Earlier this week, Kevin posted a story about a massive cyclone bearing down on Bangladesh. About 650,000 people were being evacuated, but officials still feared that the death toll could end up rivaling 1991, when another cyclone killed over 100,000 people.
Well, the storm hit, and the current death toll is almost 800 — and sure to rise.
People have been dying in massive numbers in Bangladesh as long as I can remember. It seems every few years, there’s some new catastrophe with a six-figure death toll. Yet soon it passes from public attention, forgotten just in time for the next cataclysm.
Yet the Bangladeshis go on going on.
At some point, you have to ask yourself “why the hell do the people stay there?”
I know why, because I’m so much smarter than you are. Because I own (and recently re-read) P. J. O’Rourke’s book “All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty.”
(I fear I’m becoming too dependent on P. J., but dammit, the man has written so much about so many things, it’s hard to find something going on that he hasn’t commented upon. And, as is his wont, it’s almost guaranteed to be something so insightful and humorous and so eminently quotable that I find I can’t resist.)
Chapter 2 is entitled “Overpopulation: Just Enough Of Me, Too Many Of You,” and in it he makes a thorough case study of Bangladesh. And he not only asks the question, he answers it:
What first attracted humans to this place and made them, in Neolithic terms, well-to-do when they got here was the astounding fertility of the land. Bangladesh was formed by the confluence of three of the largest rivers on the Indian subcontinent — the Ganges, teh Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. These meander, bifurcate, twine, and join in some seven hundred distinct watercourses, forming what is traditionally called “the mouth of the Ganges.” From the air Bangladesh looks like blood capillaries or nerve ganglia or com other C- lab report thing that had to be viewed through a biology-class microscope. Runty hill rise in the east and northeast but nine-tenths of Bangladesh is no higher above the ocean than a fourth-floor beachfront condominium. This is he largest estuarine delta in the world, an enormous alluvial plain, a great big mudflat. At the turn of the last century, before modern agricultural improvements had even been applied in Bengal, some areas were known to support as many as nine hundred people per square mile by farming alone. Each person was obtaining his livelihood from the cultivation of a plot 175 feet square, smaller than many suburban house lots. And this assumes they all slept standing up, leaning against the tomato stakes.
As real estate, it has its downside. One of hte oldest stone inscriptions found in Bengal urged people to store food in preparation for future floods, and a fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler, Ibn-Batauta, said the Bengalis themselves called the place “a hell crammed with blessings.” But the soil is is so perfectly dark and rich that you think it must have come from the plant store in little bags. The ground is moist and friable and possessed of the dark, mellow, sweet-and-sour bumper-crop smell I remember from a childhood of getting my face shoved in Ohio loam while playing football. It is the stuff compost heaps are supposed to turn into, into the stinky slime they do. Plant a foot on the dirt of Bangladesh and you’ll grow more toes.
“A hell crammed with blessings.” That centuries-old turn of phrase is so widely applicable, and should be remembered whenever certain areas are afflicted with disasters. California is prone to wildfires and earthquakes and moonbats and mudslides, but it is still the most populous state in the union. People keep moving there, keep building homes in places where they can be destroyed by a capricious Nature in a variety of telegenic fashions at a moment’s notice, and the rest of the nation tches as we flip the channels and watch our fellow Americans’ dreams go up in smoke or down the hill. We shrug at the people of New Orleans and say “what can you expect when you build a coastal city below sea level?,” but don’t pause to remember that the port of New Orleans is arguably the single most important waterway in the United States. We need that port. Ports need workers. A port that size needs a lot of workers. And that many workers need a city, with all its attendant infrastructure. Hence we end up with a major city built largely below sea level.
Here in New Hampshire, we aren’t prone to many major disasters. We’ve had blizzards and ice storms, and we’re long overdue for a major earthquake. On the other hand, we aren’t overwhelmed with natural blessings, either. We have the smallest seacoast of all the states that have seacoasts. Farming is good, but not great. Part of the reason we call ourselves “The Granite State” is because we’re very rocky — we have hills and mountains and, thanks to our climate and the freezing/thawing cycle, fields seem to sprout rocks as regularly as they push up corn and other crops. And despite being the ninth state, with a history dating back almost 400 years (2023 will mark the quadricentennial of colonial settlement of New Hampshire), we’re still one of the smaller states — 44th in land area, 41st in population. and less than 138 poeple per square mile. California, on the other hand, wasn’t really colonized until 1697 (74 years after New Hampshire) and didn’t really begin in earnest until 1765, but now has over 217 people per square mile.
Nature, it seems, has a sense of balance. Great blessings come with great risks. Moderate blessings are coupled with moderate risks. Those who would seek Heaven must risk finding Hell.
And for those of us who prefer our dramas more man-made, there are places like New Hampshire.