This one’s been bugging me all day, and although others have tackled it admirably, I wanted to give my perspective, and an amateur would-be vulcanologist. In the Republican response to President Obama’s speech last night, in which he strongly defended the stimulus bill, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had the following to say:
While some of the projects in the [stimulus] bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a ‘magnetic levitation’ line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.
There’s a lot wrong with this statement; for instance, as pointed out by Steven Benen, the quip about a rail line from Las Vegas to Disneyland is pure Republican fantasy. What really angered me, though, is the mocking tone Jindal had for ‘volcano monitoring’.
This sort of dismissal of potentially life-saving research strikes me as a decadent response from people who have not had to face the horrors of the alternative. At Making Light a few days ago, Jim made a good argument of this sort relating to the supposed autism-vaccination debate:
There’s a manual that every Navy gunnery officer was required to read or re-read every year: OP 1014; Ordnance Safety Precautions: Their Origin and Necessity. It’s a collection of stories about, and photographs of, spectacular accidents involving big guns and ammunition. Gun turrets that have fired on other gun turrets on the same ship. Holes in the coral where ammunition ships were formerly anchored. That sort of thing. It’s simultaneously grim and fascinating.
Nowadays there’s some kind of movement afoot for claiming that immunization against common childhood diseases is unnecessary. That they cause disease. That they’re harmful. It is true that rare adverse reactions to immunizations occur. It is also true that adverse reactions to the diseases themselves are not at all rare if you don’t immunize. So let’s call this post Immunizations: Their Origin and Necessity.
In short, people seem to be very gung-ho in talking about the supposed ‘risks’ of vaccination because they’ve never had to come face-to-face with the horrifying certainty that comes with their absence. Or, in short, “Why do I need that polio vaccine? I haven’t run across a single person with polio!”
Jindal seems to be playing a similar game in overtly mocking the use of resources on understanding volcanoes better. I mean, how dangerous are volcanoes, anyway? I’ve never had to flee from a volcano! Well, let’s take a look at some of the effects of eruptions before the advent of vulcanology:
Bronze Age eruption of Thera: This eruption on a Mediterranean island, which occurred c. 1630 BCE, was one of the most devastating events in recorded history. It seems likely that this eruption, which occurred only 110 kilometers from the center of Minoan civilization on Crete, contributed to the end of that civilization and spawned the story of Atlantis.
79 CE eruption of Vesuvius: This famous eruption, which buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum,certainly killed a significant percentage of the population. Pompeii is estimated to have had a population between 10,000 and 25,000 people. Plenty of warnings preceded the event, including earthquakes and the drying up of wells, which were overlooked by a population ignorant of the destructive power of volcanoes. Furthermore, many people failed to flee after the initial eruption, and were killed by the mountain’s later pyroclastic flows.
The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa: Again, increased seismic activity preceded the cataclysmic eruption of August 1883 but its significance was not appreciated. Some 1,000 people were directly killed by the pyroclastic flows of the eruption, while as many as 120,000 people may have been killed by tsunamis generated by the eruption.
1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée: This eruption destroyed the entire city of St. Pierre, killing everyone within the city (with at most two exceptions), a total death toll of some 30,000 people. Tragically, the mountain gave plenty of warnings to its imminent eruption, but people were discouraged from evacuating the city due in part to an important upcoming election*. This eruption was the first scientific observation of pyroclastic flows, and spurred the foundation of modern volcano research.
One might think that these events were all ancient history, and that there is relatively little risk of future loss of life. Volcanic eruptions are extremely complicated events, however, and eruptions can still reveal the relative ignorance of scientists in predicting their behavior. Even recent eruptions such as the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens demonstrated how far research needs to go. Research David A. Johnston was killed by the blast even though he was observing it from a supposedly safe location. Uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of the eruption made people take risks that could have led to much higher casualties. One author notes**,
In spite of their efforts to create a reasonable buffer zone based on then current scientific expertise, officials were hounded by countless people who felt that they had a right to pass into the red zone. These included loggers whose livelihood was jeopardized, owners of cabins and homes and other land parcels, and the press.
Just before the eruption on May 18, when volcanic activity had temporarily subsided, people with property or relatives in the area that was later devastated became increasingly vocal in their demands to return. Despite the heavy pressure, the efforts of law enforcement officials and the Forest Service would pay off in the end. Their vigilance and the fact that May 18 was a Sunday and the loggers were not at work would account for the fact that not more than fifty-seven lives would be lost. Had access not been limited, several thousand fatalities might have occurred.
Volcano research is very important, and saves lives, and Jindal should do a little more reading. I mean, it’s like he isn’t aware that Mount Redoubt in Alaska, 100 miles from Anchorage, has been showing signs of imminent eruption. It’s like he doesn’t realize that one of the largest volcanoes in the world is in the continental United States.
I suppose one could argue that volcano research isn’t an appropriate means of economic stimulus. One can certainly make that argument, but Jindal didn’t: he referred to volcano research as “wasteful spending.” If one goes even further, and fact-checks the assertion (as Mike did at The Questionable Authority), one finds that Jindal wasn’t even really being honest about the $140 million:
Here’s what the stimulus law actually has to say on the issue:
US Geological Survey
For an additional amount for ”Surveys, Investigations, and Research”, $140,000,000, for repair, construction and restoration of facilities; equipment replacement and upgrades including stream gages, and seismic and volcano monitoring systems; national map activities; and other critical deferred maintenance and improvement projects.
It’s very hard to read that statement and honestly conclude that the law is spending $140 million on volcano monitoring. They do mention volcano monitoring, but it’s clearly not the only thing that’s being funded. Jindal was clearly ignoring the truth in his attempt to paint the bill in the worst light possible.
It’s statements like Jindal’s that make it impossible for me to consider voting for a Republican. They’ve demonstrated, time and again, that science and safety are simply political wedge issues to be exploited. Or, as Paul Krugman notes,
The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.
That about sums up my feelings.
P.S. Tuff Cookie at Magma Cum Laude has a very powerful indictment of Jindal’s short-sightedness.
* E. Zebrowski, Jr., The Last Days of St. Pierre (Rutgers University Press, 2002), for instance Chapter 9. An amazing book, by the way.
** R.V. Fisher, G. Heiken and J.B. Hulen, Volcanoes: Crucibles of Change (Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 20.