The wrong stuff

Reading this week’s cover story, I had to pause when I read astronaut Steve Robinson’s description of the Earth as seen from space. From up there, he recalls, the atmosphere looks “limited” and “almost minimal.” (See “Our man in space.”)

Down here, it was hard to reconcile this sense of fragility with the destructive power of Hurricane Katrina as it battered the Gulf Coast.

And yet, we know that the Earth’s atmosphere is fragile. We’ve known for years that humans have changed the Earth’s climate, making it warmer through deforestation and our mind-boggling appetite for fossil fuels.

Was Katrina caused by global warming? There’s really no satisfying answer to that. No single weather event can ever be attributed to climate change. New Orleans always has been vulnerable to a hurricane—any low-lying coastal city lives on borrowed time, no matter how well-engineered we think it is.

But we also know that such storms will become more powerful and more frequent because of global warming. As time goes by, the deck is being stacked with more Katrinas.

The coming week, of course, marks the anniversary of another tragedy—one also tangled up with this notion of limited natural resources. September 11 and the ongoing disaster in the Middle East are tied up with oil as inextricably as global warming is. Where was the National Guard when it was needed in New Orleans? Many members were far away, fighting a war that much of this country believes is really about oil—this stuff that we’ve made so central to our economy, our foreign policy and our way of life.

Robinson talks about how astronauts tend to become conservationists when they get back to terra firma. Perhaps it’s time we flatlanders took a look through their eyes, too.