The Pitiless Logic of Sandy

Our hurricane story is a dull one, but one that I feel compelled to tell. In the run-up to Sandy, on that ominous gray Monday just a week ago, I thought about how our storm stories are like our childbirth stories. We all feel compelled to tell them, but most are not interesting.

In South Orange, although most of our neighbors lost power, we were never without. We lost our “triple play” almost immediately and remain, a week later, without landline, internet, or television. On Wednesday, the store near us had lots of water but no bread (hot dog buns and pita only). On Saturday after the storm, the bell peppers were nearly gone and the bananas were completely sold out; while we were shopping, the supermarket manager made an announcement that ice was just now available. The train line that my husband and I depend on to get to work was severely damaged and will not function for weeks. For the time being, only one of us can go to work on any given day as transportation is too unreliable and someone needs to be able to fetch the children (9 and 6) from school. Still, as problems go, these are small.

And yet, I feel battered and exhausted. I’m not sure why going through this disaster in such a minor way has been so very draining. I lie awake each night worrying over the imminent death of our planet or my own cowardice, in easy rotation.

The week itself was full of anxious waiting and worry. One often thinks that a week with only limited internet (my smartphone and wifi on a neighbor’s porch down the block are our main links) would yield a screenplay (one of my friends seems, indeed, to have written one!) or a newly knitted sweater. Here, I waded through Ann Cvetkovich’s book on lesbian trauma, which seemed, comically, about right.

I tried to do a kind thing every day and mostly succeeded: made dinner for friends without power, let a couple friends do laundry while sitting in our warm house, hosted some children for a few hours of play and warm snacks. But we are weary of people in our house and our friends are weary of being the objects of charity, roaming through town for an internet connection and a cup of tea. And, of course, our friends are far from the neediest cases. I did send a donation to Occupy Sandy today: that felt both good and like far too little.

I’m teaching Peter Singer’s “What Should a Billionaire Give?” this week. He is pitilessly mathematical in his assessment of our failure to solve global poverty. And it’s hard to disagree with his assessments. Singer estimates that meeting the UN’s goals for 2015 (including universal human access to primary school without gender discrimination, halving the world hunger rate and other such worthy goals) would cost about $200 billion annually. The thing is, by Singer’s 2007 calculations, if the top 10% of folks (excluding for the moment, the VERY richest top 1%), those earning $92,000 or more, gave just 10% of their incomes, that would yield $171 billion: nearly enough to meet the UN’s goals. Add in greater donations from the top 1% and it doesn’t take long to far exceed the cost of significantly alleviating human poverty.

What is wrong with us?

If the storm was worsened by climate change, the recovery will be slowed by our greed.