Forest fires? Blame Bush

To make another filmic reference—we are heading into the Schwarzenegger years, after all—it's sort of like The Magnificent Seven in which the village kids idolize the hired gunmen instead of their parents, who are the ones doing the genuine long, hard slog of raising their food, fetching the water, making their clothes and houses, and the other mundane daily things that make life possible.

Men love mischief, and men love empire-building. To be always pushing and expanding, always playing with guns and missiles, is more exciting than preserving and nurturing what we have. But we've reached, if not long passed, a point in our history where brutal, impersonal forces—the changing climate, population growth, economic realities—should be forcing us to grow up, to come out of the spook house and shape priorities that aren't based on fears and thrills but on what will make this nation better for us and our children.

More than 200 homes burned, 600 homes, 1,100 homes, 1,500 homes; every time I turn on the news, it's some galling new figure. At this writing, there are another 30,000 homes threatened, a half-million acres burned, 16 people dead, billions of dollars in damage and an ecosystem that may never be repaired. Doesn't that qualify as "mass destruction"? Yet I don't see the president leading the charge to spend $87 billion on fire prevention. (On Monday, he did issue this reassuring quote showing he's on top of things: "This is a devastating fire, and it is a dangerous fire." Did he mention it was hot, too?)

While we've been racing off into one adventure after another, the world around us has been changing. Whether you believe human activity is a contributing factor or not, there is daily evidence that dramatic climatic change is taking place in our lifetime. Look around the planet: when there are record heat waves, record floods, record windstorms, record glacier melts, and on and on, something is afoot, and it's only good news for the people who make record books.

The delicate interactions of nature are being disrupted in ways that are changing our lives: the bark beetle was only able to attack healthy trees because four years of drought had dried their sap; the smoke from the west's massive fires is expected to contribute to more global warming, meaning more drought, meaning more infestations, meaning more fires and so on.

Last week, I attended the dedication of John V. Croul Hall at UC Irvine, the new home of the campus' Department of Earth System Science. I mention this so that we might end on a positive note here. There are people—still underfunded and underappreciated and still unheeded in Washington—who are doing the serious work of understanding the complex interrelations of the natural world. Through systems of glass pipes that could make Tommy Chong green with envy, through an accelerator mass spectrometer the size of a dog kennel, they are filtering particles of our world in order to understand the changes taking place before they overtake us. That's where the real fight is, not chasing some bogeyman in the sand.

« Previous Page