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Climate Change and Economic Growth: The Bifurcated Land of NPR

I discuss NPR frequently in my posts. My occupation as carpenter allows me to listen to NPR for most of the day. I miss segments here and there due to the noise of power tools, but with its judicious repetition I get most of it and its words and sounds rattle through my head, the soundtrack of my consciousness. Thus the preoccupation. But NPR is also an important bell-weather of the American educated and professional classes, who, as Kunstler has pointed out, are the greatest squanderers of oil and other resources, and who, I would add, will play an important role in any transition to a post-carbon world.

The preoccupation and the daily invasion of my consciousness also provides continuous access to a larger collective consciousness.

Out there in NPR land, the basic facts of global climate change and warming are generally accepted (even as its likely consequences are watered-down) and you would find a basic consensus that “something must be done.” What the concern and commitment may lack in intensity, it makes up in its widespread extensivity

As I write this, I am listening to Bill McKibben on “Speaking of Faith.” I know McKibben’s work well, have seen him speak, have read his books, and as a member of the Transition Movement, am devoted to a course of action which is based on the sort of work that has come from what we might call a school of thought in which he is an important contributor.

My initial reaction: I am thrilled that NPR is presenting the basic facts and consequences of global warming in an unvarnished way, without the comforting promise of technological gimmicks or some meaningless new “green” product. This is far better than the sporadic reports on Copenhagen or the latest grim scientific report that are given voice, but then sink beneath the surface, their cries muted in a deep sea of green-washing from Market Place’s “Sustainability Desk” or that are hidden in a opaque slurry of stories about zero-emission cars or “green” funerals. I have written numerous letters to all the NPR and other public radio organizations pleaing for just this sort of no-holds-barred coverage. Perhaps this caricature is not entirely fair. The subject of our national addiction to oil has, in the wake of the BP fiasco, become increasingly acceptable conversation in the polite company of NPR.

Here’s the basic truths that McKibben is articulating: that the cause of global warming is simple: 200 years ago we learned how to burn coal, oil, and gas, and have consequently increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which has changed the ecological nature of the planet in profound ways that will be greatly amplified in coming years. Moreover, the solution to this problem is simple, though difficult: simple, because all we need to do is stop burning coal, gas, and oil; difficult, because every feature we associate with modernity, with comfort, with development, and with progress is a direct or secondary product of fossil fuels and our incessant combustion of them.

McKibben’s perspective is refreshing, and still a novelty in NPR-Land, for he reminds (informs) us that the necessary project of reducing our carbon emissions (which all of us good and educated people of NPR-Land embrace, at some level) will demand fundamental changes in the way we consume, what we expect, and how we live. His discussion of a post-consumerist world, not driven by competition and individualistic participation in a market-dominated politics and economy would get nods of approval and grunts of assent from many an NPR listener, on their way, perhaps, to a farmers market or nature center in a Prius, Volvo, or Subaru.

To foreigners of NPR land, perhaps those who are more likely to identify with Fox News, with slogans like “drill, baby drill,” who sport bumper-stickers that declare a commitment to “hauling ass and burnin’ gas,” this sort of voluntary restraint on consumption is indeed associated with the “sort of people” who listen to NPR. This is NPR-Nation’s national character.

This is largely an illusory veneer, perhaps a pretense, sometimes a downright dissimulation. For despite its simulation of a realistic and questioning attitude (ALL things considered, after all), in turns out that NPR is a virtual pep-rally for globalism, markets, and economic growth, all of which are difficult, indeed, to distance all that far from the most committed consumerism and the most dedicated hauling of the ass with guiltless amounts of gas. And yet NPR manages to maintain this feat of separation, and with magnificent style (I am so hard on NPR-Land because I am one of its most patriotic citizens, and I love my country enough to fight for its betterment). And we, its listeners, continue on our comfortable way in the Prius, Volvo, or Subaru.

At any rate, the two words “economic growth,” alone, can be heard throughout the day on NPR sometimes hundreds of times over a 12 hour stretch. It plays the lead role in the lolloping drama that first agitates, but then comforts and soothes the listener, unfolding slowly with its meticulous choreography, offering a primal reassurance. NPR is one of modern society’s campfires, providing a circle of light within the deep and dark forest of an uncertain future. In this brutal wilderness, economic growth is the hero who sheds the light and brings wondrous things. Without Economic Growth, unleashed will be tragedies that lurk in the forest, sit, vigilantly, at the cusp or margin of the NPR drama, loud will be the chorus of antagonists who provide our story with the dramatic threat of ruin. For without economic growth, unemployment may take center-stage. A scene or act dominated by economic stagnation will herald political disruption. A slight decrease in growth can cause those mercurial markets to unleash their villainous doppelgangers, turning romance into tragedy, and the American dream into farce.

Drama, of course, is not necessarily fiction. This preoccupation with economic growth, the apparent need to provide hourly market updates, a litany of stories about international trade, about the urgent need for third-world development and growth, the endless prattling of economic prognosticators, prognosticating usually about growth—these are not idle preoccupations; these well-heads of economic well-being are not without some real and basic, if only temporary and short sighted, import.

But let us not for a second believe that this drama is not staged, that all these foundations of consumerism (though less so the consumerism) are not fully approved and applauded by the writers, reporters, and editors of NPR, even if they should be forgiven for knowing not what they do. For there is no reluctance to talk about the “good news from Wall Street” or the “positive developments in consumer spending,” not an instant of caution or reflective ambivalence. Today I witnessed a discussion on “the sustainability of economic growth.” The writers and editors did not dream of the painful double-meaning of this concept. With NPR one needn’t for a minute wonder if the discussion will address what we can expect with next quarter’s profit reports or the fact that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is impossible and that our continued quest for it will be our undoing. The former is the hourly fare of NPR; the latter possibility has not yet been conceived in NPR-Land.

In another posting, I will analyze more closely how NPR manages this great feat (we, help them with our own beliefs, investments, and steadfast systems of denial), but when I hear one of those more profound and direct conversations, like the one with McKibben right now, I am stunned at the way the truths and beliefs he articulates are so successfully kept separate from the endless updates on the Dow, the consumer price index, or the falling value of the dollar. Without a moment of hesitation or the least blush of recognition, we can hear a report of how GM’s sales growth in the burgeoning Chinese auto market is, of course, a positive sign. Never mind that if China begins to drive at even a quarter of the rate we in the U.S. do, our ship is basically sunk. The focus is simply and resolutely on the sustainability of economic growth—that, of course, of the current “recovery.” The applause for a increase in U.S. consumer spending is quiet and contained, like that heard at a golf tournament, though not out a lack of clear and unwavering support for such developments, but only because of NPR’s characteristic decorum.

Most NPR producers and reporters would agree, I think, with the truths of physics, biology, and chemistry that McKibben shares, and will likely repeat as part of their personal incantation, “something must be done.” But these truths and commitments inhabit an entirely different sphere of awareness than the one which echoes from the wave upon wave of market coverage. These two worlds seem never to pass each other in the hall, share a room, never engage in a discussion, or confront each other on stage. Perhaps, I am simply rehearsing the description of any ideology and its coherency in contradiction, but let us nevertheless not accept the bifurcation of reality, economic and political on one hand, geological, biological, and meteorological, on the other, into two parallel universes.

To those who sit in seats of power in the strange and magical land of NPR, as well as we, their loyal subjects, we the great squanderers of the land’s bounty, I plea, simply, that the twain be made to meet, that our accepted truths about climate change, crashing eco-systems, and wide scale and irreversible resource depletion begin to inform, and maybe even restrain this enthusiasm for an otherwise unbridled ideology of economic growth, this willful submission to the voracious and amoral whims of global markets.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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