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A night of unrest on a planet that never sleeps

by Marshall Jon Fisher

August 7, 1997

One night at three in the morning recently I lay on a futon in my friends' New York living room feeling sick to my stomach. Outside, East 14th Street churned and bubbled, erupting sporadically into a motorcycle growl or a ten-second wave of boombox volume. Cars and trucks sped relentlessly down the street in a desperate migration. Streetlights and headlamps kept the block bright all night long, and 3:00 a.m. looked like 8:00 p.m. -- people spilled out of the Palladium, loitered in front of the Adult Video Store, and leaned on a car with the windows down and the radio blasting the latest hip-hop.

I couldn't sleep. Was it one beer too many that kept bringing me to a sitting position clutching my stomach? A virus, maybe?

Neither, I realized, staring wretchedly at the nuclear glow behind the venetian blinds. It was a new disease, a syndrome for our age, a nausea brought on by the acute awareness of some great geological fuel gauge slipping to the left. Call it Ecophobia.

Every time I closed my eyes my head filled with the image of fossil fuels burning and exhaust billowing into the atmosphere in a never-ending obliviousness to the finitude of supply. The thought that this was going on twenty-four hours a day, whether I was in town to witness it or not, made my stomach turn. Every second of every day internal-combustion engines bombarded 14th Street, sucking away on nature like preconscious infants. It never stopped! And this was but one block on one street of the enormous city. This five-mile strip of civilization never gave it a rest.

And it wasn't just New York. All over the country, around the world, gas was burning. Route 128 in Boston, the Palmetto Expressway in Miami, the L.A. freeways. The sheer enormity of the population, multiplying as I lay there. Unthinkable hordes devoted to meaningless quotidian locomotion -- depleting, using, befouling. My pulse quickened, adrenaline shot through me, and again I bolted up in bed.

The feeling was similar to the eschatological dread that gripped the nation fifteen years ago, around the time "The Day After" aired on television, when Americans lay in bed picturing the thousands of missiles programmed to deliver nuclear warheads to their doorstep at the twitch of a finger. That fear now seems somewhat allayed (or at least peacefully out of fashion) and has been replaced by the threat of environmental holocaust. But do children come to their parents' bedrooms in the nineties clutching their teddy bears and crying, "I'm scared of the hole in the ozone layer"?

I'd bought a few used paperbacks that afternoon. Books, my God, even my beloved books were nothing more than energy sinks, depositories of ravaged nature. Nine-hundred-thousand copies of Michael Crichton's latest, and who knows how many John Grishams rolling off the presses each day. Tom Clancy types "The End" on his Mac, and from the Northwest come the plaintive cries of "Timberrrr!" O.J., Seinfeld, the Pope: everyone gets their own forest on which to print their indispensable lucubrations. And what about newspapers? Were we still really printing newspapers in 1997? And the law offices, the consulting firms, amassing mountains of computer printouts, faxes, and xeroxes -- fifty copies of every disregarded four-page memo.

I curled into a fetal ball. I would never write again.

Tons of fluorocarbons from the 1970s and 1980s still floating up toward what's left of the ozone layer. Gargantuan clouds of methane, evacuated from the intestines of cattle grazing where forests used to be, rising to smother the planet in a warming blanket. The human population reproducing day and night, spinning out of control, 8 billion by 2020, 10 billion by 2050, strangling the land. Factory pistons pumping without cease, jet planes roaring above, space shuttles lifting off, vaporizing boatloads of fuel every second.

Ecostress. Ecophobia.
* * *

Sunday morning I awaken late after my restless night. Fourteenth Street is remarkably quiet -- maybe it does take an occasional break, or maybe it's just the panacea of morning, when last night's demons seem less menacing. I take a long hot shower, wash away the crust of my nocturnal anxiety, and then find a doughnut in the kitchen. When my friends left early in the morning they forgot to turn off the kitchen light. I leave it on while I eat. I rinse my sunglasses in the sink, wipe them with a paper towel, and toss it in the garbage. Then I descend to the street to join the enemy.

Marshall Jon Fisher is a freelance writer and a co-author, with David E. Fisher, of Tube: The Invention of Television (1996). His article "Artful Restorations" appears in the August, 1997, issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

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