Mother Nature

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 24 1999 9:30 PM

Mother Nature

Why you can't trust Mom.

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The Borders around the corner, which would never dream of selling dirty books, is stocking its register display this week with another kind of smut: Weather Porn. There's Storm of the Century, Isaac's Storm, The Perfect Storm, When the Wind Blows, and my favorite, Nature on the Rampage, a Kamasutra for weather nymphos. Nature on the Rampage's cover promises "Hurricanes, Droughts, Wildfires, Tornadoes, Floods, Heat Waves, Blizzards. Also Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and even Comets!" (Even comets!) Inside are titillating photos--houses bitten in half by tornadoes, cars swallowed in snow banks, etc.--and details to arouse even the most jaded weather fetishist. Did you know that several Americans are killed every year when lightning strikes a phone pole, courses through the phone line, and electrocutes them as they are making a call? Tip: Use a cordless.

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Mother Nature, the Vanessa del Rio of this weather bordello, has never seemed more fascinating than she seems today. Hollywood's flood of natural disaster movies--Volcano, Twister, Asteroid, The Flood, etc.--ebbed just in time for the real thing: earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, a drought on the East Coast, Hurricane Floyd and its allied floods. Americans have followed all this obsessively, with weather Web sites reporting record traffic in the days before Floyd's landfall. Is there anyone who can't explain the Richter scale or distinguish between a Category 4 hurricane and a Category 5?

With all this talk of upheaval ("Nature's Bedlam," as Nature on the Rampage likes to call it), you'd think we were suffering a plague of chaos--record numbers of Category 5 hurricanes, epic tornadoes, droughts, and the like. It's true that the United States, with its endless coastline, vast climatic variation, massive fault lines, and dozens of active volcanoes, is exposed to more than its share of Mother Nature's fury. But the number of natural "events" nationwide and worldwide remains constant. (Some meteorologists speculate that we are entering a busy hurricane cycle, but the jury is still out.)

Americans are more alert to Mother Nature's rage in part because more people are in its way. According to Time, 139 million Americans live in regions threatened by hurricanes. Earthquakes, floods, and volcanoes endanger millions more. Because property follows people, natural disasters have become more destructive: A storm that rips through Florida today shreds many more houses than it would have in 1970. According to the National Science Foundation, natural disasters now cause about $100 in damage per American per year, five times as much as a generation ago, even accounting for inflation.

It's no accident that anxiety about nature is surging during a time of domestic tranquility and (relative) world peace. Weather is a form of war, God's conflict with man. Weather is defined by martial metaphors--"fronts," "clashing" air masses, "striking" storms. (War, curiously, is full of meteorological metaphors: a "hail" of bullets, the "fog" of battle.) Everyone needs an enemy. It's easy to understand why we replace vanishing Mafiosi and Commies with asteroids, hurricanes, and volcanoes. Natural disaster books dominate best-seller lists for the same reason: In an age without great wars, these are our war narratives.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Today's paranoia about the Earth Mama also owes something to millenarianism, both religious and environmental. Pat Robertson has blamed Orlando's nasty weather on Disney World's hospitality to gays. Christian millennial Web pages find biblical significance in every blizzard or quake. Greeniacs, too, view natural disasters as retribution. Hot Zone author Richard Preston, the Alfred Hitchcock of germ terror, has described murderous jungle viruses this way: "The Earth is mounting an immune response against the human species. ... Mother Nature is going to get even."

Gaia theorists, who contend that the planet is a superorganism in which creatures unconsciously regulate the atmosphere in order to ensure favorable conditions for life, also believe Mother Nature is on the warpath. James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia theory, writes that "Gaia ... always keep[s] the world warm and comfortable for those who obey the rules, but [is] ruthless in her destruction of those who transgress. Her goal is a planet fit for life. If humans stand in the way of this, we shall be eliminated."

But the most important reason why Mother Nature seems more powerful these days is the media. The ascendance of the Weather Channel, the USA Today weather page, and weather Web sites (click here for an earlier Slate piece on the weather Web) have turned weather into national entertainment. We can (and do) view weather satellite photos of any spot on Earth with a click, hear forecasts 24/seven, and watch live footage of weather disasters on television. There is an endless appetite for weather. It is more important than sports, more dramatic than the news, and always changing.

(The media fuel weather obsession partly because we can now do something about the weather, not just talk about it. TV stations send barrages of warnings about storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards. These warnings undoubtedly save lives: Natural disasters may cause more property damage in the United States, but they kill fewer people.)

The blanket coverage of Mother Nature exacts a price: weather fatigue. The more she's covered, the less people care about her, and the more reporters hyperbolize. All three newsmagazines turned their Hurricane Floyd articles into jeremiads about worsening weather. Time warned of a future of "supercanes," "hypercanes," and "megastorms" that would make Floyd look like a spring shower.