Excerpt: 'Weather Matters: An American Cultural History Since 1900,' by Bernard Mergen

Weather is, as others have noted, well suited to the electronic age--constantly in motion, frequently fast-moving (aided by time-lapse photography), ubiquitous, and visually beautiful. In a culture that enshrines freewill but expects conformity, weather offers a third alternative, chance, to explain the fate of nature and humanity. Even meteorologists acknowledge that weather is chaotic. Weather re- minds us of who we are and what we value. This is why there are so many different kinds of weather, so many different maps of what we think we see. This book is organized by the perception, marketing, and management of weather in the United States since 1900. The focus is on weather in American life in the past 107 years, with occasional brief excursions into the nineteenth century when it seems necessary to make a point about contemporary issues. By perception Iman, simply, how owe see and understand the largely invisible phenomena we call weather. What tools do we use to describe it? What do we do with what we think it is? How do we depict it?

Marketing, too, is fairly straightforward. I realized when I was reading about why and how the Weather Bureau began to study snow that the bureau, like all government agencies, needed to justify its existence to taxpayers and their congressional representatives. The bureau sold the only thing it had of value--knowledge. Like any business, it sought to create a monopoly on its product and succeeded for many years, partly by controlling the language used to discuss weather. Hence, the emphasis in this book is on words and how they are used to make the ineffable seem normal. Businessmen and businesswomen found ways to market sunshine, wind power, snow, and other "products" of weather.

Management of the weather is here taken to mean all attempts to predict, create, and protect against weather. We manage weather when we dress in the morning, open an umbrella, or write a poem or paint a picture of it. Obviously, these rough categories overlap in significant ways. As the manuscript grew and I looked for ways to keep it within reasonable limits, seven chapters became five. Sections on drought, floods, climate and climate change, risk and natural hazard mitigation, including weather insurance, were shortened or eliminated. Each deserves its own book, and there are already many books and articles that cover these subjects quite well.

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