Our National Ritual

As a nation, we have become preoccupied with the weather.  As The New York Times noted the other day:  “No one remembers precisely when it happened, when the weather — or more often than not, the mere prospect of weather — automatically became a top story on local newscasts.”

But why?

“Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said weather coverage, not to mention the promise of weather coverage at the opening of a local news program, was ‘absolutely’ driven by ratings.” (See, “Forecasting a Snowfall:  The Bigger the Better.”)

That’s true, no doubt.  There is an economic dimension for everything.  But then the ratings wouldn’t go up if people didn’t want to watch.  We still need to explain why weather has become so important, why we care about it as much as we do?

It can’t be because we are more vulnerable to it than in the past.  With improved road clearing equipment, more accurate forecasts, more salt and better tires, each year we are increasingly armed to combat it.  Nor is it actually getting worse.  It can seem that way. With warnings of the dire effects of global warming coming from scientists, bad weather stirs up thoughts of Armageddon – or as the Washington media put it recently “snowmageddon.”  But meteorologists tell us that the “extremes” we experience from time to time are normal fluctuations in long-term patterns.

One clue is that the weather has always been the easiest topic we have to talk about. Moreover, the effects are impartially and arbitrarily distributed. It happens equally to us all, rich or poor, black or white, old or young. Today, in fact, it may be one of the very few things we still all have in common.

With income inequality growing, with the “haves” trying to hold on to their jobs and benefits and not fall out of the middle class, with Wall Street and Main Street increasingly at odds, with intensifying polarization between political parties and mounting fragmentation within each party – the weather provides us with a common enemy, at least a common threat.

The nightly news reports about what the weather gods have in store for us may be virtually the only thing we all still share.  It has become the nightly ritual that binds us together.