Forecast: Moderate Chance for Rockslides

The distinguished essayist, John McPhee, in his 1990 book, “The Control of Nature,” takes up a number of local situations in which mankind has attempted to thwart natural forces with less than singular success.  In one case, he covers the efforts by the City of Los Angeles to protect homeowners from rockslides in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.  To hold back the rock, the city has built tiers of strategically-located catch basins each designed to contain whatever boulders might begin to slide down from its immediate watershed.  But, as even this bare-boned description suggests, the scheme is (and has proven) flawed.  Once an uphill catch basic fails, it sends rock crashing downhill to the basin below triggering its collapse which, in domino fashion, destroys the one below it, and so on.  In minutes, an unstoppable torrent of rock and debris thunders down the mountain’s steep ravines engulfing all life and property in its path.

What brought this riveting description back to mind after so many years was the recent series of financial tremors emanating from the US and abroad: lowered sovereign American, Italian, and Spanish bond ratings; the imminent collapse of Dexia, a major Belgian bank; the likelihood of a Greece default; the urgency with which the European Community is attempting to shore up its banking system; the precarious financial structure of Ireland and Portugal; the rumored bankruptcy of American Airlines; the unsettling gyrations of the stock market; the looming worldwide recession; along with any number of equally ominous indications.

Nor was my unease relieved by Alan Abelson’s piece in the October 10, 2011 issue of Barron’s.  In it, this veteran financial reporter quoted a senior International Monetary Fund advisor who warned of “a meltdown in sovereign debt that might well spread throughout the European banking system and thence throughout the global financial system, including the U.S.  Should that happen, he postulates, it could prove more serious than the crisis of 2008.”

At times, these days, I find myself slipping into an altered state of mind in which I detect among the people, who are supposed to keep things running, a certain detachment as though they are just going through the motions for the sake of appearances.  Nobody seems to be in control of anything.  Nobody seems to know what’s going to happen next or, if they do, they’re not telling.  I see them pretending to go about their business but, all the while, keeping their ears attuned for that faint sound of distant rumbling high up on the mountain.  A sound, you know, somewhat like faraway thunder but unaccountably intermixed with crackling noises of some sort.

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