Haunted by lingering effects | OPINION

It seems that when some processes get started there’s no stopping them. It’s not that they‘re unstoppable. Rather, we don’t muster up the gumption to pull their plugs. Crab traps for instance: not crab-rings or the fold-up kind, but rigid traps that lure crabs in to the bait but don’t let them out again.

When a Mission Bar crab trap loses its buoy it becomes an unstoppable fishing machine. First comers are lured in by the scent of bait, which they devour. But they can’t get out so they die to become food for the next wave. In an endless cycle, the scent of death attracts still more crabs that crawl in through one-way openings to join the cannibalistic process of feeding and dying.

The process continues until the trap’s frame and web corrodes, leaving a rust-stained mound of shells marking the demise of hundreds of crabs. All it takes is a frayed line or loose knot to trigger another of these ongoing disasters.

While lost crab traps do dirty work out of sight, dozens of out-of-control processes take place in plain sight. Take the neighbor who planted a hedgerow of cute little Douglas fir starts. Or cattle herds that doom overgrazed acreages to channeled erosion. Or parents choosing not to discipline increasingly disobedient children.  Hard to stop things once they take hold.

Another is the Big Engine. As America celebrates the last days of its horsepower binge, it feeds an unstoppable process of excess consumption. This lingering kiss-off to the era of cheap gas has no end in sight. Even with gas topping four bucks per gallon, old guzzlers remain kings of the road while new V-10 pickups sell like hotcakes. Like crab traps, big engines will continue to consume resources for the 250k or so miles it takes to wear them out.

There are ways to cut back on out-of-control processes. Try looking ahead: looking ahead by tying tighter knots and using stronger line. Looking ahead by choosing landscape plants that don’t grow up to haunt us. Or parents looking ahead by figuring out what it takes to raise children before they have them. And looking ahead to how purchases of energy gobblers affect the world around us.

Compared with what’s driven elsewhere, it seems that super-powered pickups and SUVs are a uniquely American final fling. Maybe American drivers’ romance with internal combustion needs this final dance with their mechanical mistresses. Could be that heavy metal drivers feel that if this really is the last dance, then they don’t want to have it with some wimpy 4-banger econo-box. Gather ye horsepower while ye may because new mpg standards will soon have us all driving pokey gas-misers.

It’s natural to cling to excessive old behaviors. Take space exploration for instance. Once we orbited Earth we voided the old saying, the sky’s the limit. There’s a whole  universe to be explored out there so we happily voyaged into space’s fiscal black hole, funding one megabuck project after the other. When one went wrong, another was designed to find out why. How much could be discovered? As much as the best brains and deepest pockets could find.  Meanwhile, needy people on planet Earth ooohed and aaahed at the rockets’ red glare.

These grandiose projects take the nature of national art-forms. Like pyramids or renaissance cathedrals. Someday, someone will analyze history’s Great Projects to figure out why people start huge things that take on lives of their own. Maybe steering our attention toward dazzling, mind-blowing, excessive extravaganzas keeps our collective mind off troubles at home.

This was done during the Great Depression by building dams. That unstoppable process began in the 1930’s when the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of the Interior went head-to-head to see which could dam the most rivers. It started as justifiable make-work projects to solve unemployment but once society was back to work the process kept right on for forty-some years with no kill-switch or sunset-clause.

Nothing slowed the bizarre competition between the Corps and Interior until they’d turned prime rivers into lakes and run smack into environmental disasters of their own making. To get permits, both the Corps and Interior lied and twisted congressional arms, Interior boldly built Grand Coulee two-hundred feet taller than their permit specified.  While Grand Coulee is a very nice dam and very useful, it also stands as a monument to programs that lacked controls.

Consider crab traps, petroleum consumption, trains, wars, space exploration, medical services and Seattle’s new tunnel. We could do better — personally and as a society but change comes slowly if a nation is coached daily into resisting change.

History shows that focus on short term profits and gratification undermines the economy. Worse, it diverts the public’s mind from issues that, if tended, would strengthen our prospects, personally and as a nation.

Comments may be  addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 22
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.