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EARTHWATCH

TV Miniseries Heats Up Controversy : Global warming is coming but when is debatable. A Thousand Oaks firm is already doing its part to slow the inevitable.

April 22, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Today is Earth Day.

Here in Ventura County we have been holding celebrations to our great and good endangered planet since the beginning of the month. But if you've been watching CBS television this week you might have formed the impression that, despite all our pledges of allegiance to the Earth, and all our eco-fairs and rock concerts dedicated to saving endangered species, there aren't going to be many more Earth Days worth celebrating.

"The Fire Next Time," a science-fiction miniseries, with Craig T. Nelson of "Coach" fame in the lead, was broadcast earlier this week. It predicted that in the United States of 25 years from now, environmental conditions will be terrible. All our consciousness-raising today--and every day in this decade--will have amounted to zip.

In the show, global warming and the resultant violent weather conditions will make the California of the future--and every other sun-belt state--unlivable. At the conclusion of the miniseries, Nelson and his on-screen family skedaddled for cool, green Canada.

I watched the show because some locally made electric cars represented one of the few "good" technologies supposedly around in 2017.

CBS had brought Mark Murphy and Gary Raymond of Thousand Oaks-based Electrathon America to the filming site in Louisiana, along with six examples of their environmentally friendly cars. The idea was to show that at least some people had given up using the gas guzzlers that fill the atmosphere with pollution and cause global temperatures to rise.

I had hoped to see a lot more examples of environmental technology in the show, but I was disappointed. Except for the contribution made to the CBS production by our intrepid Ventura County technical innovators, there was no impression that Americans do anything to prevent the mass devastation depicted in "The Fire Next Time." It seems that these television producers had decided that we are already going to environmental hell in a handbasket based on the research of some scientists, among them their advisor, Stephen Schneider, a professor in the department of biological sciences at Stanford.

Not everyone agrees with this.

I asked Alan Fox, an Oxnard-based meteorologist, about global warming and its effect on weather patterns. He prepares long-term weather forecasts that enable Ventura County officials to plan flood-control projects and staff up for flash-flood events.

"There's an apparent, I repeat, an apparent warming," he said.

He had not seen the TV show, but without knowing that a terrible drought was the dramatic centerpiece, he delivered a spirited account of what he thinks is going to happen to our neighborhood in any event.

"Look at central Baja California," he said. "We will see significant drying like that all the way up to Northern California. More creative ways to get water (here), such as desalination and reclamation, are going to be needed."

It was his opinion that this would not happen soon--maybe in a century--but it's going to happen eventually. It is his belief that the resulting water shortages would be felt less if we could keep the population from increasing in the county.

Then I called John Weikel, a hydrologist with the Ventura County Flood Control and Water Resources Department. He told me that unusual storm patterns on the California coast are becoming more frequent.

"People are going to feel it," he said, predicting "waves crashing through the picture windows" of beachfront houses.

His prescription for avoiding this threat is for people to check thoroughly any history of flooding on a property they're considering buying. What happened with our recent winter rains, and also with the unusual spring storms along the East Coast, is likely to happen again.

"All they need to do is their (flooding) history homework," Weikel advised.

Daunting testimony. And a bit relentless, just like the miniseries was. I find myself wondering why such a show got such high Neilsen ratings. But hey, I'm a person who has never figured out why people pay money to go to disaster movies. I live with enough anxiety already.

I watched "The Fire Next Time" hoping to see a pleasant fantasy--something like Electrathon of Thousand Oaks supplanting the Big Three of Detroit by 2017. I kind of thought, before seeing the show, that electric cars would be portrayed as a sort of antidote to environmental disaster.

Well, at least they looked neat gliding around on the screen. And if you're interested in seeing a lot of them--for real--there's going to be a race this weekend with some of the cars that were in the TV show.

Maybe such events will encourage lots of folks to buy these cars--at least to fight smog if not global warming.

* FYI

For information on this weekend's electric-car races and "scrutineering" (that means you can check the cars over), call Gary Raymond at 492-5858. Organized by Electrathon, a Thousand Oaks company, the event is being held at Citrus College in Glendora on Saturday and Sunday.

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