Before the day, the day after tomorrow

Then it took a book, not a movie. People could look around and see for themselves how industrial pollution had wrecked the countryside. When enough people looked, back in the 1960s, concern for the environment reached a tipping point. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring struck a chord whose time had come to be played.

Once the public’s imagination had been engaged, in a decade the U.S. Congress passed the nation’s most important federal environmental laws protecting America’s clean air and water. For President Nixon—who did support those laws—the environment helped to deflect attention from a war that dragged the nation down.

It was the stuff of Greek tragedy: how a bad decision, uncorrected by better judgment, sets off a chain reaction whose consequences might have been stopped if not for flaws of character.

Global climate change was on no one’s radar much less mall multiplex when Richard Nixon gave the environment its time in the sun. Soon after in the 1970s, it was the summer of the movie Jaws.

Considering that people have evolved in only three decades from one terror—a great white shark, now an endangered species—to another, a hostile planet making an endangered species of us all, should send Americans of voting age if not to the polls in November then to a psychiatrist’s couch.

Climate change is a bland term for the disruption of weather patterns on whose constancy biodiversity depends. Only higher-order mammals, like humans, can quickly adapt to rapid changes in climate established over long periods of time.

It is pure fantasy, in The Day After Tomorrow, to imagine tidal waves swamping Manhattan—but there is no ark big enough to fit all the species that climate change is leaving behind.

Yes, we have made progress on the environmental front and at a price. Some American products are at a competitive disadvantage compared to those of other nations with whom we trade and who will not impose similar penalties or equivalent measures to protect the environment.

But when it comes to the big issues—like global warming and the sustainability of the web of life—our politicians are like watchmakers at their benches and magnifying glasses, tinkering with mismatched parts while time is spiraling away from us.

Meanwhile in the washroom, public opinion is infected with the bombast about red tape and bureaucrats schmoozing, boozing and snoozing and no one can see through the anesthetic haze of it all—how “streamlined” permitting and zoning become the holy grail of elected officials, turning the public into enemies of progress, and cutting taxes the reason to gut environmental agencies. And so here we are in 2004: protecting the environment an incidental benefit of commerce, its features diminished by expectations fueled by even lower motives.

In the United States today, protecting our environment obeys a perverse order: Don’t ask how much your country can do to sustain humankind today, ask how little your country can regulate business to sustain humankind tomorrow.

Whether we have reached the tipping point for change is very much the question in the upcoming presidential election. If people feel secure that the incumbent president, George W. Bush, is leading the nation on the right course with respect to the environment and other matters of national security, then he will be re-elected.

But if people don’t feel secure, then we will have a new president, Sen. John Kerry.

Our nation is like a big ship, slow to turn, slow to correct course. American politics can rise to the challenge. The war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism and the economy are riding high in the public imagination. But there is no more fundamental threat to our national security than climate change.

What we don’t know about the day after tomorrow is what will be left. So what is right is to account fully for the costs of growth and to allocate those costs when and where they are incurred. Applied to the dilution of our natural capital—God’s creation—deficit spending is a one-way road. Now there is a message for the White House, Congress and the Federal Reserve, not Hollywood, to inspire the American people.

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