Why can't most business executives, economists, politicians and journalists see the big picture? Why is "environment" hardly ever in their vocabulary, much less a priority? A good example of the cluelessness displayed by our so-called leading thinkers can be found in the August 12 issue of Time magazine.
Entitled "Why the Economy Could... Pop!," this major article was written by Roger Altman, a respected financier who served as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration. In his short list of the forces behind the U.S. economic revival that he foresees, "Factor No. 2" is the country's current oil-and-gas boom. Thanks to fracking and other new technology, Altman writes, U.S. oil production could surge from a 62-year low of 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to as much as 10 million by 2020, while American output of natural gas skyrockets as well (it's up 35 percent in just the last six years), driving fuel prices lower and igniting consumption.
I have no quarrel with Altman's facts. I fear that they are distressingly accurate. What I object to is the absence of any mention of the environmental implications -- the near certainty that the fossil-fuel orgy will speed up global warming. The implications have been laid out clearly by environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, one publication that does see the big picture. If our descendants are to avoid climate chaos sometime in the future, McKibben carefully explains, we can't afford to burn the fossil fuel reserves that industry has already discovered, much less drill for more. It's hard to see how wind and solar power have a chance against the fossil-fuel juggernaut that Altman describes without much stronger Government boosts for clean energy and brakes on dirty energy.
It hurts me personally to see Altman's cluelessness so prominently displayed in Time (see my HuffPost bio for a brief description of my work at Time on environmental issues before I retired from the magazine in 2001). Sure, Time is hardly the only, and certainly not the worst, offender when it comes to forgetting about the environment. But the planet used to be front-and-center at the magazine. Time started its "Environment" section in 1969 before the first Earth Day. It made a big deal about global warming with a cover story in 1988 and ran many more cover stories on climate and related issues for decades afterward (with dishearteningly little impact on public policy). In fairness, I should say that Time still runs an occasional savvy article by Bryan Walsh, an excellent writer and thinker and a worthy heir to Time's tradition of environment reporting. But, in my opinion, Walsh is increasingly compartmentalized and marginalized in an environmental ghetto intended only for green "fanatics" who actually care about what happens to future generations. The same could be said for the environment writers at most corporate media outlets, when they even have an environment writer. Time's editors ran a piece by economics writer Rana Foroohar, accompanying the Altman article, pointing out that the renewed U.S. advance was leaving a lot of unemployed people behind, but no one, apparently, thought to ask Walsh, or better yet McKibben, to contribute an environmental perspective.
Where is the big-picture leadership we so desperately need? President Obama talks a good game on climate, but his all-of-the-above energy policy has fostered the oil-and-gas boom. Even if he discovers his spine and blocks the Keystone XL pipeline (an insane project that a clear-thinking leader would have torpedoed years ago), I fear that it will be only a minor setback in the inexorable rush to pseudo-prosperity through fossil fuel. And a carbon tax, while an important step, might not slow it down much either. After inventing the oil-and-gas industry, and then losing its mojo for a while, the U.S. is reclaiming its place alongside Russia and Saudi Arabia as chief destroyers-for-profit of our future.
Capitalism is probably the best economic system ever devised (Communism proved to be far worse for the environment). But capitalism has become mindless and clueless, a random walk of nattering nincompoops on CNBC talking about nothing but stock prices. If something makes tons of money and creates a lot of jobs, we can't stop doing it, no matter what the consequences. We can't stop riding corporate jets and building ever-bigger mansions. We can't even consider stopping people from driving around in circles, burning fossil fuels frivolously just so that crowds can buy tickets and watch on TV to enjoy the spectacle. (We can't stop making guns either, but that's another story.) Capitalism without any restraints will eventually be fatal to us all. If we can't control it, it will destroy human civilization by destroying its habitat. If even Time magazine no longer sees that, we may be doomed.
Nearsightedness is the killer. We don't know exactly when or how fast the Greenland ice sheet is going to melt (a process well under way), inundating the world's coastal cities. It might not be this century, so, hey, it may not be our problem. But that gives me no comfort, since I expect to have some descendants around in the next century. I fear that they will have every reason to curse me and my gluttonous generation, when Time is long gone and civilization is racing toward the end of its own time.