Don't Mess With Mother

The dark aftermath of the frontier, of the vast promise of possibility this country first offered, is an inflated sense of American entitlement today. We want what we want, and we want it now. Easy credit. Fast food. A straight shot down the interstate from point A to point B. The endless highway is crowded with the kinds of cars large enough to take a mountain pass in high snow. Instead they are used to take children from soccer practice to Pizza Hut. In the process they burn fuel like there's no tomorrow.

Tomorrow's coming.

The cataclysm named Katrina has inspired a Hummer-load of rumination, about class, about race, about the pathetic failure of the Feds after four long years of much-vaunted homeland-security plans. The president made himself foolish, calling for an investigation into who fouled up, perhaps ignorant of Harry Truman's desk plaque reading the buck stops here. The press rose to the occasion, awakened out of its recent somnambulant state, galvanized into empathy and rage. The public was remarkable, opening their homes and their wallets.

But the failure by government, in the midst of a hurricane season forecast early on to be a monstrous one, illustrates once again the lack of a long view. The long view at the moment is not about patching levees, or building houses, or getting oil rigs back up and running, or assigning blame. It's about changing the way we all live now.

Both the left, with its endless talk of rights, and the right, with its disdain for government oversight, suggest that you can do what you please. Americans have taken the message to heart, and nowhere is that clearer than in the mess we've made of the natural environment. How many times do we have to watch homes cantilevered over canyons surrender to a river of mud or beach houses on stilts slide into the surf to know that when we do high-stakes battle with Mother Nature, Mother takes all? Once I heard a businessman at a zoning-board meeting say, "Well, a person can do what he wants with his land." Actually, that's not true; that's why zoning exists. Is any city, town or state brave enough to just say no to waterfront development that destroys dunes, despoils water and creates the conditions that will, when a storm strikes, create destruction?

New Orleans lived for 80 years with the granddaddy of all environmentally misguided plans, the project that straightened out the mighty Mississippi so its banks would be more hospitable to homes and businesses. Little by little the seductive city at the river's mouth became like one of those denuded developments built after clear-cutting. It was left with no natural protection, girded with a jerry-built belt of walled-off water, its marshland and barrier islands gone, a sitting duck for a big storm.

But it was not alone. Everywhere in the country, wetlands disappeared and parking lots bloomed during the past half century of mindless growth, in which bigger was always assumed to be better. While the streets of European cities were filled with tiny compact cars, the SUV took over American roads. Show houses sprang up that will soon present an interesting lesson in what happens when cathedral ceilings meet sky-high fuel prices. In the aftermath of Katrina, one displaced person after another told TV reporters that at least they were alive, their family was safe, the stuff didn't matter. If only that were the ethic for the long haul. Consumption used to be the name for a mortal wasting disease. It still is.

This administration of big-oil guys is the last place to look for leadership on conservation. Many Bush supporters scoff at global warming as a lefty myth, and early on the president made his position clear when he made the United States one of two industrialized nations to reject the Kyoto Protocol, the plan to curtail climate change by cutting down emission levels. But there has been no powerful national leadership from either party on this front in recent memory. Political officials have bowed to the public's thirst for more, more, more.

The effects of disaster fall disproportionately on those who have less, as they did during Hurricane Katrina, when poor families had no cars to flee in, when there were no immediately available means for a second act in another town and another home. But between the blackouts, the fuel costs, the eroding coastlines, the disappearing open spaces, it is going to become harder and harder to overcome the effects of blind overgrowth even for those of means. Get ready for the $100 tank of gas, and an Armageddon of our own making.

New Orleans will be rebuilt, but rebuilt how? In the heedless, grasping fashion in which so much of this country has been built over the past 50 years, which has led to a continuous loop of floods, fires and filth in the air and water? Or could the new New Orleans be the first city of a new era, in which the demands of development and commerce are carefully balanced against the good of the land and, in the long run, the good of its people? We have been crummy stewards of the Earth, with a sense of knee-jerk entitlement that tells us there is always more where this came from.

There isn't.