Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fixing FEMA: Turn It Over to Wal-Mart!

The bumbling performance of FEMA during and after Katrina showed not only a lack of planning but an inability to come up with creative solutions when faced with a disaster of epic proportions. People sat in the sun or in sweltering buildings for days at a time with no food, no water, and no chance for escape from the horrific conditions. Elderly people and infants died of dehydration while FEMA fiddled around with the question of who was responsible for what duties.

Meanwhile, hours after the disaster, Wal-Mart had truckloads of bottled water on its way to New Orleans. These trucks with their lifesaving cargo were stopped and then turned back -- by FEMA.

I'm no fan of privatization; I feel that sometimes the government puts corporate profit ahead of the services it is supposed to provide. But maybe we need to take a second look at Wal-Mart. The company has the most efficient distribution system in the world, able to move vast quanities of goods long distances at top speed. It also has expertise at negotiating the lowest wholesale prices with its vendors. While that has gotten it in trouble with critics, being able to supply essential goods at low prices after Katrina could have saved the government millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Just imagine if Wal-Mart, after watching the TV news -- something apparently no one at FEMA bothered to do -- and finding out about the people stranded at the Astrodome and the Convention Center, had been able to immediately dispatch water, food, medical supplies, and other necessities to New Orleans as well as to other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, to arrive within hours instead of days. Imagine Wal-Mart setting up emergency shelter, and providng fast transportation out of the area where necessary. Imagine Wal-Mart setting up efficient systems of dispensing financial aid not vulnerable to abuse.

FEMA continues to fumble the aftermath of the natural disasters of last summer, and is changing with the clumsy slowness of many bloated government agencies. It's time for a big change at FEMA.

It's time for Wal-Mart to take over.

FEMA Fraud, or a Creative Solution?

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee held meetings this past week on Katrina fraud, waste, and abuse, and cited over a billion dollars in -- well, fraud, waste and abuse. The whole situation was certainly bungled by government officials and taken advantage of by unsrupulous civilians.

But among the discussion of incarcerated individuals getting FEMA checks, debit cards used for massages and strip joints, and double payments for housing, one interesting item was mentioned. Apparently some enterprising soul used relief money to put a down payment on a house in Georgia.

Is that really fraud? Or is it just a really creative solution to a personal crisis? Think about it -- the money was used for housing, which was needed after the disaster, but instead of ensconcing oneself in a hotel for months at a time and sweating out FEMA payments, this savvy individual bought a home, thus coming up with a permanent solution. Presumably he or she also went out and found a job and began a new life to be able to make the paymnts on the home.

I don't know the specifics of the situation; I hope that the person who bought the home was a genuine victim of Katrina and eligible for the help rather than an opportunist uninvolved in the original disaster. If so, I don't think we should pursue this individual for fraud, but give him or her a pat on the back and say, "More power to you!"

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Lessons from Haditha and Ishaqi: Nothing More to Win

The news is full of reports about Marines suspected of massacre in the Iraqi village of Haditha, and of other Marines cleared in a seemingly similar incident in Ishaqi. Both incidents resulted in men, women and children dead; one has been declared justified, the other not.

We need to look at what situation we are putting our soldiers in and what we are doing to the emotional and psychological health of Iraqis, including little children, who have to live with the presence of soldiers in their streets, detaining them, and searching their homes. One has only to look at the face of a five-year-old girl as her family waits outside their home, her face contorted in fear as she starts to cry, to realize that no one is winning here.

As long as the U.S. military is in Iraq there will be an endless supply of insurgents angered by U.S. presence and actions. And every confrontation, every firefight, is likely to recruit more insurgents angry at what is happening in their country.

Are the insurgents right to set off IEDs and blow up soldiers and innocent civilians? Of course not. But we are putting our troops through constant stress and demanding actions of them that no one should have to commit, and we are putting the Iraqi people through a daily hell of chaos and fear.

It's time to recognize that war does things to people; it damages the psyches of soldiers and civilians alike; it is a cruel, destructive act that should not be imposed on anyone. It's time to recognize that war itself is evil; and it's time to bring our troops home.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Jury's Act of Courage: The Moussaoui Verdict

I have to give credit to the Moussaoui jury for deciding on life in prison rather than the death penalty, in what must have been incredibly intense public pressure to vote for death.

This jury, in representing all of us in the United States, has finally taken a step back from the hatred, fear, and polarization that has been engendered in this country since 9/11. Whether there was a component of compassion for Moussaoui in the verdict or whether the jury voted for strictly pragmatic reasons, the fact that it refrained from imposing the ultimate penalty on that sorry character gives me hope that we can somehow find our way out of the confusing times we are in and work toward a more peaceful, compassionate, and accepting world.

We have a right to protect ourselves from those who would harm us; and we, in particular the families of the 9/11 victim, have every right to be angered and horrified by the ideas that Moussaoui espouses and the actions his cohorts took. But we also have the responsibility to act, as individuals and as a society, in ways that further the human race rather than plunging it deeper into darkness. In opting for life in prison rather than death for Zacarias Moussaoui, this courageous jury has taken a very important step in that direction -- a more important step, perhaps, than they will ever know. Their actions bring to mind a phrase from the New Testament's Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed be the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God."

Blessed, indeed.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

How to Prevent World War III: Oppose Attacks on Iran

The Bush Administration is reported to be considering the idea of attacking Iran to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons, and is even considering using tactical nuclear weapons against them.

This is insane. This will usher in World War III.


Russia has a friendly relationship with Iran; any attack on Iran would be considered unacceptable. Russia still has massive amounts of nuclear weapons. China has a friendly relationship with Iran, and would consider any attack on Iran to be unacceptable. China has many, many nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are in a very cautious, wary relationship with each other; war has broken out between them a number of times over disagreements surrounding Kashmir. India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, and the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran by the United States could be considered tacit approval for either of those countries to use their own nuclear weapons against each other.

The use of nuclear weapons, by anyone, for any purpose, is morally reprehensible. A preemptive strike on Iran, either with nuclear or conventional weapons, is morally reprehensible, and would kill many thousands of innocent civilians who have absolutely no say in their leaders' decisions or actions.

Write or call the White House, today, and express your opposition to any attacks on Iran, now or in the future.

email your comments to

email your comments to Vice President Cheney at

Call the comments line at the White House at

or FAX your comments to

or write a letter to

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Write your Senators and Congressmen by going to the congressional websites:

Harass them; haunt them; get your friends and family and everyone you know, all over the world, to haunt them. Send a copy of this to everyone you know. Make so much noise that the government can't ignore you.

Do it now.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hollywood, Grow the Hell Up!

A whole bunch of Hollywood celebrities are planning to disrupt the president's State of the Union address on January 31 by banging pots and pans and making all sorts of other noises to drown out the president's speech, a gesture symbolic of their notion that we need to drive him out of office.

Now, I don't like President Bush's policies, domestic or foreign; I don't have a lot of faith in his honesty, his intentions, or his competence, and I would love to see him out of office, sooner rather than later. But I object strongly to the notion that it's acceptable to disrupt the hearing of the president's speech, presumably so that others who want to listen to the man can't hear him.

The only thing I really like about President Bush is his dog Barney. I cringe at just about every word that comes out of the man's mouth. And I guarantee you that I'm going to be sitting in front of the TV listening to everything he has to say. His policies and his ideas have an enormous impact on this country and the world, and especially as someone concerned about his effect on peace, the environment, health care, and social justice, I want to know what to expect of him so that I can know how to react.

Beyond the necessity of listening to what powerful people have to say, whether you agree or disagree with them, there's the question of simple manners and the requirement of acting in a responsibly adult manner. Whether liberal Democrats like it or not, in order to win the Congress back from the Republicans in 2006 and the White House in 2008, you're going to have to make a favorable impression on Middle America. And one thing Middle America respects almost above everything else is good manners. That's one thing Howard Dean, for all his intelligence, never got, which is why his campaign died on the vine in Iowa, and that's one thing the Hollywood celebs planning this disruption don't seem to get either.

While I agree with many of the antiwar and often liberal views expressed by many Hollywood celebrites, I am often as appalled as Middle America by their bad manners, insensitivity, and blatant disregard for the views of others. Sometimes it comes across as if they don't believe so much in free speech as in their speech. And while I am as annoyed by the sneering, condescending attitude of conservative pundits like Ann Coulter as by the inane antics of liberal Hollywood celebs, somehow I've always expected more from the liberals. They should know better. Ed Asner in particular is way the hell old enough to know better!

So, Hollywood liberals, if you oppose the conservative agenda of George Bush and his cronies, stop acting like spoiled, petulant children, grow the hell up, and start framing a serious, intelligent and convincing response to the president's speech -- after you listen to what he has to say.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Expendable Lives

Reports of a U.S. air attack on a Pakistani village that took civilian lives, while its intended target, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri, was absent, is another example of an accepted consequence of war: that there is always going to be "collateral damage", and innocent people are going to die.

"Collateral damage"-- a term apparently coined by former secretary of state Colin Powell -- sanitizes an ugly fact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, civilians have been killed, many by Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani insurgents, but many thousands more by American bombs, guns, and missiles. This begs the question: If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to make the American people safer, then do we really believe that we are to save the life of a child in the United States by accepting the death of a child in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or in a Pashtun village in Pakistan? Are the lives of American people inherently more valuable than the lives of the citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan?

We've extended this idea to other conflicts; we condemn terrorist bombings which take innocent Israeli lives, and yet are strangely silent when Israel mounts an attack on a suspected Hamas leader, killing innocent children in the process. And yet both actions are wrong; both actions are horrific. We pick a side in a conflict and supply arms and other support to that side, many times without any thought to the result. The gassing of Iraqi civilians by Saddam Hussein wouldn't have happened but for the supply of that gas by current secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld representing an earlier administration. Other conflicts around the world have escalated to horrifying proportions because each side was supplied arms and ammunition by other countries.

I agonzied over my own views as the build-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred; I didn't want to see anyone die in an ugly, unnecessary war, yet at the same time I was profoundly disturbed by the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein's murderous rule, and the insane abuse of women in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. I didn't want to ignore the plight of the individuals in these two countries.

But there has to be a better way to work for justice and humane treatment for the world's citizens than to declare a war which will inevitably lead to the deaths of many of those we are supposedly trying to help. We need to raise our own consciousness, and that of leaders and citizens in other countries, to find a peaceful and effective way to protect ourselves while opposing policies of murder, torture, and violence.

Fundamentalist Christians love to talk about Armageddon, the ultimate battle between good and evil, and some even use the concept as a justification to go to war. But maybe Armageddon isn't a conflict between "us" and "them", but between the instincts of good and evil in our own natures; and maybe part of the ultimate victory over evil will come when we no longer accept war as either inevitable or acceptable.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Real Cost of Energy: Lives Lost in the Pursuit of Fossil Fuels

The year of 2006 was ushered in by a horrifying disaster: thirteen mine workers were trapped and 12 ultimately died after an explosion collapsed a tunnel in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. The tragedy raises the question: how much are we willing to pay, in terms of other people’s lives, to sustain or even increase the amount of energy we consume in this country and around the world?

The event was covered extensively by the media, and Fox News brought out the fact that over the past century, 100,000 miners have died in mining disasters in the U.S., and another 100,000 have succumbed to black lung disease.

Mines, in West Virginia and elsewhere, are located in rural areas where little other well-paid work is available; mining is virtually the only way a family man can make a decent living. Largely because of decades of efforts by the United Mine Workers and other labor organizations, the number of deaths has been cut drastically, and better mining practices have resulted in the reduction or elimination of black lung disease. But as recent events have proved, mining is still an inherently dangerous and unpredictable occupation. Men and some women still enter the mines, descending two miles or more into the depths of a hillside in dark, cold, damp conditions with the constant danger of wall and roof collapses, exposure to deadly fumes, and the risk of explosion – all so they can provide a living for themselves and their families.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is predicting the need for more and more energy in years to come; abandoned coal mines are reopening to meet the rising demand; at the same time, our country and the world are becoming more and more consumer-driven, its economy based increasingly on producing goods for sale, many times luxuries that no one needs. Who in the world really needs a video iPod? How fast do our computers need to be? How big do our TV sets, our cars, and our houses need to be?

Every product manufactured requires energy to produce, and with our fascination with electrical and electronic gadgets, more energy to operate. We have a ravenous appetite for energy and natural resources, much of it representing a desire for consumer goods not necessary to sustain our lives.

It’s time for the U.S. to take a serious look at conservation of fossil fuel and other energy resources and develop a plan to switch to safe, environmentally friendly alternative fuel sources – fast. We can’t wait twenty-five years to implement changes that will positively impact the environment and conserve valuable resources. We also need to take a serious look at the consumer-driven nature of our economy, and ask ourselves if there is a better way to sustain our society.

Perhaps most importantly, at least on a moral level, as we make the shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources, we need to create jobs in the resulting new industries, jobs designed to replace mining jobs in rural West Virginia and other remote areas, so that these hardworking miners can finally have a sensible, lucrative, and safe alternative to those dark and dangerous mines.

So, Martha …A Modest Proposal for Your Daytime Show

Say what you want about Martha Stewart, one fact is undeniable: she done her time. She spent her sentence at Camp Cupcake rubbing elbows with women from all walks of life, and seems to have come away with a modicum of understanding and empathy for those with few resources and little opportunity in life. I have come up with a couple ideas on how she, as a woman with power and influence, can build on that understanding for the good of humanity.

So Martha, here goes:

How about creating a makeover segment on your show? A – ta-da – Shopping Cart Makeover! Find women of limited means from various ethnic and social groups, accost them in the supermarket, and offer them a makeover.

First, inventory the foods and other goods they’ve bought, and note the amount of money they spend. Look at their family structure to analyze their needs, and then do a makeover, substituting healthy foods for unhealthy, finding inexpensive cleaning products which work as well as more expensive ones, and adapting favorite family recipes to more healthy versions. Perhaps you could even introduce the idea of organic foods.

The objective? To teach a family how to eat and spend in a healthier fashion, using the same amount of money they now pay for overpriced processed foods. A constraint would be to make it easy and fast; a lot of poor women and men have to work multiple jobs to care for their families, and don’t have a heck of a lot of time to spend in the kitchen.

Another idea, suggested from your own comments about your stay in prison: Tackle, loudly and with great fervor, the issue of the health and well-being of inmates incarcerated in the United States, beginning with their food. Promote organic gardening at the prisons so the inmates can grow their own produce; introduce healthy proteins and whole grains into their diet; and offer education so that prisoners can learn to take charge of their own health, in and out of prison. Expand into exercise programs and mental health support; and seriously look at the conditions under which prisoners live, and push to improve them. And really bring it to the attention of the U.S. public just how unhealthy some of these prisons are for the inmates who have to reside there.

Martha, I think you got sandbagged, clobbered for a relatively minor offense as a very public lesson to other CEOs; but maybe you went through this experience for a reason. Maybe you’re supposed to use your considerable talents and organizational ability to make a real difference in the world, including for the less fortunate members of society – starting in the kitchen.

My Perfect Car -- An Open Letter to General Motors

I’m driving a ten-year-old car with 117,000 miles on it and, unfortunately, one of these days it’s going to go belly-up. I would love to be able to buy an American car.

So, GM, here’s my list of wants: I want a small car that’s both fuel-efficient and safe, one that will hold up in an altercation with one of your mammoth SUVs. I also want it to have a diesel engine capable of operating on vegetable oil. Not biodiesel, but vegetable oil, either unused or recycled from local restaurants.

The problem with running a car on vegetable oil is that at cold temperatures it tends to thicken, preventing it from flowing – a major hassle when trying to use it as a fuel. Because my perfect car has to run on vegetable oil, the car has to be able to heat the oil to the right temperature; so you’ll have to include an auxiliary battery which heats the oil inside the fuel tank, and then is recharged as the car operates. This way, diesel cars can run on 100 percent vegetable oil in all climates year-round, thus eliminating the need for diesel fuel entirely. Volkswagen and Mercedes haven’t figured out this detail yet, so if you accomplish this now you’ll have a jump on them.

I would like my new car, as much as possible, to be constructed of materials recycled from scrap steel, iron, and other materials collected and processed in the United States; of course, the scrap metal would have to be processed properly so that the car doesn’t rust from the inside out. (Remember all those big, rusty white cars from a couple decades ago?) I would like my new car to be built by U.S. residents in one of the many GM plants around the country.

I don’t need an ash tray; I do need front and side air bags which are safe for a four-foot-ten-inch woman like me. Cup holders are cool, and a functional glove compartment is handy. Whiplash control for midgets like me would be great, too.

I want this perfect car to be attractive – no ugly, boxy economy car look – in a wide choice of snazzy colors, with an automatic transmission, and a backseat in case I ever have reason to transport more than one passenger, or have to move with my three cats and their cat carriers. Four doors are nice, but I could get by with two. A trunk would also be nice, but I could deal with a hatchback with fold-down backseat if there were a way to conceal belongings stored in the back when the backseat is in its normal position. With the hatchback with fold-down seat, I could actually shop at Home Depot.

I would like this car to cost not more than $12,000, so that I could afford it on my income without mortgaging my soul. If you managed to come up with this car at this price, you’d sell millions of them! You might even sell one to Ralph Nader!

I really need this car by September of 2006, so you might want to get on this now.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Reality Bites: The Cynical Underpinning of Reality TV

From “Survivor” to “The Amazing Race,” from “The Apprentice” to “Project Runway,” the ugly truth is that, far from being a competition in which the best contestant wins, Reality TV shows are rife with infighting, political cliques, backbiting, betrayal, and exclusion. Alliances are formed, individuals are targeted for expulsion, and participants often lie about each other in order to put themselves in a better light than their competitors.

In one of the final episodes of “The Apprentice”-- before Randall committed the final dastardly act of selfishness -- his team discovered that the competing team had arranged to purchase every available megaphone from a store chain for an upcoming promotion. He and Rebecca agreed to preempt the other team, and Rebecca swept in to the store, misrepresented herself to the store clerk, and made off with the other team’s megaphones. Donald Trump’s response? “Good for them!” (By the way, Rebecca: that was a clue!)

What does the acceptance of this behavior say about American culture? Have we entered an era of social Darwinism in which “the survival of the fittest” rules? Is Reality TV redefining the values of the American people, or are they only reflecting a shift that had already taken place?

Consider this: Over a million additional Americans fell below the poverty level in the year 2004. Over forty million Americans are without health insurance coverage. Huge spikes in oil and natural gas prices, even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, threatened the financial survival of the working poor as they faced a harsh winter and impossibly high heating fuel bills. And all the while, Congress and the Bush administration promoted tax cuts for the wealthy, okayed windfall profits and subsidies for the oil companies, discussed cutting fuel assistance programs -- all the while running their fingers through Jack Abramoff's money.

Survival of the fittest. Now think about Katrina and Rita, and the woefully inadequate governmental response, and the circling of land speculators around the ruined neighborhoods of New Orleans only days after the hurricane.

Substitute food and water for those purloined megaphones, and adequate health care, and decent affordable housing, and ask yourselves: Is the view of life expressed many times a week on these Reality TV shows what we truly want for this country? Do we want our government and private citizens to react to a disaster like Katrina by fighting for necessities, cutting the weak out of the loop when it comes to essential services, and turning our backs on the most vulnerable among us in favor of the strong, the healthy, the well-connected, and the rich? Because those are the values we’re worshipping constantly in our support of the ubiquitous Reality TV programming.

We need to take a good look at Reality TV and the morally bankrupt values it is promoting, and ask ourselves this: What do we as citizens want our relationship to be with each other? What do we want our government, which acts as our surrogate, to do to help the poorest and the weakest among us? Are we really committed to the “survival of the fittest” view as expressed by Reality TV, corporate interests, and current government officials, or do we want to create a community which provides a safety net for the vulnerable and help for each other in the event of unexpected misfortune?

I admit to having a fondness for "The Apprentice," and a soft spot in my heart for The Donald. And I cackle with glee when a particularly arrogant, rude, or snotty contestant gets his or her comeupance. But the events on the Gulf Coast and more recent revelations about corruption in Congress have made me face a grim fact: Reality TV eerily reflects the cynicism and self-interest that permeates American society today, and the implications of that, should another widespread disaster strike, are not pretty.

So, Donald . . . An Open Letter to Donald Trump

Soaring oil and gas prices and the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have finally brought an issue into sharp focus for the public: When it comes to energy, we’re in trouble! We import far more crude oil than we produce in the United States; fully 70 percent of our oil comes from five countries in the Middle East, arguably the most volatile and politically unstable region in the world.

We need to develop sustainable, renewable, safe sources of energy to provide power for our homes and businesses. One real danger is, however, that as the memory of Katrina fades and the prices drop at the gas pump, the public will also lose focus, and fail to continue the pressure needed for politicians to generate change. What we need is a standard bearer – a big, vocal, powerful, charismatic standard bearer.

So, Donald….When are you going to build the world’s first off-the-grid skyscraper?

Just think of it – wind turbines on the roof, sheets of solar panels covering the south side of the building, and, to heat and cool the building, biodiesel, manufactured on site from discarded vegetable oil collected from the best restaurants in Manhattan. In the interior, piped-in sunlight brightens the living area while saving on electricity; a gray-water system recycles water throughout the building and can be reused for showers, baths, and lush gardens on every floor. Bamboo flooring and other renewable materials create a rich ambiance while promoting the concept of green living.

While you’re at it….

How does an “Adopt a Smokestack” campaign sound?

In talking about decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, one alternative being discussed is relying more on domestically mined coal. At this moment, coal burning is already responsible for generating more electricity in the U.S. than any other method. Unfortunately, much of this coal is being burned by obsolete, highly polluting utility plants. In the Midwest alone, over a hundred aging coal burning plants spew out pollutants responsible for acid rain which has killed hundreds of lakes, streams, and rivers in the Northeast. Large amounts of mercury from these plants are deposited in the water and end up in both freshwater and ocean fish, turning one of the healthiest sources of protein into one of the most dangerous – mercury in fish threatens the unborn children of women who ingest it, threatening neurological damage which results in a lifelong sentence of some measure of disability. Airborne pollutants are also responsible for an exponential increase in asthma, particularly in children. Increasing the use of coal without implementing immediate pollution controls would only intensify the pollution and its consequences.

Environmental experts familiar with coal burning plants estimate that it would cost a million dollars per smokestack to decrease the pollutants emitted to acceptable levels. The utility plants themselves have resisted this expenditure, and have lobbied successfully to stop governmental enforcement of environmental regulations; the fledgling Bush administration quickly stopped lawsuits, begun by the EPA during the Clinton administration, which would have forced these plants to implement pollution controls.

So, Donald, where do you come in? With your visibility, your cult status, and your corporate clout, you could easily raise the money to fix every smokestack in the country. NFL and NBA players, CEOs, Hollywood actors, producers, and directors, multimillionaires with old money and new – and don’t forget Oprah – all have the means to donate a million dollars, or more, to adopt a smokestack. We could virtually eliminate the pollution problem from these coal burning plants in short order – much more quickly than will be accomplished by lawsuits and governmental interference. We could offer to fix these smokestacks in exchange for one promise – that the utility plants do not sell their pollution credits to anyone else.

All of the technology needed for both of these projects is available today, and would put this country on the path to sustainability and energy independence in short order. And Donald, you could pull it off, in grand style.

I can see into the future: a Newsweek cover with a picture of a towering Donald Trump, and the title, “Donald Trump Saves the World.” Has a nice ring to it.

Since Katrina, The Environment Is Front-Page News

Ever since the end of August, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the major American city of New Orleans and the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama, the consequences of environmental degradation have been front-page news. Politicians and ordinary citizens are openly discussing what scientists have believed for years: that the widespread destruction of wetlands along the Gulf coast eliminated a natural buffer zone which in the past had served to slow down powerful hurricanes before they hit dense population areas.

The manmade levee systems in New Orleans and along the Mississippi River also came in for some blame. The levees disrupted natural processes which in the past had expanded the fertile farmlands of the Mississippi delta. Instead, the diversion of water caused subsidence which actually lowered major parts of New Orleans below sea level – making them a prime target for flooding, even without the breach of the levees.

Katrina and other recent natural disasters have become grim lessons in the consequences of failing to protect the earth’s natural environment. Floods on the Malibu, California coast periodically wash away million dollar estates – a result of the soil on hillsides being weakened by clear cutting which eliminated the root systems of trees that had served to hold the soil in place. High priced residential communities encroach into previously virgin old growth forests, and then are destroyed as wildfires, often a natural result of lightning storms, wreak havoc on the forests. Antiquated coal burning plants in the Midwest cause air pollution that travels to the Northeast, resulting in mercury pollution that kills rivers, lakes, and streams and ends up in the human food supply via fresh-water and ocean fish.

If there’s a silver lining to the Katrina disaster, it’s this: Mother Nature has finally, dramatically, gotten our attention. Proposals in the U.S. Congress to begin a wetlands reclamation project along the Gulf coast are being taken seriously, and even the issue of global warming is center stage again as scientists, politicians, and pundits debate the effect of the phenomenon on increasingly powerful and frequent hurricanes.

So What Now?

The awful destruction of Katrina, with its human and environmental costs, presents a unique opportunity – to rebuild a major American city from the ground up. Imagine a city re-created in a way that functions with the natural forces of the area, instead of against them. Imagine ruined homes replaced with sustainable housing, a city running completely on alternative sources of energy – wind and solar power, biodiesel, energy harnessed from the tides. Imagine a city with broad social reforms, universal health care, a superlative educational system, and training for the jobs which will be created in the new sustainable economy.

Katrina has gotten our attention. Now we need environmentalists, experts in alternative energy and sustainable housing, and politicians to come together to be a powerful force for the future. There will be no better time to make the earth’s environment the number-one priority.