Hurricane shows nature’s fury
Family and time constraints forced a trip to Florida. People there questioned why we’d visit a hurricane. The attempted joke of “we’re compulsive rubber neckers” was not really funny. While viewing flattened houses, I had to ask “why” too. Can’t we build a hurricane-resistant house or do we not bother? It seems arrogantly stupid on the part of homeowners, builders and regulators to deny the reality of hurricanes if living in Florida.We can be like that with Mother Nature. Our civilization and technology look so strong and advanced that we think we’re beyond nature. Three hurricanes in a month remind us we’re not. This could just be a bad run of the dice, part of a 15-year cycle or perhaps the result of climate destabilization. We won’t know without hindsight. At the least, warmer seas mean stronger storms.Florida’s suffering underlines the vulnerability of other nations to these typhoons. Poorer, low-lying and island countries have no building regulations, nowhere to evacuate to and much fewer resources to deal with widespread damage. Virtually the whole of Bangladesh can be flooded by a large storm surge. The lack of flooding in central Florida, which 100 years ago was basically a huge marsh, is an impressive achievement by the Army Corps of Engineers.Hurricanes pounding their way through the Caribbean illustrate that the environment is a global issue that none of us should ignore. The industrial West’s emissions for the past century could be contributing to climatic changes that threaten whole countries.Our interaction with nature needs to be acknowledged. We’re having a slow but sure effect, generation after generation, with unexpected changes building momentum. Not all of these are necessarily bad, but climate destabilization, widespread pollution, loss of species and genetic diversity probably are.To assume that future technology will always be able to halt the momentum of problems we’re creating now is selfish and kind of stupid. “We’ll be fine, we or my kids can fix that tomorrow” is denial masquerading as optimism. Technology is only a tool. Without a focus, it’s just as likely to be part of the problem as a solution. Twenty-five years ago, we had solutions to many of the world’s environmental problems facing us now (population growth, climate change, deforestation, overfishing); we choose to deny the problem. Auto fuel efficiency, which could easily be over 40 mpg, is a classic example. With our increased reliance on larger vehicles and longer commutes, we’ve dug ourselves a little deeper hole.The secret energy task force illustrates the Bush-Cheney attitude toward the environment. We will make no concessions. This task force avoided almost any input from environmental groups or representatives of sustainable energy industries. These groups met for just over half an hour the day before the final report was sent to the president mainly so they could be used in for a photo op.All the prior months’ input came from oil, coal, nuclear energy interests, etc., with the result of increased subsidies, tax cuts and rollbacks of environmental regulations and reviews. Increased profits, if not energy supplies, are guaranteed. Florida’s hurricanes, which cut power, emptied most gas stations and some grocery stores for barely a day reveal how much our society depends on energy. The task force ignored the quickest and cheapest way to reduce our dependence and extend our reserves. Conservation and efficiency measures got short shrift in this energy plan, which makes no sense if you’re worried about shortages.The secrecy of the whole task force begs the question of why. Open government is always best. If you can’t defend something openly, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Trust the public. They’re usually more sophisticated than politicians give them credit for. Of course, if you are being underhanded, secrecy makes sense: E-mails from a Westar energy CEO reveal solicitations for money to a Republican Political Action Committee as the price for a seat at the table.Remember California’s energy crisis? Turns out it was mainly created by a few power companies greedily manipulating the market. Memos from the task force urged using this rigged crisis to justify more oil and gas drilling with fewer regulations. While California pleaded for price caps, Bush defended inaction with free market speeches. The desires of the energy industry trump the people and the environment. For reasons I can’t understand, Bush and Cheney seem to be leading an assault on 30 years of laws protecting our environment. Clean air, clean water, wetlands, endangered species, wilderness, old forest – you name it, it’s all in the cross hairs. The environment is important. It’s where your air and water come from. Its protection isn’t something we can fob off onto future generations – at least not with a clear conscience.We need to push for benign technologies, environmentally fair prices for what we consume, without subsidies and with the pollution costs included, not externalized to be paid later by others and sustainable consumption. Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.