A Shock To The System

Whenever you run into a bear out here in the country, someone will invariably ask if it was big. I never really know how to answer. All bears appear large to me, even the cubs. Something about the slope of the forehead, the glint of the eyes, the teeth and the claws. I don't take the time to assess relative size because I am so agog at the sheer bearness of the thing. Unlike Harrison Ford, a bear is not a creature you peer at in passing, thinking, 'Is that really ... ?' It has a certain unmistakability.

The bears have become yet another species on the list of inconvenient animals in this part of America, right up there with the trash-picker possums and, of course, those loathsome shrubbery eaters, the deer. My favorite bear anecdote was the animal accused of getting physical after a man had proffered a bagel to get the bear to stick around for a photograph. The bear wanted more. What I want is an answer to this question: who gives a 250-pound wild animal baked goods?

The way in which modern people interact with their animal counterparts is one of those things that make us look as though our evolution took place on a bell curve and it's currently on the downside. Most of us now act toward native creatures the way our ancestors once acted toward Native Americans: we know that they were here first so we're willing to tolerate them as long as they don't demand to share when we build unattractive structures atop their former homes.

If they don't cooperate, we slaughter them.

Ultimately the deer abattoirs along the highway, or the pest-control experts pulling bats out of attics, are, as one town official in New Jersey said of the bears not long ago, signs of a 'people problem.' Beneath it all is a cosmic question: how do Americans plan to live over the long haul? This was reinforced last week when, all over the Northeast, the power went out and millions found themselves suddenly humbled by their sheer reliance on electricity. What was remarkable was that the reaction was much the same as it is, on a smaller scale, to the animals. No talk of changing behavior, of finding a balance. Once the biggest power outage in history had begun, the only concern was for getting the juice back as quickly as possible. There was a faint undercurrent of revoked privilege. Where was the air conditioning, the pizza delivery, the ballgame on TV, all the things once seen as gifts and now assumed as birthrights?

What you saw time and time again was hubris brought low, people accustomed to instant communication without phone service, people accustomed to flying anywhere and at any time grounded at the airport. It was also hubris writ large. Office buildings, designed with windows that will not open, turning into saunas in the August sun. Office systems utterly dependent on computers turning into ghost towns in ghost cities.

Americans have been careless and casual with our natural resources for a long time. Can an accounting be long delayed? You could look at middle-class travelers sleeping like the homeless on the steps of public buildings during the blackout and see a vision of future unnatural disasters. The delivery grid is poorly conceived.

The fail-safe systems must be improved. But not a word about a world so profligate with its power that it uses as much to fuel the advertising glitz of Times Square as it once used to sustain an entire town.

Watch great cities fade to black, look at the unchecked and unsightly over development all around them, and it is hard to imagine this will be a livable country a hundred years from now. The battle between human and animal is merely a reflection of that. Public officials are notoriously leery of the long view, but ordinary people are no better. The great contradiction: all those alleged nature lovers who fall for a forested range, then bring in the bulldozers. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average American home has doubled in size in the past century. (Its report calls this a Century of Progress. Guess it depends on your definition.) This is not because families are larger. Quite the contrary. The three-car-garage-and-great-room trend--a great room being a living room on steroids--reflects family life that has devolved into individual isolation, everyone with his own TV and computer, centrally cooled to a frosty edge or heedlessly heated.

Irony of ironies, New York City may soon have a greater unbroken stretch of green (Happy 150th Birthday, Central Park!) than the suburbs that once lured its people with the promises of grass and trees. The animals thus become more and more of a nuisance: get out of our way! Occasionally, we are forcibly reminded that human beings have created an environment in which, in some ways, we have less control than ever before; after all, the lack of power is, by definition, powerlessness. Meanwhile New Jersey, the most densely populated state (in case you hadn't noticed), wants very much to allow the hunting of bears. No one seems to have considered the obvious alternative: instead of issuing hunting permits, call a moratorium on building permits. Permanently.