Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Ignoring the Signs

Bill Meredith

"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."
                                the Second Witch, MacBeth, IV-1.

We were watching the evening news a month or so ago when the town's new warning system went off… WHOOP…WHOOP…WHOOP… and the message arrived from at least three loudspeakers at various distances from our house, "TorTortorNaNanadododo WarWarWarningningning …TakeTakeTake CovCovCovererer NowNowNow!" It was raining and there was occasional thunder off in the distance, so we turned on the Weather Channel. There we were informed that radar had spotted a storm with potential funnel clouds heading north from Frederick, and we should tune to our local TV channel for details. When we did so, we were faced with an almost painfully sincere young woman who was holding a kitten and telling us where to take lost pets, in case we should happen to find some. As it turned out, the storm divided; part of it crossed the mountain and cruised north, while the other half wandered off eastward, so here at home we did not encounter either lost pets or tornadoes. There was storm damage… tornadoes by some reports, high winds by others… in the areas of Thurmont and Blue Ridge Summit, but Emmitsburg was blissfully unaffected. It missed us that time, so, like Aesop's villagers when the boy cried, "Wolf," we decided to go on with our business and not worry.

It has been like that all summer. Nature has been peculiarly turbulent in much of the country this year. Florida had one of its worst hurricane seasons, and some of the associated storms produced floods in New England. In the southwest, the drought that began several years ago continued; in the northwest, Mount St. Helens came back to life. Yet locally it has been benign. A mild spring slipped gently into a quiet summer, with just a bit more rainfall than usual, and lawns were green. Even the hurricane that flooded adjoining states produced less than 4 inches of rain in my yard; a few local roads were flooded, but they were all clear by the next day. Temperatures also were unremarkable; there were only a few scattered weeks in which they exceeded 90 degrees. As fall approached the temperatures dropped so gradually we hardly noticed when the equinox passed, and as I write this there are still some frost-tender plants surviving in sheltered spots around the yard and garden.

I suppose we ought to be thankful for all this averageness, but, like MacBeth's witch, I feel strangely uneasy about it. Weather is the most basic contact most people have with the environment, and the niceness of it this year has had the effect of taking peoples' minds off of ecological matters. An election year is a bad time for that to happen.

In the campaign of 2000, Mr. Bush proclaimed himself an environmentalist, and seldom gave a speech without mentioning his concern about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Immediately after taking office, he announced that CO2 was not a pollutant and pulled the U. S. out of the Kyoto negotiations; and since that time he has worked steadily to weaken EPA regulations on air and water pollution. In view of his record, environmental issues should have been a major topic in the 2004 campaign; but beyond lip-service mention in the platform speeches of both parties, they scarcely were mentioned. When asked a question about environmental policy in the last debate, Pres. Bush didn't even answer it, rambling off instead to his education program; and Sen. Kerry was almost as bad, offering a few boiler-plate platitudes before straying to another topic. Aware that the TV audience wasn't really interested, the moderator allowed both of them to duck the question.

Ecologists know that environmental problems are steadily, inexorably getting worse. There is overwhelming agreement among scientists that global warming is real, that at least part of it is the result of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and that it will have a major effect on our weather and on food production. We also have been warning of the perils of uncontrolled population growth for the past 50 years at least, and the worsening famine in sub-Saharan Africa is a classic Malthusian case of a population growing faster than its food supply. Yet in spite of mounting evidence, the Administration has pandered to fundamentalist doctrine and blocked efforts to encourage the use of birth control in that continent, presenting it in the news as a geopolitical problem. The AIDS pandemic is likewise seen as a matter of public health and sociological concern; its roots in overpopulation are ignored. The shortage of flu vaccine gives politicians of both parties a field day to cast blame for incompetent planning, diverting attention from the increasing frequency with which avian influenza is crossing the species barrier from birds and appearing among overcrowded humans and domestic animals. The Governor of Maryland appears ready to turn land which had been set aside for environmental preservation over to developers, while the national administration works steadily and with little effective opposition to weaken emissions controls and endangered species legislation. So it goes.

These issues are reported regularly in major newspapers, but they are rarely on the front page and are seldom read with any degree of care or concern. The unhappy fact is that they aren't news any more; as political spinmeisters put it, they "don't have legs" as a political issue. At some point the youthful enthusiasm and naVve optimism that fueled the environmental movement in the 1970s was replaced by the apathy of affluence when its followers realized that ecology is complicated, has no simple answers, and has to be dealt with through long-term policies and sacrifice. When this became apparent, the renowned short attention span of Americans took over and the long, slow death of the environmental movement became inevitable. The nation's attitude toward ecologists has become pretty much the same as my wife's toward the tornado warnings.

It could be that the irritating sensation in my thumbs is just a touch of rheumatism. And it could be that the Democrats were right not to make an issue of the environment in this campaign; perhaps it would have lost them more votes than it would have gained… after all, Al Gore talked about the environment, and he lost. We will soon find out; by the time this column is available to readers, the election will be over and we will know the bottom line about our future. The signs are there; if we have another four years of neglect and reversals, it will be too late to manage many of our environmental problems, and life in the latter half of this century will be vastly different if it survives at all.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith