Nocturne for the 21st Century

ANDREW LAM

April 17, 1992|By ANDREW LAM

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that if the ozone level drops 10 percent, the incidence of melanoma skin cancers will increase 25 percent worldwide. And indeed the ozone layer, according to the U.N., is rapidly being punctured and peeled.

There is something apocalyptic in what the numbers suggest, the promise of an ozone-void future.

Nocturnes for the 21st century? Imagine, if you will, a retro-future scenario in which our cave-dwelling ancestors' nyctophobia is inverted by future generations. Imagine a world of solarphobes.

The new generation may have to wake by night, sleep by day and worship in the moonlight. ''The sun is bad; the moon is good,'' will be the common prayer of the new religion.

A bizarre new mythology awaits man. In the 21st century, the myth of Icarus, whose waxed wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, will not be the tale of a daring youth but of an exemplary idiot. Dracula, on the other hand, will be seen as a misunderstood soul who sensibly prefers the comfort of shadows. And Little Orphan Annie's song, ''The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,'' will no longer represent undaunted optimism but foreboding.

Pretty soon -- who knows? -- children will learn that the real cause of Santa Claus' red nose isn't frost but a lethal case of melanoma, caused from over-exposure to the sun's unhindered ultraviolet light.

While we're at it, let's throw a nouveau vocabulary into our perverse futuristic stew. ''Daymare'' -- a kind of bad dream for those underprivileged who must go outside their dome during daylight hours. ''May the dark protect us'' -- an expression to soothe the universal fear that the sun won't ever set. ''Non-domers'' -- the billions of underprivileged crazed nomads and dome-raiders who suffer the fate of living without protective sun-proof shields over their heads, whose lungs have expanded because the air has less oxygen. ''Moon-night'' -- the seventh night of the week that replaces Sunday, when all domers dance under the lunarium, their favorite nocturnal activity. ''Lunatic'' -- a sagacious person. And so on.

Somewhere in that world of night, humans will realize that as they destroy their environment, they pervert their own inner nature. Nor will technology save them from themselves. Instead, the new nocturnal race will grow weary of their own overcrowded species, and lose their investigative edge. They will view the world as a constant, well, ''daymare,'' an endless struggle to search for a dark hole in which to hide. Martyrs, in something of a ''Logan's Run'' redux, will be those who volunteer to die young.

So has the future already arrived? News reports seem to suggest we are at the hem of darkness: Herds of sheep in South America have developed cataracts; Australian radio issues warnings whenever the level of ultraviolet light increases; Chilean soccer games have been rescheduled to late afternoons; Japan has already begun constructing an enormous underground city.

Scientists, too, have become the prophets of doom. The National Academy of Sciences now defines birth as a nuisance: Each new child born into the industrialized world, it estimates, will send into the atmosphere some 17 tons of ''greenhouse gases'' during the course of its lifetime that, among other things, will further deplete the thinning ozone layer.

Icarus had imagined a much better world. In his fearless flight toward the sun, he represented a world governed not by an old man's sense of limitations but by a young man's zest to explore. The world of the 21st century, on the other hand, already reeks of prudence, radiates fear. Such a world will inspire no poetry; it may never even know the tragedy of Icarus' loss.

Andrew Lam wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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