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The chipmunk conundrum

When you were a child, did someone shove a chipmunk down your trousers? Or a squirrel/ ferret/rat/gerbil/other small furry animal with sharp teeth? Did it bite you, painfully but not seriously, on some sensitive part of your intimate anatomy? No? Me neither. I ask only in a spirit of simple enquiry after reading the latest novel by Carl Hiaasen.

Sick Puppy is being widely advertised at the moment, but I bought it because I am a Hiaasen fan. His novels are all set in Florida and combine anarchic humour, biting satire and a very eloquent rage against the despoiling of the Florida landscape. His caricatures of Florida politicians, criminals and big business interests are both revealing and hilarious.

In Sick Puppy, however, Hiaasen turns his sights on the sort of developer who gives developers a really bad name.

This is where Karl Krimmler comes in. He is the project manager for the euphoniously renamed Shearwater Island development. Construction involves squashing zillions of toads and flattening some virgin forest, but that does not worry Karl, of course, because of the chipmunk.

Hiaasen relates how the scrotal nip that Karl suffered age six after his elder brother thrust a bewildered chipmunk down the front of his shorts was directly responsible for Karl's choice of civil engineering as a career.

The phobia he developed as a result of this early exposure to nature in the raw extended not just to chipmunks, not just to any untamed creature with sharp, scrotum-nipping teeth, but to everything organic on the face of the planet.

As a result, the story goes, Karl has a secret fantasy about 'a world without trees, without wilderness; a world of brick and pavement and perfect order, a world, in short, without chipmunks.' This makes him an ideal hatchet man for a Florida developer, given that, according to Hiaasen, Florida is 'urbanising itself faster than any other place on the planet, faster than any other place in the history of man.' According to his figures, 200ha of Florida disappears beneath bulldozers every day.

Of course civil engineers are part of this problem - a problem which is not restricted to Florida. However, I suspect that few, if any, of those working with developers in Florida, or anywhere else, have a secret desire to rid the planet of chipmunks. Or gerbils.

But I do wonder how some civil engineers close their eyes to the environmental and social implications of what they are doing on behalf of their clients - or do they really believe that what they are doing in the long run actually represents some form of progress?

Fortunately, in most of the Western world there are strict environmental regulations, which are supposed to curb the worst excesses of the developer, especially in green belt and green field locations. And there are forward thinking civil engineers working to defend this environment.

But if you want some idea of what the world might be like if these regulations are routinely flouted, read Sick Puppy. Dog lovers will certainly enjoy it.

Civil engineers, if they are honest, will wince a little at the portrayal of Karl Krimmler. Like all Hiaasen's bizarre caricatures, it contains an uncomfortable element of truth.

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