The new normal

Like death and taxes, floods will be inevitable. But the memory will always recede

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 7 September, 2018

“All day long, the south wind blew rapidly and the water overwhelmed the people like an attack,” wrote an ancient Mesopotamian scribe when chiselling the Gilgamesh myth into clay tablets. This oldest of legends depicts a flood so catastrophic that it even terrifies the gods. “No one could see his fellows. They could not recognise each other in the torrent. The gods were frightened by the flood, and retreated up to heaven. They cowered like dogs lying by the wall.”

Floods stalk the most primeval corners of the collective imagination. They surface in our mythologies, literature and cinema. Centuries of analysts — from medieval dream interpreters to 20th-century psychiatrists to 21st-century websites — have tried to explain what it means when we dream of floods, to parse the difference between dreaming of clear water or of muddy water, of floods filled with debris or floods of foam, of dreaming of witnessing a flood or dreaming of being in the midst of one. Floods have this rich and intimate metaphorical power because they are devastatingly real. They are emblems of a kind of cosmic circularity: The fundamental substance of life is also a source of its destruction.

“Like endless boiling water, the flood is pouring forth destruction,” lamented the legendary Chinese emperor Yao when faced with a great flood that supposedly lasted two generations. “Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering!”

For the over 400 people killed in the floods in Kerala, or indeed for the over one million displaced in their wake, there is nothing mythical or historical about the power of water. Survivors will have to hope that they can dredge their lives from the ruin.

They are right to expect answers from government officials on the measures taken to mitigate the disaster.

But the sad truth is that events of this magnitude are likely to happen with greater frequency, and often beyond the control of human beings and their governments. The damage has already been done. An unhappy paradox of the “anthropocene” — the current geological age in which the actions of human beings have had the power to shape the climate and environment — is that the people who suffer as a result of the changing climate are often those least powerful and least able to protect themselves.

The “once-in-a-century” deluge that precipitated the floods will probably recur rather sooner. Climate scientists expect more events of this disruptive intensity and volatility. Thanks to the warming of both the Arabian Sea and adjacent landmasses, monsoon rain can gather with greater and more sudden strength than before. The staggering NASA satellite imagery of the floods — the heart of Kerala’s expanse of green overtaken by swathes of floodwaters — represents not an aberration, but the prospect of a new normal.

Floods may engulf our newspapers and seep into our corpuses of myth, but they still struggle to wake the public to the looming ecological catastrophes to come.

Novelist Amitav Ghosh explores in The Great Derangement, a remarkable work of non-fiction, our modern inability to find a language or cultural forms to grapple with the magnitude of climate change and its implications. Pre-modern ways of telling were in many ways more suited to the task.

Legends and folklore from around the globe overflow with cautionary tales of the peril of floods, of mankind’s circumscribed and delicate place in the natural world.

The late 19th-century Scottish folklorist James Frazer recorded an account of an ancient flood on the Greek island of Samothrace in the Aegean. Islanders described a time thousands of years ago when the Black Sea burst its banks and linked with the Mediterranean, flooding the islands and lands around. Those who survived retreated to the mountains. In the subsequent centuries, their descendants conducted ceremonies and sacrifices in gratitude for their salvation. Fishermen have claimed to still come upon bits of stone columns, remnants of a human world lost long ago to the water.

A few years ago, I wrote in these pages about New York, where I live, and how the city had built itself against the water all around it. New Yorkers were so submerged in concrete and glass and asphalt that they were oblivious to the rivers and the sea. That obliviousness was broken at least for a little while when Hurricane Sandy flooded many portions of the city in 2012 and plunged half of Manhattan into prolonged darkness. The governor of New York warned residents that, thanks to climate change, storms and floods would batter the city with greater frequency. Like death and taxes, floods would also be inevitable.

Since those floods, however, there seems to be little recognition of that inevitability; real estate developers continue to build right on the shoreline, raising chrome-and-glass condominiums on the perilous banks. The notion that we can afford to forget incidents of this kind is the most pernicious myth. With astonishing and regrettable speed, the memory of the flood recedes.

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