrow, Friday, we'll be starting a brand new nightly adaptation in Mark's series Tales for Our Time. If you're not yet a member, there's still time to join in time to hear Part One of this latest crackerjack audio adventure.