The flooding now going on in Louisiana, following something like 20" of rain over two days, is a reminder that humans have short memories and that we tend to create perverse incentives to encourage bad behavior.
Extinction of memory. I have called it the first thing to go extinct.
Perhaps no one has written about it as well as John Steinbeck in East of Eden, when he talks about California's long-repeating drought cycles:
I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley. The live oaks got a crusty look and the sagebrush was gray. The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.
What is true of drought is also true of flood and fire, and at least one culture -- the Japanese -- have embraced a permanent way to teach and warn the next generation -- Tsunmai stones.
From The April 4, 2011 New York Times:
Residents of Aneyoshi, Japan, heeded the warnings of their ancestors. They obeyed directions and wisdom found on a local stone monument: “Do not build any homes below this point,” it reads. “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis.” When the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, this village sat safely above the high water mark.
Hundreds of such “tsunami stones” dot the coastal hillsides of Japan. Planted decades or even centuries ago, they commemorate past disasters and warn residents of future ones.
In Aneyoshi, village leader Tamishige Kimura praises his forefathers for putting a stone marker in place and obviating the need to rebuild. “They knew the horrors of tsunamis, so they erected that stone to warn us,” he told the New York Times in 2011. Kimura describes its warning as “a rule from our ancestors, which no one in Aneyoshi dares break.”
This particular stone in Aneyoshi dates back to the 1930s. After the village was devastated by the 1896 tsunami it was rebuilt in the same place. But when another tsunami struck in 1933 the village was moved uphill. A tsunami stone was put in place after that disaster and is credited with saving the town in 1960 and again in 2011.
Instead of erecting our own common-sense versions of Tsunami stones in Louisiana and California, we have created taxpayers-subsidized insurance pools to encourage bad behavior.
Few things are more perverse that flood insurance in Louisiana, where flood is so common that FEMA (your tax dollars at work!) underwrites and backstops flood insurance sold and marketed by private companies like State Farm.
These private companies not only sell taxpayer-underwritten federal flood insurance for water, they also sell private corporate-backed insurance for wind damage, using the same private sales force, inspectors, and auditors out in the field.
And the result? When a massive storm comes along, like Hurricane Katrina, wind-damaged buildings that are 20 or 30 miles inland from the storm surge are said by company-paid inspectors and auditors to be "flood damaged".
That simple false claim, which is never "ground truthed," shifts massive costs from the corporate bottom line to government (taxpayer) ledgers.
This is a multi-billion dollar pickpocket abetted by a poorly managed FEMA bureaucracy and thousands of lawyer-lobbyists who grease the wheels in Baton Rouge and in Washington, D.C. This is privatizing profits and communizing costs in order to make a few thousand lawyers and lobbyists fabulously rich.
The Tsunami stones? They are free, and they save lives and money. But they also require a culture that puts at least some small value on collective cohesion for the common good, rather than the free-style, go-wild, cowboy corporate capitalism that American embrace over self-restraint and common sense.