When Sandy grazed our coast I stood in the drizzle, and handed out voter guides while fighting the remnants of a cold I picked up after flying back from the left coast. I spent some California time with relatives; I even returned to Woodstock for a few hours. Well, not Woodstock, just Neil Young—who is currently touring for his “Psychadelic Pill” release and reflecting on 50 years of campaigning for R&R. (No, not that R&R! Neil was waging Heavy Peace at Woodstock in 1969, a year before Paul Ryan was born.)
OK, Neil Young turns off “Southern men.” It doesn’t help that he starts his shows with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” either—the most powerful anthem of the most powerful nation, ever!
Which brings me to power.
If you think we’re addicted to oil (even President Bush agreed with that), think again. Power in all of its forms grabs us by the short hairs. What used to be merely rankings in all sports are now power rankings: “power plays,” “power pitchers,” “power forwards.” We have drinks like Powerade. We take “power walks” followed by “power naps.” We want our military to project power all over the world. Bill O’Reilly has power posture. The recent election was about power. Even Neil Young plays power chords! His catchiest new tune, “Walk Like a Giant,” has been described as powerful.
During the daylight flight home, I watched the entire width of the nation appear and disappear beneath me. One look down reminded me how few people populate the U.S. (As I write, I don’t know who won the elections, but I suspect the outcome of every election would change if rivers, granite, squirrels and trees could vote.)
The elections, my small cold virus and Superstorm Sandy led me to investigate power. I found on WikiAnswers: “A single hurricane releases the energy (in the form of heat energy, and 10 percent of that converts to the form of mechanical energy (wind power) equal to a 10-megaton thermonuclear bomb every 20 minutes and therefore, one hurricane releases more energy than all the nuclear bombs ever created, ever.”
If we could harness Sandy’s energy for more constructive purposes, we could satisfy the power needs of the planet for some time. One facet of humanity is that we can stare into a superstorm and shout, “Blow winds, blow!” as if we were masters of the universe. Our arrogant persistence got us through a few Ice Ages, lots of droughts and cures for a lot of diseases (though not my little cold). We even put a flag on the moon! It deludes us into thinking we are more powerful than whatever we stare down, that whatever we explore, we own. (We’re getting better. At least we didn’t claim the moon in the name of the king.)
Despite the amount of energy Sandy released over one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, relatively few deaths will result from her power.
By contrast, two tiny targeted nuclear blasts in 1945 incinerated nearly 200,000 of us in a few seconds. Our capacity for highly organized big-brain-fueled cruelty is another facet of humanity. We do a better job of killing each other off than any storm. And, in truth, nature’s power is at best indifferent to our petty power rankings and even our power forwards.
That’s not to say we don’t have the power to influence nature. Sandy is a product of climate change. Climate change is real. Our lust for the power trapped in fossil fuels is hastening it. But we influence nature with the power of a cockroach running toward the end of a see-saw and throwing it out of delicate balance.
Not exactly Master of the Universe.
Sandy showed us the brightest facet of humanity: We’re the only species that consistently organizes itself to help care for our sick and injured. (Ducks don’t debate health care policy or send duck FEMA aid to NYC after a storm.)
That’s the power Neil Young’s been singing about for 45 years, and spiritual gurus like Buddha and Jesus have taught for centuries. It’s not our politics, businesses or military that allows us to walk like giants; it’s our capacity for compassion.