I was lounging at my local coffee shop, wondering how the barista got that giant nose ring out each night, when Flym Wyntrobski barged through the door, all flapping elbows and gangly legs.

He plopped down in a chair at my table, pulled something crunchy from his unkempt beard, examined it, and popped it in his mouth. He gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling as he chewed, as if trying to identify which meal the tidbit might have represented. Then he turned a bloodshot eye my way.

“I see the environment has gone away,” he said, slapping a stained copy of the New York Times on the table. I rescued my half-caf latte just in time.

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said. Flym and I go way back, and whenever something pops up in the news, I’m the guy whose ear he likes to bend, since I hail from the world of journalism.

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His bushy eyebrows began to jump as he spoke. “Has the globe stopped warming? Where’s the ozone hole hiding out? Whatever happened to all those forest fires? Have any salmon made it up the Snake River? Will the U.S. sign the Kyoto Protocol? Is Yucca Mountain going to be a nuke dump?”

He threw his hands up in the air. “It’s all terror, terror, terror,” he said. “I’ve had it.”

“You have to admit,” I ventured, “it’s a big story.”

“Sure it’s a big story. Huge. But it’s not the only story.”

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He had a point. The events of Sept. 11 have pushed a great deal of news, especially environmental news, right off the table. Issues that were front and center on Sept. 10 have vanished from the public mind, although not from the world at large.

“Did you know that recently a drunk spilled 280,000 gallons of crude oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with one well-placed rifle shot?” Flym asked, his eyebrows bobbing up and down. “Meanwhile, we’re still burning too many fossil fuels. Aquatic ecosystems are still collapsing in the face of over-fishing, grizzly bears are still in trouble, and — !”

I put a hand over the top of my coffee. When Flym gets wound up, the spittle starts to fly.

“Here’s the thing,” he said, stabbing the paper with a dirty fingernail. “A real case can be made that this whole terror thing is an environmental story.”

“Anthrax is sort of environmental,” I ventured.

He waved a dismissive hand. “I’m talking about old issues that have relevance but are being ignored,” he said, his voice rising. “What really ticked our man Osama off was when the Saudis let U.S. troops in during the Gulf War,” he said. “That made old cave-boy crazy about how our infidel presence polluted Muslim holy sites. Ever since, he’s been cooking up his jihad.”

“Okay,” I said. “But what’s that got to do with the environment?”

“Patience, patience,” Flym said. He dug something out of his ear and continued. “Reagan and George The First backed bin-Laden in the ’80s. They used him to fund the resistance fighters battling the Soviets in Afghanistan. We didn’t want the Rooskies nuzzling up against Iran, where they might make trouble. The thinking then was, if the Russians get their hands on Persian Gulf oil, we’re up a waterway with no means of locomotion, if you get my drift.”

I nodded, and Flym plowed on. “So the Rooskies went away, we fought the Gulf War for oil — let’s be honest about that, we weren’t exactly there defending human rights — and Osama got his diaper in a wad. But the thing is, we didn’t need to do all that.”

“Hold on,” I said. “Of course we need Persian Gulf oil. We import millions of barrels a day.”

“Ah-ha!” Flym threw his hands in the air, as if someone had scored a touchdown. “Now you’re getting it. We do, but we don’t have to. If the numbskulls running this country had possessed the foresight to raise fuel economy standards just a little bit, by the time of the Gulf War we wouldn’t have needed any Persian Gulf oil. We could have chosen to walk away from the mess. No war, no troops in Saudi, no Osama in a bad mood.”

I remained skeptical — this whole thing has to do with fuel economy standards? — but Flym was on a roll.

“We haven’t raised vehicle mileage standards since 1986,” he intoned with the voice of someone who is proud of his ability to do research on the Internet. “They were at 27.5 miles per gallon 15 years ago, and that’s where they are today. If we’d had the will to get them up to 32 mpg by 1991, bingo, no Persian Gulf imports needed, thank you very much, have a nice day.”

He leaned back in his chair, triumphant. “So there, Scoop. There’s your environmental story. Good luck getting some editor to make space for it.”

I drained the last of my coffee. He was right, even though I hated to admit that a guy who looks like he sleeps in a refrigerator box was thinking about my job better than I was. The bottom line is that for more than a month, news editors haven’t wanted to hear about the environment — even though it’s still here, and even though U.S. energy policy is one reason some of the world is hopping mad at Uncle Sam.

I glanced up at Flym, but he appeared to have forgotten our conversation already and was attacking the Times’ crossword puzzle with a vengeance. Looking up through his matted hair, he shot me a penetrating look.

“What’s a five-letter word for ‘earth’?” he demanded.

“That’s an easy one,” I said. “Terra.”

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