This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
The first horseman was named al-Qaeda in Manhattan, and it came as a message on September 11, 2001: that our meddling in the Middle East had sown rage and funded madness. We had meddled because of imperial ambition and because of oil, the black gold that fueled most of our machines and our largest corporations and too many of our politicians. The second horseman came not quite four years later. It was named Katrina, and this one too delivered a warning.
Katrina's message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure, institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these was the climate—the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.
The third horseman came in October of 2008: it was named Wall Street, and when that horseman stumbled and collapsed, we were reminded that it had always been a predator, and all that had changed was the scale—of deregulation, of greed, of recklessness, of amorality about homes and lives being casually trashed to profit the already wealthy. And the fourth horseman has arrived on schedule.
We called it Sandy, and it came to tell us we should have listened harder when the first, second, and third disasters showed up. This storm's name shouldn't be Sandy—though that means we've run through the alphabet all the way up to S this hurricane season, way past brutal Isaac in August—it should be Climate Change. If each catastrophe came with a message, then this one's was that global warming's here, that the old rules don't apply, and that not doing anything about it for the past 30 years is going to prove far, far more expensive than doing something would have been.
Chevron's profits last year (though it might go as high as $50 billion). Except that it's coming out of the empty wallets of single mothers in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the pensions of the elderly, and the taxes of the rest of us. Disasters cost most of us terribly, in our hearts, in our hopes for the future, and in our ability to lead a decent life. They cost some corporations as well, while leading to ever-greater profits for others.
Disasters Are Born Political
It was in no small part for the benefit of the weapons-makers and oil producers that we propped up dictators and built military bases and earned the resentment of the Muslim world. It was for the benefit of oil and other carbon producers that we did nothing about climate change, and they actively toiled to prevent any such action.
If you wanted, you could even add a fifth horseman, a fifth disaster to our list, the blowout of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010; cost-cutting on equipment ended 11 lives and contaminated a region dense with wildlife and fishing families and hundreds of thousands of others. It was as horrendous as the other four, but it took fewer lives directly and it should have but didn't produce political change.
Each of the other catastrophes has redirected American politics and policy in profound ways. 9/11 brought us close to dictatorship, until Katrina corrected course by discrediting the Bush administration and putting poverty and racism, if not climate change, back on the agenda. Wall Street's implosion was the 2008 October Surprise that made Americans leave Republican presidential candidate John McCain's no-change campaign in the dust—and that, three years later, prompted the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
The Wall Street collapse did a lot for Barack Obama, too, and just in time another October surprise has made Romney look venal, clueless, and irrelevant. Disaster has been good to Obama—Katrina's reminder about race may have laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, and the financial implosion in the middle of the presidential campaign, as well as John McCain's disastrous response to it, may have won him the last election.
The storm that broke the media narrative of an ascending Romney gave Obama the nonpartisan moment of solidarity he always longed for—including the loving arms of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But it's not about the president; it's about the other seven billion of us and the rest of the Earth's creatures, from plankton to pikas.
Hope in the Storm
Sandy did what no activist could have done adequately: put climate change back on the agenda, made the argument for reasonably large government, and reminded us of the colossal failures of the Bush administration seven years ago. (Michael "heckuva job" Brown, FEMA's astonishingly incompetent director under George W. Bush, even popped up to underscore just how far we've come.)
Maybe Sandy will also remind us that terrorism was among the least common, if most dramatic, of the dangers we faced then and face now. Though rollercoasters in the surf and cities under water have their own drama—and so does seawater rushing into the pit at Ground Zero.