Reading the tea leaves

My Aunt Minnie claimed to be able to read the future in the tea leaves left in the bottom of her china tea cup. I think she was mostly having fun with her nieces. Imagine, however, how valuable and lucrative the ability to see into the future might be. Think of the benefits to society if we could just know ahead of time what was going to happen in the future.

Attempting to foretell the future isn’t a supernatural power. It is a mix of using the logic of actions and reactions, the laws of consequences, intuition and pure luck. I don’t think we do a very good job interpreting the tea leaves given to us.

Take for example, our tendency to blame the disasters that happen around us on Mother Nature. “It was a natural disaster,” we say of hurricanes and floods. We blame the Almighty and classifying bad things that happen as an “Act of God.”  The truth is, many of the disasters which occur every day are neither. They are the result of decisions made by human beings.

If humans are responsible for global warming–and it is the consensus of most scientists is that we are–then are the increasing number of violent weather-related calamities really “Acts of God?” If torrential downpours result in mudslides which bury thousands of people in Bangladesh, is it a “natural disaster” when the people live there because they are poor and have no where else to live? Is it an “Act of God” that their poverty forces them to burn every twig that grows on those hills to cook their food or boil water?

The majority of the damage to New Orleans was not caused by Hurricane Katrina directly, but by the flood that resulted from the failure of the levies around the city. For years, those levies had been studied and inspected and deemed inadequate. Was the devastation incurred by the people of that city really a natural disaster?

It is a lot clearer that the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis was not caused by an act of nature or by God. It was a pleasant sunny day without a tornado or hurricane in sight when the bridge crumpled into the MIssissippi.

The 2010 earthquake which leveled parts of Haiti was a natural disaster The destruction and death it caused was, however, a result of poverty and poorly constructed buildings as much as it was the result the shifting of the earth.

If only the tea leaves had been arranged a little more clearly.

I don’t like paying taxes and I know I’m not alone. The dislike of forking over part of our hard-earned money has been used as a political tool in most elections. We like to hear politicians promise to cut taxes or at least not to increase them. We often don’t even ask how those tax cuts will be possible. We are pacified by tales of government waste and inefficiencies. We are given assurances that all of those problems will be what is eliminated by the cuts to spending that must accompany our decreased taxes. Those cuts, of course, will be felt by others, not us.

If I have learned anything in nearly 40 years of farming is that it is often much cheaper to do it right the first time and to keep things maintained than it is to pick up the pieces and start over when the short cuts fail.

The estimates are that the I-35W bridge collapse cost the citizens of Minnesota (and to some extent the rest of us) hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in economic activity as a result of traffic delays in crossing the Mississippi. That doesn’t include the cost of human lives and of devastating injuries, emergency services, hauling debris out of the river, or the cost of building a new bridge. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to have repaired the existing structure or built a new bridge before it fell down?

How much more did it cost taxpayers to rebuild New Orleans than it would have cost to fix the levies? How much would it have cost to have a realistic evacuation plan in place?

How many people’s lives would have been saved if the government of Haiti over the past decades had been interested in legislating and enforcing building codes which included the possibility of needing to withstand an earthquake?

The hard part about maintaining infrastructure is that doing so costs money. The tea leaves sometimes exaggerate the problems and bridges don’t collapse for years beyond their life expectancy. Hurricanes blow out before they reach land. Snow melts more slowly than predicted and floods don’t happen. If we’ve erred on the side of caution and the worst case scenarios don’t happen, we feel like we’ve wasted our tax dollars. We continue to measure the cost of our actions only in the short term. We look at the immediate risks and ignore the long term costs.

It’s just easier to blame God or Mother Nature or the tea leaves in our china cup when we suffer the consequences of our short sighted decisions.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains