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February 2, 2006


Two Weeks in Washington, Two Tons of Rain


Last November, my wife, Jane Lapiner, and I spent two weeks lobbying in Washington, D.C. We were the 11th and 12th "Peace Ambassadors" representing a small but determined Eureka-based organization, Communities for Peace. All in all, we met with representatives of 25 Congress-people, or with the Congress-person him or herself, as well as representatives of three Senators. We visited mostly California legislators, Republican and Democratic alike.

Our message was straightforward, though something other than a simple plea for peace: War, if ever other than a ruinous waste of life and material, was doubly foolish in light of the need for the world to deal with rapidly accelerating climate change. If we did not soon muster all of our resources, our national and species genius, and direct them toward the inseparable goals of sustainability and fairness, we would have to watch civilization devolve into a chaos, dooming our children and their children.

We had stepped with this message into the rapid flow of the national political stream at what seemed to be a particularly interesting time. The day we arrived, the Democrats in the Senate launched a shot across the Republican majority's bow. Minority leader Harry Reid had challenged control by forcing the Senate into closed session until there was an agreement to deliver what had been promised by Republicans -- a second report on the intelligence that had been used to justify the war in Iraq. The GOP's driving neo-conservative leadership had by this time seemed to have attached itself with seemingly unbreakable suction onto the controls of the bedrock institutions of American government -- including those of the Republican Party. Reid's successful move was like the first prying finger under this gigantic gastropod's shell. It gave hope that some day this creature could be pried loose to sink down into the primordial ooze where the jetsam and debris of history's many other bad ideas were timelessly mired.

This move of Reid's, coupled with the November electoral outcomes, had sobered a few among GOP ranks and perhaps made them slightly more available to our particular initiative. Katrina, no matter how many publicly voiced denials, provoked a new level of awareness of global warming's reality and its dangers. The world had shifted, and in some place in their minds most everyone knew it.

We had relatively candid discussions with representatives of some of the most conservative members of the House. These were people for whom the righteousness of the war was written in stone and who had always thought that climate change was a hoax behind which age-old enemies of the capitalist system now hid. But they were available to talk.

There had, it seems, been a quiet slippage. As each aide or counsel or senior adviser waded through their obligatory denial of the vast majority of climate science, a refined ear could sense a tepid note. Their denials had become lukewarm, obligatory and, it turned out, more vulnerable to informed challenge -- Katrina's legacy. Still, it was clear that the Republicans as a whole remained distant from active support for real solutions to global warming

In some Democratic offices, such as our Congressman Mike Thompson's, we found an unexpected testiness relative to our message. It was promulgated no doubt by having had to bear seemingly forever a House legislative process that allowed complete control to the unyielding majority. Thompson reacted to us with a frustration meant for someone else. For him, there was one hope only -- taking back one or both houses of Congress in 2006.

A lot of lip service in support of our position was paid by Democrats. We tried to awaken them to the vast economic potential of the message wherein the economy could be rebuilt around the mandate for sustainability and fuel independence. The strange beast that is our nation's Capitol does not easily let its feathers be ruffled by the distant knell of yet another pending disaster. Nor does it readily sense the beneficial portents borne by the winds of change. Democratic responses, understandably, sounded rehearsed, like position statements or sound bites. Life goes on in the halls of Congress in a breezy way, and at a brisk but unhurried pace, allowing the illusion that a rational and effective process is underway by which society is protected and furthered.

Back home, listening to the storm winds keen and the hard rains beat against the roof and walls, that other "breeziness" seems distant, inadequate and superficial. In Washington, we assiduously watched the news and commentary shows each night. Here we watch the satellite weather photos online. It is awesome to see the chain of storms forming in the Sea of Okhostk along the Siberian coast and then marching across the Pacific to punch continental North America, time and again, right in the nose. These past weeks, for better or worse, the Humboldt coast has been the continent's proboscis. These massive storms, after lashing us, push from here over the Sierras through the Basin and Range and the Rockies to finally join forces with Arctic air masses moving down to systematically bruise the Great Plains and Midwest. This is what's serious and real.

As we progress ever deeper into this particularly warm, wet season -- trying to find some rest in what we hope is only a good old-fashioned Humboldt winter -- we are forced to wonder if this might not be another manifestation of a nature seemingly unleashed from "normal" levels of control. We must at least grasp the meaning to be found in the aftermath of these storms. The road closures and power outages we've already experienced in the past weeks point at the vulnerability of our infrastructure to climatic extremes and the inescapable puniness of our resources to continue to "fix" what gives way -- especially before the juggernaut of an over-heated atmosphere.

How many holes must we dig out from, and how long can we expect a federal government seemingly bent on wild extravagances in the name of incomprehensible principles, to respond to our little emergencies? How many millions is there left, for instance, to throw time and time again into Confusion Hill or other similar failures before we are forced to let 101 simply go? How much of New Orleans can we afford to rebuild, to say nothing of Iraq or Afghanistan, which we have helped wreck. It's time, surely, to stop this trillion-dollar war. It is only enhancing the likelihood of more of what it was ostensibly launched to stop. We have graver threats to face, much more important and interesting work to tackle.

David Simpson is a resident of the Mattole Valley. He has been involved for 30 years in watershed restoration and salmon enhancement. He also wrote and performed in Human Nature's comedy review, "What's Funny About Climate Change?" The show toured for two years throughout the United States.


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