A key point of my book, Language Intelligence, is that the figures of speech are powerful because they are so memorable. The great Bards like Homer developed tricks to remember epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks codified these memory tricks — metaphor, irony, various forms of repetition, and so on — into rhetoric.
On the PBS News Hour last week, I pointed out that many people had warned climate change would inevitably lead to a storm surge that flooded Manhattan. Ray Suarez then asked if people could hear that message and act on it before seeing the devastation with their own eyes. I used a favorite metaphor:
People warned [before] Katrina that New Orleans needed to be able to withstand a Category 5. They didn’t design the levees to withstand it and we see what happened. Now we see the same thing with Sandy. I think the hope has to be that Sandy isn’t short for Cassandra and that it’s another warning that we ignore.
People now have seen that you can in fact have the worst-case scenario, which was a flooding of Lower Manhattan.
And I think any city along the Eastern Seaboard has to ask themselves, what would happen if Hurricane Sandy hit us?
Cassandra famously had the gift of prophecy together with the curse of not being believed, with archetypally tragic results:
While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since they did not believe her.
It has become a classic metaphor in the climate arena (though sometimes misused — see “Memo to WashPost, George Will: Cassandra was right“). Indeed, to extend the metaphor, carbon dioxide is the army of destruction hiding in the “gift” of fossil fuels.
Sandy/Cassandra utilizes multiple figures — a metaphor, an allusion, and repetition — which is no doubt why PBS picked it up for its own headline on the story:
Is Sandy a ‘Cassandra’? How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters
Watch the segment: