The Environment

Opinion, Politics and Nature: Missing the Planet’s Biggest Story

November 9, 2015  • David Monsma

Ours is a culture and time that quickly molds current events into authoritative commentary, not the least of which is the modern opinion column. Clever op-ed columnists, fêted by a devout but prickly readership, regularly deliver forceful commentary on all sorts of topics in science, art, medicine, economics, religion and politics. Opinion makers don’t usually write or make the news but they comment on it – interpreting and decoding what is said or carefully omitted. They cover the gamut of political news and cultural activity, each one adding their latest hot take to the thread of criticism indispensable to news pundits and media outlets everywhere.

Practically any political noise or big idea can generate outsize commentary. The opinion makers we astutely quote, and with whom we love to spar, have something polemic or cunning to say about practically any topic. The president’s healthcare legacy, Supreme Court decisions, Keystone XL, ISIS, immigration, Ebola, privacy, monetary easing, the Pope – any topic is game. Any topic, that is, except the most complex political relationship that ever existed – the one between human civilization and the natural world.

More than a few well-known writers press our intellect into seriously thinking about the value and importance of nature. The ones that do this well capture our imagination and educate us about the natural world and our place in it. The superlative writers in this realm try to explain human existence in context with nature: scientists like E.O. Wilson, Lester Brown or Sylvia Earle, journalists such as Elizabeth Kolbert and David Quammen, poets in the vein of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, well known authors like Peter Matthiessen and John McPhee, or environmental advocates like Bill McKibben and the late Wangari Maathai. Each contributes to a better understanding of our complex ecology, infused with a sense of responsibility for protecting and conserving the diversity of natural life on earth, for its own sake and for human wellbeing.

The complex ecological systems that give rise to life on the planet are not weighty enough for the nation’s word mavens or their editors.

To be certain, there is no dearth of writing on the topic of nature. There are plenty of scientists, journalists and poets writing about the environment and the study of earth’s natural ecosystems every day. They explain how the planet works and why nature is important to our own existence. The editors and writers at National Geographic magazine, for example, have done a commendable job of telling us about the complexity and diversity of the natural world for over 100 years. Unfortunately, our most lionized opinion makers probably don’t read National Geographic or Nature. Not as much as they read The Atlantic, The New Republic, National Review, or Foreign Affairs. Rather I should say Politico, Gawker, The Daily Beast, Vox, The Spectacle, Salon and Slate.

Beyond canny attitudes on climate change, fracking or the effect of oil prices on renewable energy, hardscrabble opinion and commentary about the biological and human importance of the natural world doesn’t extend in any deep-seated or far-reaching way to the commanding heights of decision making in business, politics, finance or the news media. Nature has practically zero financial materiality on Wall Street or at the Securities Exchange Commission (though it should). Likewise, the “idea” men and women that word us up with beefy opinions on education, health, national security and the economy don’t abide by the politics of nature, except as intellectual entertainment or maybe scientific minutiae.

With the possible exception of the Gulf oil spill or Hurricane Sandy, the prolific word mavens and talking heads that make-up the mainline news, finance and policy cognoscenti don’t have much to say when it comes to the natural world. Their perception of nature and contemporary environmental policy is extremely poor and badly out of sync with their imperious grasp of equally complex topics in foreign affairs, health care, immigration or trade. There is much to say about string theory, the disappearing border between Iraq and Syria, social media superfluity, oil economics, disruptive innovation, or adulating discussions about genius or talent with Malcom Gladwell on Charlie Rose.

One or two members of Congress, the head of a big environmental group, a couple of actors, greenish entrepreneurs, and some environmental grant-making foundation presidents freely deliver interesting opinions and passionate positions on the need to address climate change or safeguard the future of the oceans. In point of fact, there are plenty of newsworthy pieces on Keystone XL, fracking or endangered species in the New York Times. Yes, attention is given to threatening environmental regulations in the Wall Street Journal. There are even adequate random op-eds about evolution, climate change or renewable energy.

When it does appear, political writing and editorial commentary about the environment tends to sound like one hand clapping. With the exception of Thomas Friedman’s smart schooling on a clean energy economy (or food security as a climate-related cause of revolution), there is virtually no influential commentary or explication about nature or the environment among the national opinion makers who serve-up a daily trope for their toadying public, and each other.

Straight talk about the environment exists now only as a diversion in the great national misunderstanding about energy, climate change and the economy.

Opinion editors are deftly impassive about the scientific meaning and economic value of ecology and environmental sustainability. Covering concepts about nature, natural services or biological systems are neither news nor opinion. Disappearing rhinoceros or pollinators don’t really matter the way that disappearing borders do. It’s just so much earth science for Tuesday editions.

The idea of earth or the environment as a primordial ecological system upon which a modern globalized technological society is built and depends, as complex and necessary as any issue invoking wordy political debate, is mostly absent from the daily pages of our standard-bearer news columns, op-eds and political speeches. Censured as alarmism and written off as job-killing regulations or feeble green party politics, the idea of balancing the human economy with ecology is dismissed as part religion (e.g., “I don’t believe in climate change”) or lacking “sound science” (e.g., “I am not a scientist, so…”).

Nature, environmental sustainability, and the word “ecology” are subjects too puerile for bold opinion plutocrats, a necessary annoyance or something that Al Gore is supposed to care about, but nothing to discuss in an informed way. As for renown commentary on the environment or climate change, David Brooks, who writes about everyone and everything – even emotion – said it this way: “I exported that part of my brain to Tom Friedman.”

Oddly, religion, morality and God figure prominently in the pundit’s portrayal of modern life, but somehow not nature. The biggest brains in the news and political business see God at work in all kinds of mysterious ways but not the planetary system we live on. Earth as a symbol or fact is left swirling in the blogosphere, summarized on bumper stickers, or cleverly outfitted with inoffensive green commercial branding for consumer marketing and public television.

Unlike the endless array of solipsistic storytelling by newswriters-turned-authors, nature is not as intellectually virile as war, terrorism, religion, medicine, poverty, education, the cost of health care, or a financial crisis. Only when an environmental issue becomes a fight does it harden sufficiently for the pundits to expound: energy security, the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking, for example, are sometimes brawny enough to elicit misbegotten, muddling mainstream commentary.

The complex ecological systems that give rise to life on the planet are not weighty enough for the nation’s curt word mavens or their spruce business-class editors. Ironically, they all use the word “ecosystem” for describing any esoteric system for which they have special knowledge: Political ecosystem, business ecosystem, financial ecosystem – just not the natural ecosystem from which the concept originates.

That is, not until an environmental accident becomes so dumb and obvious that everyone suddenly has an opinion about the political realities of food security or energy security; opinions that have nothing to do with the protection of the environment or the wealth of benefits that come from well-functioning natural ecosystems such as clean water and clean air. In the case of the Gulf oil spill or Sandy, the diet-cola-stained keyboards churning out serious news and opinion rattled away for weeks about who was politically at fault. Much less appears as news or wily commentary regarding the resilience of natural systems to adapt to climate change, the economic value of wetlands, or the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity and our capacious appetite for fossil fuels.

The “green thing” is not equal to, is not calculated with, and is not a factor worthy of our haute editorial fourth estate – their testy professional purpose being never to miss an opportunity to twitter brainily in response to the latest forced rhetoric emanating from Congress, North Korea, Wall Street, Syria, or the White House.

The inveterate function of printed opinion and commentary is surely vital to sorting out news and comprehending what’s happening in our world. In spite of, or because of this, the biggest names in the pundit business fall short in delivering the same heavy intellectual contest to the subject that ultimately decides the fate of human life on the planet – our domestic and international response to climate change and the environment. The idea glitterati are comfortable, even if often ill-informed, talking or writing about “energy security” (or anything with the word “security” in it for that matter) and the baser politics of climate change, but not in a scientific or factual way. Many seek to expose and excite political badminton and floundering leadership as a weekly diet of loudmouth commentary – not about the natural world or its reality. The ongoing debate culminating in the decision last week about the Keystone XL oil pipeline (which is an extension of hundreds of existing oil pipelines) is not about the environment, energy or jobs so much as it is a stage for political prattle and opinion.

The polity is no different. Instead of seeking and getting true grit about energy and the environment in the mainstream, we compliantly accept paternal dismissive commentary and bemoan lopsided arguments (from the left and right). The word ecology, like sustainable development, is ineffable to the establishment’s foremost analytical minds who grin incredulously at the idea that the health of the natural environment and its ecosystems are as important as the trade balance between the US and China.

Nature is simply not a subject matter the political and economic opinion makers devote much time to – it doesn’t have the same brainy sinew or institutional cachet of other more important pieces of the news requiring political archness and clever mainstays to hold forth in the name of security, freedom and jobs. Environmentalism didn’t die – it has been relegated to the second or third tier of news media and commentary, alongside important but subordinate science stories. Nature is also not a momentous topic. Commentary on environmental sustainability does not stimulate political economic discourse among contemporary adult writers and readers, other than within the somber environmental movement where it sometimes languishes under its own apprehension.

Straight talk about the environment exists now only as a diversion in the great national misunderstanding about energy, climate change and the economy. What wherewithal we had to create environmental laws and protect the environment in the past has not evolved to meet the scale or proportion of challenges we now face. We can only talk about so-called market or entrepreneurial solutions because we are more or less satisfied with the environmental regime so begrudgingly adopted 30 or 40 years ago as the best or most effective environmental management system that we rationally need or can afford.

The primacy of nature (and the health of our environment as a measure of economic prosperity) is upon us. The arbiters of economic, political and cultural achievement epitomized by the collective of best-selling writers and opinion doyens are not sufficiently interested in our environmental future. Something more is needed by way of the same critical analysis that causes the think class to rabbit on about every other opinion dawning issue, barb or polemic but that they must begin to seriously discuss and connect the future of our human technological society with the natural infrastructure on which it is built.

One of the political outcomes of our technological society could be to negotiate and ultimately “make peace with nature,” as Sylvia Earle often says. Or, by contrast, as the Breakthrough Institute forcefully argues, to “spare nature and address global poverty” requires that we must intensify “many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world.” In the Anthropocene, the euphemistic geologic period we now inhabit wherein humans dominate or have changed nearly every natural system on Earth, the BIG IDEA, the most significant economic change, and most far reaching political decisions will be about how we live on the planet.

Those questions? How will we harness the wind and sun for clean energy? What will we do to ensure food security? When will cities begin to recycle water? What commitment will we bring to conserving wild lands and protecting the oceans? Decisions and choices that must become more central to the human domain of commerce, journalism and haute commentary, or at least as much as any other political slaver. If it is so flattering and obliging to debate politics and generate opinion about human conflict, Ebola, terrorism, net neutrality, privacy, and executive compensation, then bringing that same critical analysis to how we manage the environment and curtail global warming surely must warrant more commentary than it now gets, even if your next column or book deal doesn’t really depend on it.