[ by Charles Cameron — the warnings, the lack of response, the tragedy, and a diagnosis of the underlying, near-universal human condition ]
Hear ye! Hear ye!
The most stunning account I’ve yet seen of the Oso mudslide isn’t really about the slide itself, it’s about how much we already knew and how little we listened. Here’s an interview with geomorphologist Daniel Miller, who wrote up the danger of a slide in a 1997 report for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, and followed it up with a report for the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, in which he warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”:
Compare and contrast that with the quote from a piece yesterday on Vice Motherboard titled Lidar Mapping Could Save Lives Before the Next Mudslide:
Nevertheless the county believed that it was safe to build homes down by the Stillaguamish River. “It was considered very safe,” John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”
The Lesser Sludge:
According to Chapter 14, Landslides and other mass movements, in Snohomish County’s 2010 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan Update:
Mudslides or mudflows (or debris flows) are rivers of rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water. They develop in the soil overlying bedrock on sloping surfaces when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, such as during river of rock, earth, organic matter and other heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. Water pressure in the pore spaces of the material increases to the point that the internal strength of the soil is drastically weakened. The soil’s reduced resistance can then easily be overcome by gravity, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” A debris flow or mudflow can move rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. The slurry can travel miles from its source, growing as it descends, picking up trees, boulders, cars and anything else in its path. Although these slides behave as fluids, they pack many times the hydraulic force of water due to the mass of material included in them. Locally, they can be some of the most destructive events in nature.
— and their Hazard Profile comments:
Landslides are caused by one or a combination of the following factors: change in slope of the terrain, increased load on the land, shocks and vibrations, change in water content, groundwater movement, frost action, weathering of rocks, and removing or changing the type of vegetation covering slopes.
Note that no human intervention is required — this is what an insurance writer might call an “act of God” while a scientist might prefer to call it the result of “natural causes”.
As for myself, I would like to refer to the actual mudflow consisting of “rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water” that recently buried much of the small, humanly-populated town of Osa in Snohomish County, WA, as the Lesser Sludge.
Listen! Warnings have been issued for millennia — and still the kings, the potentates, the real estate moguls refuse to listen:
Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.
— Jeremiah 19:3
I was in Managua, Nicaragua, shortly after the 1972 earthquake there. I had spent the day before with a 35mm Pentax, photographing square block after square block of demolished housing, with the occasional yellow flag indicating that a body — hence a possible source of infection — had been located there, too deep to be retrieved at that point. And I recall all too vividly what the physician sitting next to me on the plane home said to me:
They will rebuild on this same spot.
Managua had been the site of previous quakes, including one in 1885, and another in 1931 — it was at risk for serious quakes roughly twice a century. But real estate is real estate, Managua as Nicaragua’s capital city was valuable real estate, and the owners of valuable real estate would want to rebuild on their own real estate, no? It only makes logical sense…
And they did.
What, then, is the Greater Sludge?
What I am calling the Greater Sludge is the mental sludge that somehow lodges itself, not just in this instance but in ten thousand others, between appropriate warnings on the one hand, and acting on the need for change on the other.
The Greater Sludge, in other words, is between our ears and behind our eyes: we cannot see it, and we cannot hear it.
I spent the better part of a decade working and talking with the fine group of social entrepreneurs that Jeff Skoll‘s foundation gathered for discussions at the late, lamented SocialEdge site, and I noticed something that struck me forcibly at the time, and has only become more deeply rooted in my thinking since then: we have Foundations, think tanks, journals, RFPs, and funding reources for all manner of top-down approaches to single-issue problems — depleted or polluted water supplies, lack of housing, education, medicine, you name it. We even have a few people like Anthony Judge and his Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, trying to see the complex interweavings of multiple problems — and a few more like Victor d’Allant and his team at Urb.Im working on bottom-up solutions.
But there isn’t really even a category for approaches to the problem of the Greater Sludge: our need to make across-the-board improvements in mental clarity isn’t even on the map.
And yet mental sludge is the greatest obstacle facing all those who see problems and have the clarity to know how to go about fixing them: from distraction and disinterest to outright denial, the many shades of sludge constitute our one totally interdisciplinary, wholly integral and universal problem.
Conversely, clarity in that invisible space behind the eyes, the ability to hear the quiet voice of sanity above the babel-babble between the ears — that would be the universal solvent.
Critical thinking — cf. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Bias avoidance — cf. The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and The Mind’s Lie Systemic thinking — cf. Places to Intervene in a System and Dancing with Systems Associzative leaps — cf. On the HipBone and Sembl games: update and Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking
Then read the whole sad mudslide and warnings story at the Seattle Times again, and weep:
I think we did the best that we could under the constraints that nobody wanted to sell their property and move…