If one is singling out pundits to critique on environmental grounds, it might seem unfair to pick on David Brooks. After all, the New York Times bigfoot is no denier of climate change, for instance, like his ideologically addled Washington Post colleague George Will.
But Brooks’ seeming reasonableness actually makes him the perfect person to single out: He is representative of the way even seemingly reasonable people can enumerate the day’s putative key issues without even mentioning climate change, let alone the host of other environmental crises we face.
A Brooks column this week is a case in point. In it, Brooks protests that the upcoming presidential election will stink to cover because neither party has any good new ideas for addressing the most important issues.
Fair enough. But here’s his list of issues: “unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.”
Those are all real problems (even if Brooks’ psychologically telling word choice – “inability to generate … dysfunctional … loss of national vitality” – sounds culled from a Viagara ad).
But nowhere in the column is there a peep about rising sea levels and disappearing coasts; rivers drying up out west, and aquifers in the Midwest; tropical rainforests vanishing because of our demand for beef and soy; the fact that to maintain our fuel-wasting society we’re courting ecological disaster by blowing up mountains for coal, and drilling for oil deeper and further out to sea.
“National vitality”? How about the topsoil that industrial farming practices send gushing into the ocean? Or the gigantic Gulf of Mexico dead zone, also the result of agricultural runoff, that’s making the gulf less hospitable to the seaborne protein so many rely upon?
Of course, you could argue that Brooks is simply outlining the issues that will be big in the campaign. But aren’t pundits obligated to point out the things that actually matter most, not just what the electorate is worried about? They certainly don’t hesitate to do so when chiding us about things like what Brooks, for instance, calls “making sure nobody ever touches Medicare.”
And isn’t eating as fundamental to “national vitality” as you can get?
I don’t expect a center-right guy like Brooks to be a Thomas Friedman, another Times-man, and probably the most widely syndicated newspaper pundit who regularly acknowledges the huge problems presented by climate change, peak oil and the like. In writings like his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, Friedman demonstrates an admirable big-picture grasp of such issues, even if the solutions he proposes are too mild by half.
But even pundits who don’t get it like Friedman gets it usually at least nod toward the need to address, at least, climate change. Even if they don’t understand that human civilization is pushing the planet to the brink of ecological collapse, they at least know that hotter temperatures and warmer, deeper oceans mean crazy weather, displaced persons and less food, and argue that we should do something about it, like reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
That a big name like Brooks is so concerned with what he calls “growth ideas” and his “Hamiltonian/National Greatness perspective” that he doesn’t even feel the need to mention the perilous changes to the very climate that facilitated the rise of agriculture – without which civilization as we know it is impossible – is a measure of how deep our society’s denial on these matters runs.
That’s not just Brooks’ fault, of course. It’s almost everybody’s. But we can’t go on acting as though our problems are all about making the books balance with the arbitrary units of measurement we call money. When nature’s books go far enough out of balance, we’ll see how misguided we’ve been.