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Monday, July 9, 2012

Our firecracker-free Fourth

Posted By on Mon, Jul 9, 2012 at 6:00 AM

We Americans are serious about our fun. Maybe this stems from that line about "the pursuit of happiness" Thomas Jefferson snuck into the Declaration of Independence. In any event, we treat fun as if it were a God-given right.

It's no wonder then that there were howls of frustration a couple of weeks back as first one Indiana town and then another decided to outlaw the use of personal fireworks around the annual celebration of the Fourth of July. Lighting up all manner of explosive things and making them go boom is a time-honored kind of fun for many of us. So much so that, with the help of the Indiana Fireworks Distributors Association, the state legislature passed a law in 2006 forbidding local government officials from banning the blasting of fireworks between June 29 and July 9.

That's another thing about fun: It creates all kinds of opportunities to make money, which come to think of it, may be the biggest fun of all.

But this year presented pyrotechnic lovers with a special case. Hardly a drop of rain fell throughout the month of June and the entire state was in some form of drought.

The effects of this dry spell are easy for anyone to see. The grass in our parks crackles underfoot like tinder. A gentle breeze is enough to break branches off a tree. Birds sit in whatever shade they can find with their beaks open, as if they're short of breath.

The news about wild fires spreading out west probably didn't help matters. Every day throughout the month of June, when people turned on their TV sets, they saw images of large tracts of land, including housing developments, going up in flames.

So officials in towns and cities throughout Indiana began having second thoughts about the wisdom of encouraging folks to buy and detonate explosive devices in such conditions. The state's fire departments are stressed as it is with property tax caps and other government-busting measures cutting into their budgets. As one fire marshal told The Indianapolis Star, he was already going to have his hands full responding to serious emergency calls over the holiday, without having to send a truck chasing after every fireworks-related incident.

At this point, the Indiana Fireworks Distributors Association could have demonstrated that they deserved the special attention legislators lavished on them in 2006. They could have taken one for the team and said they wanted to do their part to make sure a heat-stressed holiday didn't turn into a disaster.

This kind of response, of course, would have been startling. Many businesses — and not just fireworks businesses, either — have come to see themselves as standing somehow apart from the communities that support them. They talk about providing jobs but, just as often, fail to mention the fact that without the community and all it provides, including schools, infrastructure, and public safety, they would have nothing.

Instead of saying, "How can we help?" the association first accused communities choosing to forbid the use of personal fireworks of violating state law. Drought or no drought, the fireworks lobby threatened to sue.

Apparently, someone convinced the group that lawsuits are only fun for lawyers because they dropped the idea like a hot sparkler. Then somebody else had a notion that maybe taxpayers would reimburse fireworks sellers for their lost revenue - an idea that should be put in the "Doesn't Hurt to Ask" file and forgotten.

We'll never know how many accidents local governments prevented by overriding Indiana's fireworks-promoting law during this historic drought. Under the circumstances, it seemed a no-brainer. But without this government intervention, there is no reason to think that the businesses selling fireworks would have voluntarily done the sensible thing and encouraged their customers to find safer, more responsible ways of having fun over the Fourth of July holiday.

Sometimes good public policy is bad for one business or another. Sometimes it gets in the way of having fun. The fireworks episode underscores, on a micro level, larger issues facing us regarding climate change. Something is happening here: According to the July/August issue of the Sierra Club's magazine, this past March set more than 7,700 U.S. daily high-temperature records. More than 90 cities set monthly-high records. What's more, the 12-month period from May 2011 to April 2012 was the hottest in U.S. history. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now 391 parts per million, or the highest in they've been in 800,000 years.

Arguing about who or what's causing this situation should, by now, be academic. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Libertarians and those least inclined to favor government interventions should feel the greatest urgency about finding collective solutions. As our drought demonstrates, the more extreme our weather, the more likely we are to feel the intrusive hand of government, rationing water, fuel and other resources. The worst possible scenario will be to find our freedoms degraded because we fail to take responsibility for ourselves until crisis overtakes us. If this means finding some new ways of having fun, so be it. Doing what we've always done will be no fun at all.

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