Dade Ain't Disney
Hiaasen's admirers have likened him to such column-writing legends as Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken. There are similarities. Bierce once said of railroad magnate Henry Huntington, "He deserves to hang from every branch of every State and Territory penetrated by his railroad, with the sole exception of Nevada, which has no trees." Hiaasen, a devout environmentalist, would not want to desecrate the forests with rail moguls, but I think he would gladly hoist polluters and developers.
And though he seems sometimes almost willing to agree with Mencken, who believed that "all government is evil and trying to improve it is largely a waste of time," Hiaasen's basic good humor pulls him back from that cynical abyss. We know this from one of his last columns in Kick Ass, where he says, "Is there any hope for Florida? Maybe a shred."
Clinging to that shred is part of his strength as a commentator.
The other part, the strongest part, is his intense love of the natural Florida. Obviously, Hiaasen somehow hopes to harass, ridicule and shame the powers that be into restoring some portions of South Florida to the primal magic it possessed, particularly in the vastness of the Everglades, when he was a youth and roamed its wildness. The Everglades were, and are, his El Dorado, as you can see from the way he writes about that portion designated a national park:
Visually, its beauty is of inverse dimensions [to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon], for the Glades are as flat as a skillet, the trees mostly tangled and scrubby, the waters slow and dark. The monotony of its landscape can be a deception, as endless and uninviting as arctic tundra.
But for anyone finding themselves on that two-lane road to Flamingo when the sun comes up, there's no place comparable in the universe.... Buffaloes are grand, but name another park that harbours panthers at one end and hammerhead sharks at the other. Name another park where, on a spring morning, it's possible to encounter bald eagles, manatees, a jewfish the size of a wine cask, an indigo snake as rare as sapphire, and even a wild pink flamingo.
But the Everglades are dying, largely from the same pestilence that is ruining so much of South Florida: unchecked urban sprawl. It was this that prompted the Sierra Club recently to rate South Florida as one of the most blighted places in the country. Much of the Everglades' troubles come from the pollution of Big Sugar--US Sugar and Flo-Sun, the latter controlled by two Cuban brothers (heavy contributors to both political parties) who own 170,000 acres of Okeechobee cane. As Hiaasen says,
Big Sugar gets all the water it wants for practically nothing, dirties it with tons of phosphates, then spits it back at nature.... For 40 years the natural marsh was diked, dammed and diverted to benefit farmers and developers. Today 4 million people in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties rely on the Everglades system for their drinking water. Nature's plumbing can't handle it.
So Big Sugar is indeed a threat to everyone, but, as Hiaasen hastens to add, "Overdevelopment has done more to destroy the Everglades than all the cane and dairy farmers put together." When you're talking overdevelopment, you're talking people. Every day more than 300 acres of green space in Florida are paved for shopping malls and subdivisions. The "greed-head mentality" is turning the state into a parking lot.
The eighties saw Florida's population grow by 31 percent. The bad news for the nineties isn't in yet, but Hiaasen is depressed:
Florida continues to draw new residents like a dead marlin draws flies. It's a disaster in the making, an avalanche with which our state has no prayer of coping. But no matter how crowded or crime-ridden this state becomes, it'll always look better than a dying factory on the shore of Lake Erie in the dead of winter. Florida is where folks come when things get unbearable back home. It's been that way since they invented air-conditioning and bug spray.
So how do you reduce the population? Well, it's not likely you can. But you can try. One group (mentioned favorably by Hiaasen) calls itself the Florida League Against "Progress." It distributes bumper stickers that say: Leaving Florida? Take a Friend.