February 13, 2008

DN Article - Drowning Twain

I have a book on my shelf - a compilation of essays titled "Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race."

Would that I could write a diatribe the likes of Mark Twain - but I can't, so I shan't.

Sometimes I feel like Chicken Little, yelling at the top of my lungs that the sky is falling and getting about as much reaction. I suppose that's the lot of a tree hugger.

The most aggravating objection, the most frustrating question, the most maddening, annoying, trying, provoking - and probably the most successful - protest about the environmental lobby is the one I hear most often: "What's one more?"

"Surely one more (circle your choice: aluminum can, parking lot, plastic bag, well, coal power plant, asphalt roof top, SUV, synthetic turf field) won't have a measurable impact?"

The problem is, they are usually correct. One more (whatever) has practically no measurable impact. How do you think we ended up with hundreds, thousands, millions of (whatever)? And it wasn't until we had all those (whatever) that we noticed we suddenly had a problem on our hands.

Of course, the analogies are endless - the straw and the camel, the drop and the flood, the spark and the inferno, etc. I'm sure Twain could conjure some appropriately refreshing and equally visceral metaphors.

When Shakespeare wrote the play "Julius Caesar," he included a debate before the people of Rome. Each side sought to bargain for the life of Caesar; one used reason and logic, the other emotion and passion. I don't think we need to reread the play to figure out which argument won.

For decades, scientists have presented data, numbers, worrisome facts, warnings, charts, graphs and figures. For decades, others have argued with them. Heck, half of the time they are arguing with each other, which doesn't help matters.

Environmentalists are accused of being alarmist and ideologist. We are heralds of woe. We question the status quo and advocate change - the sin of sins. Worse yet, we sometimes "threaten" death and destruction and try to "force" people into giving up their well-earned comforts.

Sound familiar?

In a recent course on the legal aspects of planning, we went around the table to tell a little bit about ourselves and describe what kind of causes are of interest to us. I tossed out my flippant self-description as a revolutionary social environmentalist (it's hard to say with a straight face sometimes). My professor immediately wanted to know where I was from. I think he was expecting California or New York, not a fourth-generation Nebraskan.

"Consternation" describes his reaction lightly.

I'm sure he was wondering how that happens. How does a nice Midwestern girl from an upstanding conservative family with small town roots turn into an environmentalist? (My mother still says it like a four-letter word.)

Well, I take hope in the writings of Twain.

"Half of our people passionately believe in high tariff, the other half believe otherwise. Does this mean study and examination, or only feeling? The latter, I think. I have deeply studied that question, too - and didn't arrive. We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is public opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it the voice of God." (From "Corn-Pone Opinions" published in 1923.)

I am in luck then, because public opinion is changing. Enough people are coming to agree on one simple thing - that (whatever) I spoke of earlier is on The Official List of Bad Things. Enough people have stopped arguing over how much sulfur dioxide we can spew into the atmosphere before we get acid rain and have instead started to agree that sulfur dioxide is on the list. Enough people have stopped arguing over when the aluminum cans, plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups will overburden our landfills and started to agree that they are on the list.

Consensus is building. Public opinion is shifting, as it inevitably does.

And that gives me hope for one more thing - that we can stifle the final ambition of that cantankerous old man who was, and still is, our greatest voice.

As John Macy quoted Mark Twain in Macy's biography, "I am the only man living who understands human nature; God has put me in charge of this branch office; when I retire there will be no one to take my place. I shall keep on doing my duty, for when I get over on the other side, I shall use my influence to have the human race drowned again, and this time drowned good, no omissions, no Ark."

It would be no end of irony should we be "drowned good" of our own hand. Twain would laugh his ass off.

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