The Weathermakers

March 24, 1995|By ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

Broadway, Virginia -- Historians of American civilization have long debated the reasons for the collapse of the United States in the middle of the 21st century.

Conventional wisdom attributes the downfall of the once-great nation to the unsustainable development of its retirement system. Lower birth rates, longer life expectancies and earlier retirements resulted eventually in a ratio of four retirees to each productive worker, an insupportable reversal of the prior ratio of 17 workers for each retiree.

With the apparent beneficiaries of this inverted pyramid outnumbering those suffering its burden, so the argument goes, the democratic government failed to make the necessary adjustments in the system to avoid the bankruptcy and financial chaos that swept the country in the fourth decade of the 21st century.

I would argue, however, that although this financial fiasco undoubtedly contributed to the weakening of American society, the death of that civilization was, ironically, an unforeseen consequence of its greatest technological achievement. I am referring to the ability of the American techno-scientific community to control the weather.

When this ability was first manifest, in 2032, it seemed good news. As a potentially devastating hurricane amassed off the shores of the Carolinas, the Weathermakers (as NOAA's meteorological interventionists were dubbed) dissipated the storm. As prolonged rains threatened the Ohio and Mississippi valleys with destructive flooding, the government team sent the precipitation out to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Soon, as the public began to clamor for non-emergency interventions, the problematic aspect of this new ability became visible. When ''It would be nice if it doesn't rain tomorrow'' progressed from mere hope to popular political will, the stage was set for disastrous public policy.

At first the pressure for pleasant weather was exerted only with respect to holidays such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day, when millions of families were planning picnics. Soon, however, the three-fourths of the population that lived in urban areas could see no reason why they should have to drive in wet weather or to amuse their children indoors on rainy days.

The Daily Weather Planning Committees of both houses of Congress came under intense pressure from such massive constituencies as the Nice Day Association and the People's Day in the Sun group. Despite vociferous opposition from agricultural groups, rain was eventually limited by law to the third Wednesday of each month. The farmers, after all, were only a tiny minority.

The warnings from the farm lobby -- dismissed during the Great Weather Debate of 2043 as mere scare tactics -- proved all too true. Inadequate rainfall led to crop failures across the country throughout the decade, forcing the country to become, for the first time in its history, a net food importer. The American currency lost its value. People had plenty of sunny days for picnics, but nothing to eat at them.

Eventually, people recognized the need to allow more rainfall, but they squabbled endlessly over where the rain should be allowed to fall. ''Not in my backyard'' became the slogan of a massive populist movement.

The economic disintegration continued, and by 2055 American civilization had collapsed. The weather-management system, of course, also ceased to operate and the natural flow of weather returned. But by then it was too late to reconstitute the nation, and those people who survived did so in the isolated agrarian communities that characterized the American Feudal Period for the next two centuries.

Some have interpreted this history as demonstrating the dangers of technological advancement. But I am inclined to see it, rather, as a tale about the dangers that plague democratic systems of governance.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's most recent book is ''Fool's Gold: The Fate of Value in a World of Goods.''

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