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Fragile?

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Opponents of the far-right have always felt a mix of outrage and marvel at the way neoconservatives defined issues with clever (if misleading) catch phrases. These days it's "cut and run" (but not when the defense department wants to reduce troop strengths), and in years past it's been the "death tax" (though 99 percent of the dead don't pay it), "right to life" (just not the woman's) and the ever-popular "family values" (except when it comes to philandering Republicans). One of my favorites is the "fragile ecosystem."

I awoke to the fallacy of the "fragile ecosystem" while covering development issues in South Florida. Cities were relentlessly pressing into what had been the Everglades, and if a wetland or endangered species was in the way, everyone would just shrug and talk about how it was too bad the Sawgrass Lakes project (they were always named after the species they were replacing) might be tipping the balance of the Everglades' fragile ecosystem. It was as if the environment were a delicate piece of art glass that would break at the tiniest nudge.

In fact, the Everglades is a powerful, indomitable place that has survived and thrived amid fires, droughts and hurricanes for thousands of years. It was only in the last century, when it was dammed, dredged, drained and polluted, that it became stressed. In fact, its "fragile ecosystem" has been beaten to a bloody pulp yet still clings tenaciously to life.

Human activity has done the same thing to Earth's atmosphere. We've managed to start melting glaciers and polar ice caps in just a couple of centuries since the Industrial Revolution. This was no fragile ecosystem--it was the planet's very atmosphere, trashed like a stream after a giant sewage spill.

As Sue Sturgis makes clear this week, the atmosphere may be as forgiving as the Everglades--but only if we start cleaning it up right now.

And this being the week of July 4, I'm reminded there's another falsely fragile institution we've been warned about--American democracy. Just when it seemed the tenets of the Constitution were being trampled by the Bush administration (warrantless searches, signing statements, people held years without charges, and on and on), a conservative U.S. Supreme Court is starting to set things right again. It declared last week that President Bush's invention of tribunals for alleged terrorists held in Guantanamo, Cuba, violates the Geneva conventions and U.S. military rules and is unconstitutional. "Congress has not issued the executive a blank check," wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

As bad as things have gotten for American democracy, the framers of the Constitution came up with a system strong enough to protect us from abuses of imperial power. Let's hope we can do the same for planet Earth.

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