Wednesday, September 05, 2018

"Losing Earth" and the Socialization of Blame

It's been weeks since the publication of Nathaniel Rich's "Losing Earth", the much-hyped article that went cover to cover in an August issue of the NY Times Magazine, but its giant contradictions are as jarring now as when I first read the article.

First, there's the title, which suggests that we are despoiling and ultimately losing the most precious of all things--a habitable planet upon which to live. If true, and the evidence is strong, you'd think it would have been front page news for decades, not something that pops up in the magazine as a done deal after forty years of sporadic coverage, like a jack in the box. The logic of that is, let's not worry about this climate change thing too much until we can safely feel it's too late to do anything.

Second, the premise of the article is that there was a decade--the 1980s--when action to solve the climate crisis was nearly taken, but that human nature kept us from acting. Here, again, there's a comfortably safe logic that avoids pointing fingers: it was nobody's fault and everybody's fault at the same time. The premise contradicts itself. If action was nearly taken, that means that a lot of people wanted to take action. Either those people are not human, or the article's premise is wrong.

The body of the article is well written and contains some useful research that, surprise, further contradicts the premise. In 1980, as it was becoming clear that strong U.S. leadership was needed to generate international action on climate change, Ronald Reagan was elected president. According to Rich's telling, Reagan moved to expand coal production, appointed "an anti-regulation zealot" to lead the EPA, and considered eliminating the council that had just warned him about the disastrous effects of global warming. "Reagan’s violence to environmental regulations alarmed even members of his own party," Rich declares.

This vivid telling, in which there were people who wanted to act, and others like Reagan who did not, completely undermines the article's central premise that "Almost nothing stood in our way--except ourselves."

It's often said that capitalism has a socialist element. It seeks to privatize profit while socializing loss. Pollution, for instance, is dumped on the global commons--in the atmosphere and waterways. Unlike profits, pollution's many costs and impacts are shared by all. We as individuals are allowed to operate under a similar logic, enjoying personal comfort and mobility as the CO2 rises from our chimneys and exhaust pipes to mix in the shared atmosphere. Rich's article does the same with blame, spreading it across all of humanity even while animating the text with the dramatic tension between those who wished to take action, and those who scuttled progress.

Particularly dramatic is the account of the first months of the George H.W. Bush administration, following a campaign in which Bush called for action on climate change. Soon after Bush took office in 1989, Secretary of State James Baker and EPA administrator William K. Reilly called for the U.S. to lead on climate change, but Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu shut them down while President Bush looked the other way. Again, the article's narrative clearly points not to some universal defect in human nature but towards particular individuals whose ideologies blinded them to the existential threat posed by a warming planet.

Though some blame goes to citizens who didn't pay attention, who listened to what they wanted to believe rather than a harder truth, it is the leaders who are ultimately to blame. They are the ones who take the solemn oath to protect the nation, and who ignored the evidence in order to let the voters off the hook. They are the leaders who failed to lead, and who chose the easy way, who opted out, who in a bout of reverse elitism decided they knew more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to studying the planet.

Journalism has long had trouble pointing the finger of blame, particularly at conservatives who since the 1980s have been battering the media with accusations of liberal bias. There's a palpable relief a journalist feels upon declaring "both sides" are to blame. But spreading the blame equally around when the facts suggest otherwise is hardly objective. It is a form of bias that provides reprieve for the guilty and smears the innocent. "Both sides" journalism leaves the public unprotected from malefactors, while offering no incentive for politicians to do the right thing. If extended to a schoolyard, a no-blame policy would lead to mayhem where bullies never face consequences. That, in essence, is what national politics has descended into.

Take Rich's surprise declaration: "Nor can the Republican Party be blamed." Rich defends this statement by mentioning a handful of Republicans who supported action, as if a small and ultimately powerless minority within the party somehow compensates for the behavior of the party as a whole. It is breathtaking to see how a political party that lectures the disadvantaged on personal responsibility is so easily let off the hook for its primary role in sabotaging action on climate change. Interestingly, insofar as generosity and forgiveness are liberal traits, then the forgiveness of the Republican Party for obstructing climate action supports the claim that the news media has a liberal bias. The Republican Party, then, benefits from an externalization of blame in much the same way as industry benefits from the externalization of costs like pollution.

Perhaps the least sympathetic to Nathaniel Rich's logic will be those who, fifty or a hundred years hence, look back in disbelief on decades of inaction, followed by self-serving attempts to wash our generation's hands of responsibility by chalking it all up to human nature.