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The Observer had just parked our landfill on wheels in an open lot downtown when a passing young man, slight, studded and limbs colorfully tattooed, asked us, not even looking our way, “You going to leave your car like that?”

He didn’t say it in an accusing way, but it wasn’t exactly a question either.

We paused for a beat and then called to the young man’s back, “What about it?”

Still not looking our way, he retorted, “It’s just that the people around you might not like it.”

To be upbraided by someone 35 years our younger in the most offhand way … it was funny. It made us laugh. And repark the car more parallel to the lines.

Still, we wish we’d had the presence of mind to say, do you really want your arms to look like that the rest of your entire life? The people around you might not like it. But it was too late … for me to say it to him and for him to do a damn thing about it.



A couple of weeks ago, The Observer went to the movies to see Al Gore’s plea for people to pay attention to global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Great film. Grim stuff. As pictures of mountains all over the world fill the screen, Gore narrates the facts. The glaciers are disappearing from Glacier Park. Soon, there will be no snows of Kilimanjaro. More: empty-bellied baby animals, starving because they were born out of sync with the caterpillar hatch, the fish spawn — a whole generation lost. A graph that’s beginning to resemble our representations of the solar system, measuring the climbing temperatures of the last 50 years against the past millennia and straining to stay on the same chart.

Then last week, we went to see Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, who was speaking at the Clinton School of Public Policy. His bona fides: He’s the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, a professor at the University of Minnesota and an associate director within Homeland Security of the nation’s food protection program. He painted a picture of what a flu pandemic will look like. Not would, will.

The global system of supply and demand doesn’t allow for surpluses. Just enough and just in time — that’s the way business works. In a time of crisis, that means there won’t be enough of anything. Not of vaccine, not by a long shot. Or other drugs (85 percent of our drugs are made outside the U.S., Osterholm noted). Or hospital beds, or medical personnel, not even enough masks for them to wear. Not enough respirators for patients suffering from pneumonia. (But what’s the use of a respirator when you can’t replenish your oxygen supplies because of a broken delivery system?) Not enough workers to drive the trucks that bring the food, not enough workers to put the food on the trucks. Not enough chlorine to clean the water. Wise Seattle: They’ve already planned to take over the city’s ice rinks in case of pandemic, to store the corpses.

What the country needs is a leader, Osterholm said. Fairly thin ice he skates on there.

About that thin ice. We asked Osterholm after his talk if he had factored global warming into the economic picture. “Don’t even go there,” he said.

So let’s see. When Greenland melts, the low-lying parts of the United States, India and China will be under water sending millions of people in search of high ground, a super-Katrina exodus.

The pandemic will have left millions dead, so maybe there will be room for the refugees. But the survivors will be struggling to put things back together in a world suffering from a wounded economy, natural disasters and desertification in land that once grew food.

In between the two events, we saw the new Superman movie. It occurred to us that we might as well be relying on Superman — that is, fantasy — as on ourselves, since we’re doing so little to get out of this mess.

Who will goose us into action? Young men covered up in tattoos?


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