Opinion

Why the past week felt uniquely catastrophic

We could all see it coming

It's been a week.

The Taliban took over control of Afghanistan. The Caldor fire threatened Lake Tahoe. Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 storm and flooded the Northeast. A draconian Texas abortion law went into effect unchallenged. Florida reported record-high COVID-19 deaths. And that's only in the last seven days; no wonder we all feel so exhausted.

There have been busy news weeks before, of course: The whirlwind week of President Donald Trump's inauguration was one; the week of news breaks pertaining to the Russia probe in 2017 another; and let's not forget the dizzying week when the U.S. ground to a halt practically overnight in March 2020. But the past seven days have felt uniquely catastrophic, not due to shocking revelations or surprise turn-of-events but because we could see all of this coming.

The sense of despair was especially visible on Twitter, it being the most nihilistic of the major social media platforms. Commentary ranged from jokes about the impending apocalypse setting a hard deadline for you to actually write your book, to sincere expressions of hopelessness about the state of the world. But the sense of dread broached into real-world conversations too; last weekend, as terrible news about Afghanistan and climate change started to break, my aunt wondered aloud how young people hold it together. "I don't think we do," I said.

Experiencing this many overlapping, distressing events at one time would have been bad enough. But the fact that everything this week has been a culmination of long-foreseen disasters makes them especially heartbreaking to watch unfold. Take, for instance, the collapse of Afghanistan, which even then-Sen. Joe Biden anticipated back in 2001. "That the U.S. government could not foresee β€” or, perhaps, refused to admit β€” that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years," Anatol Lieven, a veteran reporter of the Afghanistan War, wrote in Politico, putting to words the way the devastation has felt nearly inevitable.

The same sense of inescapable tragedy tinges this week's weather stories. "By the time Hurricane Ida made landfall in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on Sunday, it was the poster child for a climate change-driven disaster," The Washington Post writes, citing one atmospheric scientist who stressed that events like the storm's once-in-every-200-to-500-year rains, which caused the National Weather Service to issue its first flash flood emergency alert ever for New York City, are "exactly the kind of thing we're going to have to get used to as the planet warms." Likewise, the Sacramento Bee wrote that the Caldor Fire β€” which ballooned to more than eight times its size in one day and has forced thousands of Californians to evacuate β€” "reinforced awareness of climate change." But Hurricane Ida and the Tahoe fires don't feel so much like warnings as much as proof that the long-forewarned catastrophe of climate change is happening here and now.

Even the Texas abortion law, which was "ignored by cable news until it was too late," is a result of red-state legislatures attempting to chip away at Roe vs. Wade. Women's reproductive rights activists have been sounding the alarm for years over the potential for exactly these kinds of authoritarian laws; now it's a brutal reality for 14.6 million women living in Texas. The resurgence this week of COVID-19 deaths due to the Delta variant is another health story that feels like it should have been preventable, only for the worst-case scenario to now be playing out in Florida.

The fact that so much of what was terrible about this week was entirely foreseeable can provoke at least two reactions. The first and most understandable are despair, exhaustion, and surrender. After all, what hope is there if we're able to identify urgent problems, but not meaningfully stop them from being realized? 

But another reaction might be outrage: outrage that the experts in charge were wrong, and that playing the game their way leads to people dying. Formerly discounted voices β€” the ones that warned all along that we should take things like climate change, the Afghanistan transition, American women's rights, and the COVID-19 variant with grave seriousness β€” now seem like the reasonable ones. 

There will be more of these weeks in the future, because there are always these weeks. Bad things will happen, and sometimes a lot of bad things will happen all at once. But maybe, just maybe, this week could be the beginning of something good, too β€” a future where we start not only to listen to warnings of what's to come, but to act on them too.

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