Picking on Pundits

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.

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2 Responses to Picking on Pundits

  1. Ed Bejzak says:

    As is often the case, you have me challenging my assumptions. I recently saw Mr. Brooks speak at Franklin & Marshall college and was impressed by his seeming “reasonableness.” Now you’ve got me thinking – and that can only lead to trouble.

    I’d also be curious to hear/read your take on Al Gore’s comments, in the current issue of Rolling Stone, on the media’s, and President Obama’s, failures with regards to the climate change conversation (conversation is not quite the correct word, but I hope I communicated my thought).

    • Bill says:

      As to “reasonableness,” Brooks both seems and is eminently reasonable. But we are in an unreasonable amount of trouble, and thus the means of adequate redress are likely to seem unreasonable to reasonable people. (Reasonable people, for instance, might consider reducing carbon emissions by say 50 percent over the next 40 years a perfectly acceptable path — it seems difficult enough, after all — even if scientists say such a reduction would be wholly insubstantial, at this point, to significantly reduce the catastrophic effect of climate change).

      As to Gore, I’ve read news summaries of his rather long essay, and he seems to be saying that Obama — despite his avowed concern about climate change — instead put issues like health-care reform on the front burner (so to speak!). Which is basically undeniable. The cap-and-trade initiative came along with too little too late. According to other reports I’ve read (like in The New Yorker) that was a political decision made inside the White House.

      Likewise the media, which Gore has long excoriated for alotting, in the interest of specious “balance” or “objectivity,” undue creedence to the handful of scientific cranks who denied climate change or its human causes. (This sort of thing was especially bad about 20 years ago, but the “doubts about the science” argument continues delaying action and providing fodder for dim-bulb politicians and corporate toadies to this day.)

      More recently, I’d say, the media problem is more subtle. For instance, reports focusing on the politics (the horse-race aspect of passing climate-change legislation) rather than on the very real effects climate change is already having, and the much worse effects it’s bound to have in the future. You know, things that might actually spur people to action.

      As always, good to hear from you, and good thoughts to boot. Thanks.