Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The New Black Death

Previously on "Survivor," as they say on TV, I never used to give a rat's fink about tornadoes. But now these death-dealing black funnel clouds have become a threat in this country that rivals the Black Plague during the Middle Ages in Europe. Last week another 39 people died in tornadoes that swept across a number of southern states, largely wiping out an obscure town called Henryville, in Indiana. I found this account by a blogging housewife who lives there while I was looking for tornado pictures on the Net. She claims she always had a secret plan to write a book about Henryville so people would know what this little-known place was like-but now she says she doesn't have to. The town hardly exists anymore.

"March 2nd was an absolutely beautiful March day. The temperature was in the low 70s and the sun was shining all day. Even though the weather forecasters had been warning us that there were storms headed our way, it wasn't something that seemed too concerning. This is Indiana... we get little tornadoes all the time. You get to your shelter just in case, but very rarely does anything come of it. In fact, I had laughed at the newscasters earlier in the day, telling my younger daughter, who schools at home, that they are so dramatic and nothing ever happens. My oldest daughter [Caitlin Soard] is a senior at the local high school...."

Her daughter did make it home safely that day from school, but only in the nick of time, and later returned to take the above photograph of what remains of her school. "The sound was a bit like a train, but louder and with an ominous rumble," her mother continued. "The hail that followed right after was the size of tennis balls. I wondered if it was going to come through the ceiling. I am 42 and I've never seen a tornado that big in Indiana or hail that big. Our dogs were going nuts and barking and the cat had huge eyes and hunkered down in the mud room with us."

No one has been able so far to make any absolute correlation between the black plague of tornadoes we are experiencing in the U.S. and climate change--but Republicans, of course, are are determined that we never will. They do not support even the possibility that climate change is the result of man-made activities. So I was interested to come across an essay in the current (March 12) issue of Time, which has the chilling title "Nature Is Over." The author, Brian Walsh, argues that our relentless expansion as a species upon the earth has finally created a situation where "there may simply be no room for nature, at least not nature as we've known and celebrated it--something separate from human beings--something pristine." "For a species that has been around for less than 1% of 1% of the earth's 4.5 billion-year history, Homo sapiens has certainly put its stamp on the place," he writes

The picture he goes on to paint of that stamp is not pretty, but it is one that most sane people are already aware of: the fact that human activity now shapes the earth more than any other independent geologic or climatic factor. As Walsh describes it, we've stripped the original forests from much of North America and Europe and helped push tens of thousands of species into extinction. Even in the vast oceans, areas of the planet uninhabited by humans, our presence has been felt thanks to overfishing and marine pollution. Through artificial fertilizers...we've transformed huge amounts of nitrogen from an inert gas in our atmosphere into an active ingredient in oiur soil, the runoff from which has created massive aquatic dead zones in coastal areas. And all the CO2 that the seven billion plus humans on earth emit is rapidly changing the climate--and altering the very nature of the planet.

We've been living for 12,000 years now, since the last ice-age ended, in the Holocene epoch, and enjoyed conditions favorable to human existence. But some scientists believe that era has ended, and we've entered a new epoch they call the Anthropocene, in which human dominance of biological, chemical, and geological processes on earth has become an undeniable reality. Human growth and its impact on the environment has been characterized by E.O. Wilson as "more bacterial than primate." Our culture of extraction has indisputably altered the balance of nature, to say nothing of the radioactive fallout introduced by nuclear power. How we manage the uncertain conditions we have created will decide whether human beings continue to thrive or flame out.

Speaking of flaming out, there was one bit of great good news this week: Rush Limbaugh has flamed out. His vile, misogynistic comments about Sandra Fluke finally crossed a line that caused his advertisers to flush him. The radio station proceeded after that to cancel his contract, for good. One major piece of toxic, radioactive bacterium polluting the earth is gone!
Champagne, anyone?

Photo credit (tornado) Skip Talbot


Jenn said...

The image of the tornado should be credited to Skip Talbot, who took the shot.

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