Rock Island, IL
It was Jim Kunstler, I think, who somewhere described The New York Times as “that once august, now clueless, newspaper.”
The most recent Sunday Review section (June 26) goes some distance in corroborating his characterization. I’m not referring to Frank Bruni’s piece on gay marriage, in which we’re asked to reconcile the oils and waters of these two remarks: one, that in the future “this issue will … hinge less on archaic religious doctrine”; and, two, that “the wish and push to be married cast gay men and lesbians in the most benign, conservative light imaginable, not as enemies of tradition but as aspirants to it.”
Nor am I referring to an article titled “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off,” in which we are assured (once again) that salary is the measure of an education.
I’m not talking about the piece in which shyness and caution and introversion are all finessed to mean the same thing and in which we are expected to infer from the astonishing fact that incurious pumpkinseed sunfish are caught less frequently than their curious counterparts an evolutionary benefit to being a “sitter” rather than a “rover.”
I am not talking about Thomas Friedman’s tactic of asking, WWRD? (where “R” means “Reagan”) or of Maureen Dowd’s obligatory sneers at the Church of Rome.
I’m talking about the lead article, “Is this Our Future?” which is a jubilant toothy cheer for electric cars, especially the Chevy Volt. The article ends thus:
Eventually, we’ll have batteries that can get 300 miles per charge, and an infrastructure solution that will replace gas stations.
(Ms. Dowd could only wish that the president’s “progressive worldview” were so sharply focused.)
Now, for the record, I find the gay marriage debate a little tiresome and not particularly interesting; I think mere monetary return as a measure for the “investment” of college tuition the invention of dullards; I regard as head-scratching evolutionary talk and the speed at which it races toward its reductive explanations (N.B. I am speaking here of the talk); I expect the answer to the question WWRD? to be “lie”; and in response to the theological ignorance of the merely glib I can only say, “whatever, lady.”
But the damnedest thing is that in the lead article on the electric car there isn’t a single mention of how to generate electricity cleanly or dispose of played-out lithium batteries responsibly.
For, apparently, electricity is generated cleanly in the narrow recesses of stud walls where all the outlets are, and all batteries are made from beanstalks that are readily compostable.
And, of course, the article ends (as the aforementioned quotation suggests) with the obligatory expression of blind faith in progress and the assurances that things will be better in the future—because the future, as everyone knows, is a better place (even though it’s a time).
If it were not so, the advertisers would have told us. They go to prepare a place for us. And where they are, we may be also.
I said in conversation recently, to my auditor’s utter bafflement, that I fully expect horses to be the technology of the future and that learning to drive a team would be good work for our rising youngsters.
This isn’t cheek. I mean it. What we did when we discovered how to use oil was build a Hot Wheels world with no thought for its limits. We backed the horseless carriage, and now it is coming up lame in the final turn.
But that isn’t news that’s fit to print. So I’ll say it plainly here: there are no guarantees that we can keep the world we’re habituated to running, nor is it clear that we’re entitled to that world. Not only aren’t we entitled to its standard—“everything all the time,” as The Eagles sang—but the circumscribed globe cannot provide for it, certainly not for a population bloated on antibiotics and the easy transportation of easily produced calories.
Or, to put the matter more grimly, it may well be that a population like the one that preceded the industrial revolution is the only population sustainable. It may well be that we’re about to learn a grim lesson: the world runs not on oil and modern medicine but on sunlight, and by sunlight I mean not ancient but contemporary sunlight.
That it can run on ancient sunlight we know. That it can run on ancient sunlight only temporarily is a fact of which we are insufficiently aware. That it runs in perpetuity only on contemporary sunlight is a fact we’d better get our minds around.
Will wind rescue us? The accompanying illustration to the NYT article I take issue with suggests as much. But that’s doubtful. If you think otherwise, do a little experiment in the attic: ask yourself whether wind power can build wind power, transport wind power, erect wind power, build an infrastructure for wind power, and repair wind power.
It can’t. Not no way, not no how. We’ll cannibalize the remaining oil to build something that, absent the oil, we can’t keep running.
Of course we’ve got lots of coal left, and we can run electric cars on coal for a long time. But coal isn’t clean and can’t be made clean, no matter how the coal industry spins “clean” coal. And coal is still ancient, not contemporary, sunlight. Like oil, it will go away for good someday. And when it does, our children will call us “thieves” for having helped ourselves to more than our share of it.
But where in the pages of that once august, now clueless, newspaper is there room for such talk? Column inches must be devoted to Important Matters: the college grad’s return on investment, the evolutionary benefits of x, and, in an age of failing marriages, extending the privilege of failure to every Tom, Dick, and Harriet.
Pretty soon the news that’s fit to print will be a luxury, like irony or finding yourself or working out your gender identity. It will get pushed into the small corners of everyone’s spare time. Soon enough we’ll have real work to do. Best start doing it now.