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I was watching the "Trouble With Tribbles" episode of "Star Trek" on cable one night a couple of months ago when I was struck by a blinding revelation.

The tribble episode is a classic, and this, of course, was not the first time I had seen it. In fact, it was about the 23rd time. Tribbles, you'll recall, are furry little space critters that reproduce faster than fruit flies and eat their weight in Federation grain about every 30 minutes. Anyway, about the point in the show when Capt. Kirk discovers that the tribbles have overrun the Enterprise, I got to thinking.

I realized that although the show is a classic and will no doubt be the subject of dissertations until Stardate 4523.3, I just wasn't enjoying it on the 23rd viewing the way I did on the first. In fact, I found myself comparing the experience to recycling oil from a car: you can drain it from your oil pan, run it through a filter to remove impurities, and then pour it back in the crankcase -- but it's never quite the same as when it was fresh.

Here I had my blinding revelation: Entertainment, like oil, is a finite, non-renewable resource.

This is an original, profound and far-reaching discovery, right up there with Rachel Carson's observations about ecology in "Silent Spring." It should earn me the Nobel Prize, or at least a MacArthur Foundation genius grant worth several hundred thousand dollars in fiscal year 1991-92, made out to Ed Weathers, 3195 Choctaw, Memphis, Tenn. 38111.

Think about it: If entertainment is a finite, non-renewable resource, then once it gets used up, there's no more to take its place. The people who created the tribble episode of "Star Trek," for example, mined a certain portion of the entertainment resources of the planet -- a few freshly unearthed jokes, some rare-as-gold original characters, a pure plot extracted from deep beneath the surface after much drilling. When we air the episode, we consume those resources. Those exact jokes, those characters, that plot are
now used up. The best we can do is recycle them, either by watching the tribble episode over and over (reusing the crankcase oil) or by rechanneling them in new guises into other shows, movies and books (turning the crankcase oil into, say, tar).

The fact is, there are only so many jokes, plots and characters -- not to mention melodies and dance steps -- in the world, and we are using them up at a frightful rate. By my calculations, 87 percent of the entertainment consumed since the world began has been used up since 1941 -- the year the United States first began television broadcasting -- and 54 percent has been consumed since 1988, the year I got cable. At the current rate of consumption, 99.3 percent of the world's retrievable supplies of original entertainment will be gone by the year 2025. After that, it's all reruns.

Americans, as usual, are the world's most prodigal users of entertainment. We flush it away like water. From drugstore novels to TV sitcoms, we use and discard plots like Styrofoam cups, and we eat original characters like nachos. Thanks to cable and the satellite dish, we nibble on ballets, plays and music videos like so many cobs of corn, then toss them away. Only you can't plant a new crop of entertainment; there are only so many notes on the piano, so many words in the dictionary. Write an original song, and that's one less original song for your grandchildren.

Because of its wastefulness, America is now largely dependent on foreign producers for its supplies of original entertainment. Virtually every fresh Broadway musical ("Les Miserables," "Aspects of Love") and every original TV program ("Upstairs, Downstairs," "Brideshead Revisited") originate overseas. Australia has a virtual monopoly on seminal movies ("Road Warrior," "My Brilliant Career"). Even Ireland has fresher pop singers than we do (U-2, Sinead O'Connor). If the foreign cartel decided to ration its entertainment exports, our economy would collapse.

Already, American pocketbooks are feeling the sting. Price-gouging movie theaters, for example, unrestrained by government regulation, are in some cities charging $7 per ticket for a truly original movie, like David Lynch's "Wild at Heart." (Lynch, by the way, is a rare domestic source of original entertainment -- so rare that already the TV networks are beginning to tap into his mother-lode of character and plot, like in "Twin Peaks." As with Spielberg before him, Lynch's vein of ore is likely to be depleted before its time.) Meanwhile, a fresh Broadway show ("M. Butterfly") commands ticket prices approaching hundreds of dollars.

There is only one solution to the crisis: America must become "entertainment self-sufficient." This will require sacrifice by the American people. Already Hollywood is doing its part: in a patriotic display of conservation, our film industry is recycling virtually every original movie plot ever made -- every character and every scene -- in sequel after sequel ("Indiana Jones") and remake after remake ("Always"). Almost never does Hollywood these days use a fresh story line or a new character. For this it is to be commended. Television and book publishers are likewise recycling old ideas without dipping into the world's reserves of the new. Our grandchildren are in their debt.

You ask: Is there something I, the individual American, can do to help? The answer is yes. Consume less, and recycle your entertainment. Demand that local TV stations show more "I Love Lucy" reruns. Read only Harlequin rehashes. Boycott movies that have more than their share of fresh ideas. Remember: when just one American cancels cable TV for a month, he conserves enough of the world's resources to entertain an entire village in Bulgaria for a year.

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