While Rome burns

The French have a word for it (they always do). The great 1952 novella by Robert Heinlein was called The Year of the Jackpot in America, but L’annee du grand fiasco in France. And considering the way we persist in soiling our own nests for nothing except money, despite everything we know today, I would argue that the French word “fiasco,” not the English “jackpot,” is the better choice.

In case you never read the story, it’s about a statistician named Potifhar, who notices that strange things are happening in spades, all over the world. For example:

A man sues an entire state legislature for alienation of his wife’s affection — and a judge allows the suit to be tried.

A man applies for a patent to turn the world on its side, to warm up the arctic regions. The patent is denied, but the man takes in more than $300,000 in down payments on South Pole real estate.

A bill is introduced in the lower house of the Alabama state legislature to repeal the laws of nature that govern atomic energy.

A couple gets married on the floor of the Hudson River, using a specially designed diving suit built for two.

British/Irish talks remain deadlocked.

The Master Plumbers of America elects a Hollywood starlet as Miss Sanitary Engineering.

The fire extinguishers in a Midwest orphanage turn out to be filled with air.

And the list goes on.

As the tale unfolds, the climate starts to change, raining where it was dry before and becoming parched where water once ruled. Soon, California is racked by earthquakes, storms rage, volcanoes burst, and finally an astronomer notes a change in the stability of the sun. Then, of course, the world ends.

Heinlein wrote the story back in 1952, when computers were merely a gleam in a mathematician’s eye and population was not deemed a major problem. Now, nearly 50 years later, his vision seems distressingly prescient.

Consider the news:

World population grows with unchecked speed, yet birth control is fought at every turn.

A bunch of Cuban thugs force an entire country to keep a father and son away from their home — all in the name of freedom.

Investors sell securities guaranteeing a 100-percent return — and retired folks buy them.

A man in Rhode Island makes art out of garbage.

There’s an annual convention called the Honda Hoot.

People actually write books with titles like Teaching my Daughter to Mulch.

The city jacks up parking-meter rates to help balance the books, while giving a discount to the Hooters, who don’t even live here.

Like the people who kept quiet about the emperor’s new clothes, the folks responsible for the Pack Square Flasher continue to ignore it.

Cars multiply, crowding roads that were never intended to carry that much traffic; at the same time, automobile manufacturers fight any moves to require cleaner-burning, more fuel-efficient engines (or else agree to make changes, but put them off for a few more years).

Asheville’s air gets worse and worse, yet our local power company continues to fight tougher air-emissions standards — all in the name of profit.

Developers maintain that they have a right to develop whatever they want, while citizens are told what’s good for them.

Folks sell their souls for the right to buy soft drinks and Chinese sneakers.

The weather gets hotter every year, but most developers claim it’s merely a natural aberration, insisting that we can continue to pave over the ground and cut the trees with impunity.

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