Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires
Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Of course we’ve been tracking the fires in the Austin area, especially the massive complex fire in Bastrop, and I’ve been thinking how to make sense of the disaster. Marsha and I drove toward Bastrop, Texas Monday to get a better look, not expecting to get very close (we didn’t want to be in the way). We drove within ten miles – not close, but close enough to capture photos of the massive tower of smoke: Jasmina Tesanovic was there the same day, and posted her thoughts here.

The whole area is a tinderbox after an unprecedented drought, and a great, now dangerous, feature of the Austin area is that cities and suburbs here have pervasive greenspaces, and we’ve built residences and other structures close to, and surrounded by, foliage that is now potentially explosive.

The current disasterous fires have a climate change signature; they’re products of the record Texas drought – at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, global warming. They were fanned by strong, oddly dry, winds from tropical storm Lee, and while no single storm is specifically related to global warming, their increasing number and severity may be related. While I’m not looking for a climate change debate here, it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right, and leaders have ignored scientific consensus for so long that prevention is no longer an option. We should be thinking about adaptation, but that’s not happening, either.

In fact, we’re not prepared for disaster. Marsha and Jasmina returned to Bastrop Tuesday hoping to volunteer, and Marsha spent much of Wednesday as a volunteer at one of the evacuee shelters. So much is happening so quickly, it’s hard to manage – and there’s no clear leadership or structure. The fire has destroyed 1,386 homes, and it’s still burning. Much of the attention and energy is focused on core concerns. On the periphery of the disaster, there are too few leaders or managers and too many details to manage.

This is a metaphor for global crisis. Economies are challenged and systems are breaking down; at the same time, we have real crises of authority. At a time that demands great leadership, we have no great leaders. Politicians left and right are stumbling. In Texas, which has needed great insightful leadership for some time now, the governor dismisses science and leads rallies to pray for rain.

In difficult times past, great leaders have emerged. Where are they now?

Author: Jon Lebkowsky

Co-wrangler of Plutopia News Network, cohost Radio Free Plutopia. Podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. Former editor/publisher, FringeWare Review; associate editor at bOING bOING and Factsheet Five; writer at Mondo 2000, 21C, Wired, Whole Earth Review, Austin Chronicle; sub-editor at Millennium Whole Earth Catalog; blogger at Worldchanging. Digital culture maven, podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. On The WELL, Cohost of VC (virtual communities), Media, and Civil War (.ind) conferences.

5 thoughts on “Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority”

  1. There are no great statesmen these days. There are many factors in play, among them, the instantaneous piranaha-like mass media, the gruel of mass education, the loss of classical liberal arts thinking, the gain of severely over specialized narrow thinking, the vengeful return of stubbornly held certainty & belief over fact based empirical skepticism. For example, the theories of gravity and evolution for example have proof. AGW does not, therefore it is a conjecture only. Like Creationism, AGW takes various observations and forces a conclusion that is not verifiable or repeatable. Again like creationism, AGW is political ideology more than science.There have been severe droughts before on a geological scale, which is simply not comparable to our personal life experience. We are unfortunately receiving the wind effect of that tropical storm. Somewhere, someplace always receives that effect during hurricanes and tropical storms, it happens to be our community in this instance. I wish all parties would move away from magical mysterious thinking and become empirical in their approach.

  2. > it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right

    Bzzzt. False balance. It was those who want to reject the implications of the science who politicized the issue … and they’re pretty much all on the right, likely including their useful idiots like commenter Tom.

    I suggest to Tom that he go read Spencer Weart’s “The Discovery of Global Warming” for some empirical evidence. It’s available online at He could also spend some time at SkSci, perhaps starting with

    1. GFW: screw you. How dare you so smugly and ignorantly talk down to anyone, you know nothing of my motivation and disinformed others. You damage progressive causes with your narrow minded, self satisfied misinformation. I am a rational skeptic, ssupport the Labor Left, and am probably smarter than you. I do not let any party tell me what to think, unlike you. You obviously A/ didn’t understand my point and B/ have a religious-like belief in unverifiable conclusions. Climate science has yet to prove it’s point, unlike many other areas of science. Their conclusions and recommended actions are unsupported by their data. It is a matter of logic, but you and others have conflated your politics with science, and you should really learn the difference between theory, hypothesis, conjecture, and belief. The Left has completely abandoned the working class, adrift, they have been captured as teabaggers by the Right. It’s tragic. You have lost them with you self satisfied, sanctimonious drivel, and it’s your fault. So, live in your crazy world, be rude to people who disagree, it is a strategy for ongoing loss. I will sit out this election, unlike the last where I was a county delegate for Obama. The democratic party is the primary obstacle to progressive policy implementation, too many useless idiots like yourself.

  3. > It was those who want to reject the implications of the science who politicized the issue

    I don’t deny that, but I wasn’t shooting for “false balance” in the sense a global warming denier or Tea Party activist might. Progressives bought into the argument and allowed their opponents to control the narrative. There should be no controversy about this.

  4. Without comment on global climate extremes, I wish to support and expand on your concern for the lack of preparation and crisis of authority. You expressed it well in your post above: we don’t have enough people skilled to help. We can do something about that, but most of us don’t. Why not?

    I recently went through the Citizen Emergency Response Team training in my city. I do it every 3-5 years. This last training took three mornings and was filled with amazing and helpful information. Of the many things I learned: in my city, there is ONE paramedic for every 4,000 people, and 17 ambulances for our 1+ million people. If an emergency happens (something that’s unexpected, emergency personnel will be overwhelmed, and lives, health and the environment are endangered), we’re going to need a few community and network-savvy folks to help (and I don’t mean “Internet-savvy–it’s likely to be out).

    The trainings are often free. I suggest that people focus on making a difference. We never know when our skills will be needed.

Comments are closed.