Here’s Mud in Your Eye

July 1, 2002

It was a toast I recall hearing in my youth but one that seems to have fallen from favor in recent years. I’d like to revive it today, offering it to a very special group of people who year after year escape proper recognition for their seminal role in changing the physical landscape as well as the lives, welfare, and fortunes of many around them who are nominally under their care. I refer to, of course, those special people occupying seats of power-elected or otherwise invested—in every corner of the globe.

Hardly a month goes by that from somewhere in the world we aren’t presented with a headline such as that appearing in The Nation (Nairobi), May 5, 2002:

Floods Wreak Havoc in Nyanza

From this year alone I would have little trouble filling this entire magazine with nothing but headlines screaming essentially the same message, but what would that prove? Nothing we all don’t know. In fact, this one tells less than you might suspect. Consider an ensuing article concerning the same event on May 13, 2002, and carried by Environmental News Service:

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 13, 2002 (ENS) – Heavy rains across much of East Africa this month have proved deadly, particularly in Kenya. Floods and landslides in Kenya have killed at least 53 people including nine people who died following a violent thunderstorm in Nairobi Sunday. The destructive storms have displaced more than 150,000 people, according to official sources and media reports.

That Earth’s geological record is stuffed to the gills with cataclysms of flood, fire, ice, pestilence, and decay should come as no great shock to anyone beyond the age of 10, but it should be just as obvious that for every “act of God” we’ve encountered since the dawn of recorded history, we’ve witnessed a hundred calamities wrought at least in part by the hands of those who would call themselves emperor, king, president, statesman, minister, or bureaucrat. Well, why not? We let them get away with it. We let those in positions of power, trust, or responsibility get away with acts of questionable or outright abominable stewardship every time those of us in a position to say or do something bite our tongues instead of coming down on them with both feet. This is particularly true with the various news media that have a responsibility to go beyond the “so-and-so says” position and get to the underlying issues. In this, let me use the Nairobi disaster as an example after first pointing out that I do so because of its currency and documentation, not because I feel the situation is worse there than elsewhere.

When, as is pretty obvious from the record, much of the responsibility for the recent floods and mudslides can be traced to the large-scale destruction of timberland, it’s not enough for the press to extol the efforts of the government in providing relief. Indeed it was time for the Fourth Estate to rise up and scream bloody murder. After all, for some time the Nairobi government had been under attack for its land-use-particularly forest management-policies that critics alleged had been used as leverage to secure the patronage of the regime’s staunchest supporters. In the wake of the catastrophic floods and facing mounting criticism, President Moi assigned blame to the incompetence of the country’s Ministry of Environment and especially its Chief Conservator of Forests. For the time, at least, this ploy seems to be effective in deflecting criticism, but you have to wonder how well it would have worked if the headline had read:

Government Greed Kills 53

No one would suggest that human cupidity lies behind more than a few of such catastrophes, and it certainly is not my intent to join the ranks of those who blame all ills on humankind’s seemingly insatiable desire to subdue the planet, but it’s time to take a closer look at these events to see just what hand poor public policy has had and what steps we can take to limit the damage, destruction, devastation, and-yes-even death resulting from the selfish and stupid destruction of critical watersheds.

Do you recall your first thoughts on viewing this page? Chances are the first headline struck you pretty much as “business as usual”—nothing to get excited about. But the second? How willing were you to rush around handing out medals to the government for its generous relief programs? Perhaps it’s time we stood up in such instances and started screaming “bloody murder.”
About the Author

John Trotti

John Trotti is the former Group Editor for Forester Media.