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Louis XV was an inept leader, the inheritor of a corrupt dynasty who constantly tried and failed to match his great-grandfather and predecessor’s fame and success. In 1754, when a British militia led by Col. George Washington ambushed a French unit near what is now Pittsburgh, Louis bungled the conflict into a full-blown trans-Atlantic war. After a disastrous early loss in Europe, his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, caught the king scowling while getting his portrait painted. “There’s no point in worrying, you’ll just make yourself sick,” she supposedly said. “Après nous, le déluge.”
It’s a famous quote (often misattributed, the long-dead king would roll his eyes at learning, to his great-grandfather). “Le déluge” refers to the Great Flood in the Bible. The rest depends on the reading. Monarchists and conservatives heard it as: Be careful—when our family’s reign is over, the world will end. For others, it sounded more like: We’re rich, powerful, and happy, who cares what happens after we’re gone. (That was Karl Marx’s take.)
Both of those meanings keep echoing in my head. While most Americans stay huddled in a 20th straight week of self-isolation, literal floodwaters are rising around the world. More than 37 million people in China have been affected by the worst flooding along the Yangtze River in over twenty years—a situation made more desperate after Typhoon Hagupit struck on Tuesday. One-fourth of Bangladesh, meanwhile, is being inundated by the worst monsoon flooding in years. Climate scientists have warned for decades that the impoverished sea-level country, home to over 160 million people, is poised to become the first major source of climate refugees in the near future.
Meanwhile this week, on the other side of the world, Hurricane Isaias cut a swath of destruction across the Atlantic United States. It knocked out power in Puerto Rico, still reeling from the atrocious federal and territorial response to 2017’s Hurricane María; pushed a high storm surge into downtown Myrtle Beach; sparked deadly tornadoes as far north as New Jersey; and flooded parts of Philadelphia. It was the ninth named storm of the Atlantic season —the earliest such a milestone has been hit in the seven decades in which tropical cyclones have been formally named—and the second cyclone to strike the northeastern U.S. in under three weeks.
Americans often argue about whether the crises facing our country and world right now are largely the fault of Donald Trump, or the politics that produced him, or the systems he’s in charge of. The American-centric myopia of that aside, it seems like a false choice to me. A bad leader is only as bad as a system empowers him; a bad system is always worse with the worst person in charge. President Hillary Clinton’s America would still have been a violent, unequal place, with cops murdering Black people and, most likely, children in cages. We would have still been hit by the coronavirus; though most likely we’d have moved on from it already, like every remotely competently managed country on earth. (Read Ed Yong on that, if you haven’t yet.)
Similarly, the global warming that is heating oceans, supercharging hurricanes, and flooding out villages today was caused by emissions belched years ago. The effects of the warming we are further ratcheting up right now—as I write this on a lithium-ion-battery-powered laptop during yet another summer storm—will be felt years from now. Those bound to suffer, and respond, are roughly now the age of my six-week-old daughter, who is currently crying in the next room.
I’m saying all this because it bears remembering that, as comically shitty as 2020 has been, in some ways the worst part is what it portends for the future. (For everyone except the roughly 160,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 so far.) We have lost three years and 200 days in which we could have started to slow the destruction of the habitable biome. Instead, the overlapping corrupt dynasties of the Trump family and the American political system have used their power to plunder and rip up protective laws, in a world where we hold a disproportionate amount of power, and churn out a wildly disproportionate amount of emissions.
Worse still, destruction is far easier than rebuilding. The damage, even within this country, won’t be undone simply by Joe Biden taking the oath of office on January 20, 2021—if a fair election can even be held, and its results respected, before then.
Part of the reason “après nous …” is such a classic quote is that it proved true. After Louis XV died in 1774, the war debts he’d saddled his people with led to widespread poverty and suffering. Rumors of the corruption in his court stoked fury against the Bourbon dynasty. Revolution erupted in 1789; Louis’ grandson and successor, Louis XVI, was arrested and guillotined in 1793—one of tens of thousands of French citizens who died in the paroxysms of violence needed to throw off the old regime.
But though it was extremely unpleasant for most who lived through it, that revolution was ultimately generative. It made the world a better place for those who came after than those who had lived before. No one knows exactly what the consequences of the corrupt, winner-take-all regime that’s running our world into the ground right now will be—or if our criminal leaders will face any personal consequences at all. But I know the generation that might, if given the chance, be able to imagine something better, and build it in the years to come. Our job is to give them a bit of dry land to stand on when they do.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Top photo: Flooding in Guangxi, China, 2020, by Xinhua
Bottom photo: Naomi, by Claire Antone Payton