Fires (and Floods) This Time

The fires that just ravaged north Florida and the floods that inundated southeastern Ohio may be the latest brute warnings from Mother Nature.But in no sense of the word are they natural disasters. In both cases the forces of rapacious development have combined with global warming to create catastrophes that cut to the core of our existence.The fires in northeastern Florida cannot be explained away as a part of any natural cycle. To be sure, fire has longstanding scientific credibility for revitalizing grasslands, jungles and forests. Under normal conditions, it burns away scrub, causes certain plants to drop their seeds, replenishes the ground.But what's ravaging north Florida is more a holocaust than a rebirth. Until grasping agribusiness and greedy developers drained them en masse, the savannah-like flatlands drew their nourishment from fertile wetlands that serve as their vital arteries. The summer fires, often set by lightening, cleansed areas contained by endless swamps and criss-crossing natural channels. Quick rebirth came from the fertile wetlands and regular rainy seasons.Today's Florida is something else again. The wetlands are long since drained, replaced by mindless development and corporate factory farms raising endless rows of monocultured cash crops. When fire comes, the vital groundwater is no longer there to restrain it, or to convert it to good use.And the weather patterns that guaranteed the return of the wet seasons are long since unbalanced. While corporate flacks continue the rear-guard action against the torrent of evidence confirming global warming, Floridians have learned all too well from unprecedented hurricanes and catastrophic droughts that something unnatural has happened to the weather. Even the state's right-wing Republican US Senator Connie Mack says these latest wildfires have made him a believer.There are also plenty of believers now in the northwestern Appalachians, just ravaged by the worst floods in not-so-distant memory. Water-borne disaster has become a staple of life from the Ohio Valley to the Great Plains to the watersheds of both coasts. Two "hundred year floods" inundated the upper Mississippi Valley in the mid 1990s. Last month much of southeastern Ohio was washed away in the latest recurring rush of torrential rains whose damage blew into the tens of millions. At least one town may be permanently abandoned. Billions more in such damage hit northern California over the winter.Obviously, something is haywire. Either our species is too dumb to get out of harm's way from natural weather patterns, or we have done something to those weather patterns themselves.Or both. Sugar growers and factory dairy farmers are now polluting the Florida Everglades in ways that will kill it even without record drought, taking down the fragile eco- systems of the Florida Bay and coral reefs to the south as it goes. Clear-cutting timber giants have put virtually every river and stream in America at risk from lethal runoff. Industrial overfishing is leaving us with a global ocean virtually stripped of life.The numbers of people directly impacted by these disasters is increasing exponentially. The fires and floods of this apocalyptic season should carry a clear message to mainstream America: if it ever was, the movement to save the natural environment is no longer a fringe affair. When summer fires force complete counties to evacuate, and when repetitive floods make whole towns permanently unlivable, and as entire oceans become virtual deserts, something's afoot beyond back packing and tree hugging.Indeed, if we're to survive on this planet at all, our approach to it demands what Albert Einstein begged for at the birth of the atomic age: "A whole new way of thinking."


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