Many people people have noted this week that it is unfair that, following the disastrous fire at Notre Dame, $950m has already been raised to rebuild it, all while Flint still doesn’t have clean water, Puerto Rico’s power grid is still in shreds, and carbon dioxide levels are hovering around a potentially catastrophic 415ppm.
It’s true that the latter three problems all represent a monstrous injustice — so how come Notre Dame is half-funded in a couple days, and Flint is allowed to rot? Is there a reason that goes those we can immediately identify, that is: inequality, indifference, racism, tax breaks, donor populism, egoism, etc? (These reasons have all been addressed fully and eloquently by others, so while of course I acknowledge their tremendous importance, I won’t explore them further here.) After all, what kind of lunatic thinks rebuilding a single building, even a very important one, is more important than providing clean water to Flint, helping Puerto Rico rebuild, or carbon drawdown? Obviously, that assumption is ridiculous on the face of it.
It’s simultaneously true that rebuilding Notre Dame is a good idea on an economic level as well as a cultural, historical, religious, or patriotic one. It consistently a top ten most-visited tourist site in the world, with twelve million visitors a year. It is essential to the economy of Paris as currently set up. Thousands of businesses depend on the footfall it generates. In the meantime, fixing it will generate many hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-quality jobs for many years, and help keep up tourism during the repairs. It cannot be allowed to linger in such disrepair. It is genuinely worth the investment, in a cold economic sense.
Still, it’s a mind-buggeringly obnoxious use of any particular $100m: after all, a donation is not an investment, even with a tax break. So why choose this donation? Is it just the reasons listed above, or is there something else in play here? What if there’s a fundamental underlying problem that ties them all together?
This is not a defense, but an exploration of a possible “logic” in the minds of the donors, thusly:
Fixing Notre Dame is simple. You pay, they agree to put your name on a few things, people go to work, and in ten years the cathedral is big and shiny and beautiful. Within twenty years, hundreds of millions of people have admired your work, even if only the first few million knew your name. You die knowing that your legacy is carved in literal stone that will probably stand for many thousands of years. It’s an easy concept to understand.
Fixing Flint or Puerto Rico or climate change is not simple. Flint is not just about better pipes that need to be installed (and funds for maintenance). Puerto Rico is not just about a bad power grid. Climate change is not just about solar panels that only tackle the electricity portion of the problem, when land use and transport are equally important.
These problems are about systemic change. Fixing the pipes in Flint won’t undo the racism that allowed lead in the water to be ignored so long. It won’t reverse outsourcing or automation, that are why jobs keep leaving, or fix government corruption that gave away its responsibilities to other entities then failed to monitor them. Remaking the grid in Puerto Rico means not just building infrastructure but addressing the Jones Act, PR’s debt, the question of statehood or independence, and unpicking the racism and imperialist indifference that allowed the island to be so vulnerable to a hurricane in the first place. Rewriting the global economy to achieve drawdown is a Herculean task that will, at best, result in its leading proponents going to the grave seeing that carbon dioxide is back down to say, 350ppm, which is possibly the least exciting payoff imaginable for such an investment of time and treasure.
You can academically and emotionally know that saving a single child in Flint from lead poisoning is worth all the cathedrals, and that economically empowering a community of color enables them to fight the effects of racism themselves. You can know it is criminally wrong that thousands of Puerto Ricans died not from the hurricane itself, but from the effects of power outages, destroyed infrastructure, and a government burdened by ludicrous and unjust levels of debt. You can know that there won’t be anyone to see the cathedrals or collect the debts if runaway climate change occurs. But you can’t see and grasp the achievements like you can an edifice of stone.
Notre Dame got the money because Notre Dame offers instant gratification. Flint and Puerto Rico and freaking Planet Earth may matter a thousand or a million times more, but they can’t do that.