News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, October 11, 2010

The United States of Dysfunction

The people living on the Gulf of Mexico feel abandoned.  When BP managed to put the cap on that gushing oil well, it also seemed to put the lid on all the implications of that disaster.  It was one of the most serious environmental disasters in world history, but, like much that holds the American attention for a time, it has blown through the American mind like a hurricane and lingers only as a dim memory, not a threatening and destructive presence that still deeply affects life.

Only the despised tree-huggers talk about the despoiling of the Gulf at this point.  And I admit to being an unabashed tree-hugger.  Until recently, I was the primary care-giver to tens of thousands of pine trees in Wisconsin, from infancy to towering 40-foot adults.  It was a project that reclaimed some farmed-out land (another environmental disaster) and brought it back to viability.  Part of that viability was in supporting wildlife and letting natural forces correct the results of human stupidity.  But that project did not involve millions of barrels of life-destroying oil.  And the human stupidity did not extend to using the disaster for partisan politics.

The changes  in the Gulf, however, have been taking place long before Deepwater Horizon blew its top and went on its killing spree--eleven men and untold populations of wildlife.  Those changes in the Gulf have been evident in South Dakota for some time.  I do not know when the last time was that you could buy  red fish at the seafood counter in the local market.  Occasionally, a truck parks in the lot at Kmart and you can get Gulf shrimp, and you can get wild-caught salmon from Norway or Alaska at the seafood counter for a $10 a pound premium, but the staples now are pond-raised shrimp from India, pond-raised tilapia from Malaysia, and some tuna steaks from Japan. The Gulf long ago ended as a presence in South Dakota.

Conserving the life-sustaining resources and the natural systems that have evolved on earth are essential to a tolerable life for humans.  Plundering and destroying the environment is a form of mass suicide.  A healthy environment is not only essential for maintaining physical life, it shapes the mental and spiritual culture of those who occupy it. Keeping humanity healthy, physically and mentally,  is the point of conservation.  There is a difference between conservationists and environmentalists, but they agree on much more than they differ.  I include myself among the former.  My tree-hugging was labor intensive.  The forest I owned and worked  involved the constant maintaining of fire lanes, cutting and managing slash (the dead branches that accumulate as the trees devote their energies to new growth), the thinning of the forest to produce big, healthy trees instead of a lot of scraggly ones, fertilizing,  controlling insects and disease, and planting species in the forest for a viable succession, as the forest followed its natural urge to support hardwood growth. This intense forestry is called silviculture.  It conserves forests with human objectives included in its practice.

The biggest threat to healthy forests are ignorant and predatory humans.  That ranges from the idiot who throws a lighted cigarette butt out of a car  window, to a corporate enterprise that is polluting the air and water,  to a farmer who applies herbicides that can drift into the trees and insecticides that are producing mutations of insects that cannot be controlled. A silviculturist is alert to the health of all the flora and fauna that are part of the forest.  When plants and animals show signs of distress, that indicates that some problem is in the environment that could jeopardize the health of the entire forest.  Humans do not like to be told they are responsible for bad things that happen on earth.  They deny their responsibility and culpability.  Many reject the idea that their own survival is dependent upon a healthy planet, and that what they do affects the health of the planet.  That denial is the basis for a major political strain in our population.

 One of the reasons that the people in the Gulf feel abandoned is because they are.  The deniers would prefer to think that the Gulf oil spew was just another environmental incident, like Katrina, that blew over and can be forgotten.  Oil drilling in the Gulf is a major part of the economy.  The deniers do not want to contemplate that it is dangerous.  They get angry over the curtailment and regulation of  drilling because it affects so many jobs.  But the oil field workers are not the ones who have been abandoned.  The fishermen are.  While they make a huge contribution to the economy, they aren't as big and powerful as the oil interests.  They do not have the corporate money and, therefore, the political clout that the oil interests do. In the deniers' scheme of things, the fishing industry is best ignored and forgotten.  It gets in the way of human enterprise.

Another disaster that signals problems with how some humans treat the plant is the red sludge flood in Hungary.  It killed people and forced the evacuation of communities because it leaves them too toxic for humans to occupy.  The sludge is created by the process that extracts aluminum from its ore.  The deniers see it as a threat to the aluminum industry, although the North American aluminum industry does not use that kind of process and is regulated (yes, regulated) to prevent such a disaster.  Nevertheless, for the good of our country, it is better to deny and ignore the suggestion that the production of an essential metal might pose threats to natural and human life.

Denial is a big force in American politics.  You have something in your life you do not like to think about, you simply deny it.  As in denying that President Obama is born in America.  If denial is not enough, you call him the names of things that other deniers hate, as in Muslims, socialists, etc.  Denying environmental threats is treated the same way.  If a conservationist or environmentalist brings up a problem in our environment, dismiss it by calling those who bring it up tree-huggers, or some other pejorative that titillates the hate glands of the deniers.  

The Denial Party is a big force in American politics right now.  The politicians want to garner the denial vote.  So they fawn, and grovel, and pander. The media wants the denial audience.  So it fawns and grovels and panders.  As a result, the country is in a state of paralytic dysfunction.  It can't do anything.  All it can do is stand around and bicker, call names, and accuse.   

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times defines the problem:

politicians who only know how to read polls, never change them; media outlets serving political parties; special interests buying senators; mindless partisanship; an epidemic of low expectations for our government. And us — we elected them all, and we tolerate them.

You think the Gulf oil spew or the red sludge might portend some problems for humanity?  Forget it. Get over it.  Deny it.

The State of Dysfunction is a happy state.  Learn to live with it.  And die with it.  

Happy Denial Day

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States