A Shortage of Long-Term Compassion


Two recent disasters – the inferno at Grenfell Tower in London and Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas -  have reminded us anew of the destructive capabilities and sheer powers of the elements. A massive fire ravaged the twenty-four-floor London apartment building on the 14th of June, sparked by a faulty refrigerator explosion. Just over two months later, the swirling hurricane made landfall on the Texas shoreline, bringing “unprecedented” and “never-before-seen” levels of flooding to Houston, one of America’s biggest cities. In the following days of both tragedies, Britons and Americans alike had a common cause around which to rally. There have been football matches and concerts to raise funds “for Grenfell,” and Twitter is overflowing with links to charitable organisations and phone numbers and addresses of shelters for Texans (humans and pets alike). We have much to be proud of in our responses to crises, but I am left wondering if we have really learned anything at all.

I cannot take credit for the following ideas, as they are mostly pulled from this brilliant, scathing article by Henry Wismayer. In it, the author brands the Grenfell disaster as “a tragic coalescence of a dozen discrete moments of hubris and greed” and as “a catastrophe that exposes a rich country’s contempt for its poor.” Wismayer even likens the fire to Hurricane Katrina, writing that only in moments of sheer devastation and destruction do we allow ourselves as everyday citizens to truly glimpse the divide between rich and poor. As we now know, residents of Grenfell Tower had complained repeatedly to the management agency about lack of smoke alarms, adequate sprinkler systems, and efficient fire safety measures, yet the cries for help often went unanswered. The biggest crime of all was the addition of extremely flammable polyethylene panels to the exterior of the building, material which is banned in the United States and Germany but saved the management agency just about £300,000 in its 2016 refurbishment project.

Standing before a building ablaze, spectators were aghast and shocked at the magnitude of the fire. It was a spectacle, a slow burn of a disaster, a disgrace to humanity simply because it could have been prevented. Wismayer writes that “the truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect.” No one person is responsible for the fate of those murdered at Grenfell, yet we are all part of a society in which we deem it acceptable to judge others by the amount of money they make and the eyesore of a building they are forced, by ever-rising rent prices, in which to dwell. We ignore their pleas for help by assuming they are not deserving of support if they won’t just work a little bit harder to exist in society. We scoff at their meagre requests to elected representatives (the irony of the word ‘representative’ should not be lost here) for adequate safety measures, yet we shed tears when we read that among the dead is a Syrian refugee who was working in civil engineering and hoped to contribute to the rebuilding of his country. Only when we view these people as humans above all else will we truly treat them as such; the fact that they exist at all, not whether they possess potential, is what makes them worthy of our time.

Across the Atlantic, hurricanes have been part of the American weather cycle for as long as weather has been recorded. The names ‘Andrew’ and ‘Katrina’ bring to mind incredible scenes of devastation and flooding, the work of these mighty storms. I was in Florida in 2004 when Hurricane Jeanne struck, and while she was less devastating than Katrina, Andrew, or Harvey, I witnessed first-hand the awesome power of wind and water to lift cars from their driveways, to collapse roofs, topple trees, and flood streets. The eerie stillness in the following days evoked a sense of isolation and despair despite the inevitable influx of volunteers and supplies.

Now Houston is dealing with the aftermath of the costliest hurricane yet, and Americans are proudly boasting that we stand with the citizens of Houston and will do everything we can to help them rebuild their city. My own hurricane experience was thirteen years ago. Katrina was twelve. Sandy was five. Are we actually supposed to look at the ravages caused by Houston in surprise? Why do we not listen? Why do we ignore history, climate science, the residents themselves?

Climate change is real and it is happening. It is not a hoax. The denier-in-chief Donald Trump, as reported by the Washington Post, “quietly rolled back an order by his predecessor that would have made it easier for storm-ravaged communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild bridges, roads, and other structures so they can better withstand future disasters.” Nice one, Donald. The richest country in the world fails to invest in proper infrastructure, denies its citizens federal funding, and scoffs at scientific evidence. It encourages an “every human for themselves” mentality in the long term, yet prides itself on its short term reaction to disaster, posting photos of “heroes” who returned, again and again, to assist the elderly, disabled, or otherwise left behind. While of course the heroes who work tirelessly to assist those in need should be applauded, Jon Lovett of the podcast Pod Save America made an exquisitely, painfully real observation in the 28 August episode: “We’re very good at acute decency. And climate change requires a different kind of decency, a different kind of imaginative decency of what it means to care – [we have] this fundamental challenge that we are not built to have a more expansive version of compassion.”

In short, we must be better prepared. This does not mean stocking extra water bottles in our basements. We must invest in infrastructure and preparation that acknowledges that the climate is changing. We must do better for the disabled and the elderly so that we do not have to rescue them because we can evacuate them in the same way as everyone else. We must stop this self-congratulation, this elevation of ourselves as temporary heroes, when we have the ability to make ourselves long term heroes.

We are too late for the victims of Grenfell and Harvey, and we should be ashamed. In Wismayer’s article, he quotes the current Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell: “[the victims of Grenfell] were murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades.” The same is true in Texas, where Governor Abbott refused to accept $10 billion in federal funds for the expansion of Medicaid. Our disgraceful inability to accept reality has yet again been brought to light – in London, where “you could hear it in the hypocrisy of those who cheered the heroism of the London firefighters…even though they had condemned their right to protest for fairer fire service pensions three years before,” and in Texas, where the former Governor Rick Perry now serves as the Secretary of Energy and makes it his daily mission to deny climate change and dismantle the Department of Energy despite having witnessed the power of the weather to batter his home state.

The truth of the matter is that as long as there is something to gain from destruction – the sense of “acute decency” in being helpful in the following hours and days and the political capital in denying climate change and denying poor people federal protection – we will ignore the warnings and act surprised by the outcome. Hurricane Harvey indeed descended upon rich and poor alike, but we all know that the road back to normality could not be different for the two groups; indeed, the rich in London would have never even lived in a building like Grenfell in the first place. As long as we continue to encourage individual citizens to shirk their collective societal responsibilities to one another and contribute to the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, we will weep when the poor die but will continue to vote against their best interests.