Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Of Mice and Men, Global Warming and Hundred-Year Storms

Letter from Prague
The best laid plans, we are told, of mice and men often go astray. That’s particularly the fact when the plans are postponed for reasons of budget, inattention, better things to do and the assurance promised in the very phrase “hundred-year storm.” I have had experience with all of the above.
As for budget, was there ever a plan that could not be reamed of its very essence by budgetary constraint? These are hard times, budgeting times, and thus infrastructure must be put off. Recent times were flush times, but other excuses sufficed as bridges in Minneapolis fell into the river. Here in Prague, the government was too busy selling state assets and running off with the dough to invest in dams and floodgates and damn floodgates.
We are (by the by) frantically building a flood wall at the moment along the scenic Prague river named Vltava. It’s been raining off and on for the past three months, more on than off.
The timeless and historic watercourse that’s threaded its way under the Charles Bridge for lo these past 552 years is licking its chops for another flood, the hundred-year event arriving 93 years ahead of schedule.
As a younger man, in what seems an alternative existence, I had occasion to appear before various Chicago-area planning boards. I was the hired gun, the mercenary assuring the various raised eyebrows of skeptical commissioners that this or that planned community or corporate layout would scarcely affect the environment. Traffic? No problem. Air quality? Hey, we have the charts and expert witness to calm your fears. And yet commutes edge toward two hours and groundwater is so unsafe we opt for the bottled variety.
I wish they had found a more accurate term for what’s happening to the planet than global warming, because we have temperatures rising in some parts of the world and dropping in others. One can kayak to the North Pole while the Antarctic ice fields expand. What we have is global temperature disruption. North America is scheduled to get warmer and drier, while here in Europe we expect cooler and wetter weather patterns. Thus the Vltava lurks.
Seven years and six weeks ago, mid-August of 2002, our friendly river was twenty feet above flood stage and halfway up the second story windows of buildings familiar to tourists in the quiet side streets of the Old Town. 50,000 people had been evacuated and huge outlying areas of the country were underwater. Damage took two years to repair and the Karlin section of Prague had to be essentially rebuilt. Now Karlin is home to the brightest and most glossy new developer complexes and the Vltava lurks once again. This weather pattern is nearly identical to 2002 and the middle of August is six weeks away.
Well, Prague will survive, but the message (if there is a message) is that the world is no longer the same. Basic weather patterns such as the Atlantic Gulf Stream are shifting while we argue about whether Chicago is really all that much hotter this summer. Perhaps we’re gazing at the wrong navel.
It’s a shame to watch this fine old city gird for another assault, but that’s a tale of mice and men. The late and insightful George Carlin had it right; “The planet is not in trouble. The planet is perfectly all right and will continue to be just fine. It’s man who is in danger of extinction.