CONSIDER THE LILIES, Jesus said - but he was thinking of the field. The lesson for the political season just underway comes from the lilies of the pond, water lilies. It is an old French riddle. ''At first there is only one lily pad in the pond, but the next day it doubles, and thereafter each of its descendants doubles. The pond completely fills up with lily pads in 30 days. When is the pond exactly half full? Answer: on the 29th day.''
The entomologist Edward O. Wilson uses this riddle to illustrate the urgency of our ecological crisis. ''Because earth is finite in many resources that determine the quality of life - including arable soil, nutrients, fresh water, and space for natural ecosystems - doubling of consumption at constant intervals can bring disaster with shocking suddenness. Even when a nonrenewable resource has been only half used, it is still only one interval away from the end.'' The 29th day can feel like a normal day - look how much room is left in the pond - but it can actually be the eve of catastrophe. Only those who are paying close attention may see the dire significance of the day, but by then their biggest problem is the complacency of those who do not know what time it is.
On the 29th day, the pond is half-choked to death, but it seems OK. Surely we have another 29 days to fix the problem. But do we? How this lesson applies to the earth's dwindling resources is obvious, but it has meaning in other areas as well.
Apply the image of the exponentially reproducing lily pads to the phenomenon of human aggressiveness. Am I imagining it, or has there been a doubling and redoubling of world belligerence since Sept. 11, 2001? Last January, the United States issued a Nuclear Posture Review that effectively abandoned the longstanding (and treaty-mandated) commitment to move toward the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. That emphatic American legitimizing of its own weapons of mass destruction surely led to a doubling and redoubling of an attitude of reliance on weapons of mass destruction around the pond, especially once their significance for the exercise of power was made explicit by the United States Strategic Doctrine in October 2002.
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Last week, in a demonstration of lily pad-like reproduction, India issued its own nuclear posture statement, and the rumbles from Pakistan immediately doubled. The two nations stake a mutually threatening claim to power that is the very child of the claim staked in Washington. (Indeed, Pakistan's terrifying refusal to join India in renouncing first use of nuclear weapons is itself patterned on - and legitimized by - the permanent US refusal to renounce first use.) In this environment of exponentially expanding belligerence, who does not shudder to hear the North Koreans evoke the specter of World War III? With such shocking new levels of war preparation roiling Asia, imagine what decisions are quietly being made in Beijing and Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians take for granted a level of weaponized contempt that would have been unthinkable not long ago, and, yes, there, too, the family vine of dead-or-alive militarism is rooted in Washington. That these world developments approach climax exactly when the United States finally orders the deployment of its war-fighting army to the Middle East - coincidence? The United States may or may not be the indispensable nation, but when it come war, it is certainly the generating lily pad. And this week the pond is half full.
Not only war. There is an exponentially growing coarseness of life in the United States. That homeless people are sleeping in doorways again is a sure sign that the American sense of civic kinship is being choked. That protections of law are shrinking is another. We are constantly invited to care about ourselves and our kind, with no concern for those in other circumstances. The great symbol of this is the shrinking role of government as the guarantor, and if necessary the provider, of essential human needs. Tax cuts may or may not be economic stimulators, but they are certainly death blows to clinics, schools, libraries, laboratories, food banks - and the impulse of the young to make careers in public service. Imagine our nation as an overgrown pond in which a few lily pads have ample sunlight and room to flourish while all the others are drowning in the fetid dark. For a while yet, the privileged lilies can maintain the illusion that they are not tied to all the rest, equally doomed.
War abroad. Coarseness at home. Ecological disaster, too. On the 29th day, things may not seem so bad - but are we more than ''one interval away from the end?'' This urgent question must define the political season that begins now - the overdue challenge to George W. Bush, whose policies are choking the nation and the world.