sprawlAs much as I value the reporting of the New York Times on political matters, I find their environmental reporting to be…well…strange. Perhaps it’s the result of living in the overwhelmingly man-made environment of the Big Apple, but when they talk about ‘the environment’ it’s almost as if they’re describing what’s happening on Mars, or at least some rarely seen and exotic tourist attraction.

Two recent examples:

Last week David Brooks wrote an article called, Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia. In describing urban sprawl, one of the scourges of our time, an epidemic that threatens to devour every inch of American agricultural and wilderness land in this century, Brooks writes almost fondly, nostalgically:

The reality is that modern suburbia is merely the latest iteration of the American dream. Far from being dull, artificial and spiritually vacuous, today’s suburbs are the products of the same religious longings and the same deep tensions that produced the American identity from the start. The complex faith of Jonathan Edwards, the propelling ambition of Benjamin Franklin, the dark, meritocratic fatalism of Lincoln — all these inheritances have shaped the outer suburbs.

One can almost imagine Brooks describing an atomic test in Nevada as an “iridescent sheen resplendent of all the hopes and dreams of our technology-driven future”. For urban sprawl, with its waste, its extravagant use of precious space, its depressing sameness and its disrespect — even total disregard — for the unique natural qualities of each community, razed and ploughed under to make every new sprawling blight on the landscape an indifferent imitation of every other, is nothing short of the A-bomb of the 21st century, inexorably destroying everything in its wake. It is an issue that is tearing the Sierra Club and other environmental groups apart.

Then this week, Jennifer 8. Lee (anyone know why the NYT uses a period after her middle ‘name’ — what is ‘8’ short for, anyway?), in an article called Clear Skies No More for Millions as Pollution Rule Expands, announces that, under ‘new’ 1997 guidelines, many counties will be listed as violating clean air standards that did not make the list under the old guidelines:

The revised federal standards have wide economic and environmental implications and the makeup of the list has been the subject of lobbying in Washington. Areas in violation face the loss of federal money for roads. Industrial development can be barred in those areas unless companies prove that they would not make pollution worse. “A lot of counties feel if they are in, it will have negative impact on their economic development plans,” said Senator George V. Voinovich, Republican of Ohio. Like many members of Congress, he said he has been deluged by letters and calls from local officials worried that the revised standards “will cause the loss of jobs, restrict economic growth, discourage plant location and encourage manufacturers to move overseas.”

Lee reports that the new guidelines survived challenges all the way up to the arch-conservative Supreme Court. But there is no sense of crisis in the story. It’s almost as if the violations, which result in millions of premature deaths, massive costs from disease, and irreparable damage to the entire ecosystem, were some arbitrary and minor zoning violation, waiting for saner heads to prevail and overturn, in order to protect Brooks’ ‘latest iteration of the American dream’. These regulations aren’t designed to placate environmentalists, they’re designed to safeguard human health from egregious and pervasive threats. So where is the sense of urgency, or outrage, that millions will suffer profoundly and unnecessarily and die prematurely because of the self-interested negligence of reckless commercial enterprises?

What will it take before Americans realize that rapacious, greedy, destructive corporations do thousands of times more damage to the health, safety, lives and property of the American people than the worst terrorists could begin to imagine in their wildest dreams? What will it take before we realize that restricting immigration to prevent further urban sprawl and population explosion isn’t a matter of racist disregard for human suffering and inequality of opportunity, but a first step to recognize that the growth we worship threatens the very survival of our species and our world? What will it take before we recognize the ‘proximate connection’ between pollution and human disease and death, and prosecute and imprison the officers and directors of polluters as we do murderers?

Maybe the venerable reporters of the Times should ‘get out’ more.

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  1. cs says:

    I could have sworn that when I read this earlier you embedded a link to the Sierra Club’s controversial up-coming elections. I returned to leave a comment in opposition to the drive to make restrictions on immigration part of Sierra Club policy. I personally can take no comfort from knowing that others live in misery while my immediate, regional or national environment is protected like a petting zoo or gated community. There is no way to look at the environmental crises we face separate from humane political and economic policies that improve quality of life around the globe. Any immigration policy remotely tinged by racist, supremacist ideologies is not among them.

  2. Jennifer wrote for my college newspaper. The 8 helped differentiate her from the other Jennifer Lees on campus and met the newspaper requirement of a unique set of initials (there was at least one other on staff). Perhaps its short for 888.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    CS — I don’t think it’s fair to say that just because some right wingnuts have latched on to the Sierra Club as a high-profile outlet for their hate-mongering, that opposing immigration on pragmatic grounds is necessarily wrong. That’s like saying that opposing the occupation of the West Bank is anti-Semetic and tinged with the same hate that those who desecrate synagogues represent. If immigration continues unabated, there is compelling evidence that the misery of the 3rd world will be exported to North America, that all arable and wilderness land in North America (other than the Arctic) will be wiped out in this century, and that the consequence will be catastrophic for the whole globe. We need to solve third world problems in the third world, enable and allow the people of those countries to make their own cultures work, self-sustaining and substantially self-sufficient. To call stemming the massive immigration from poor countries to rich anti-humanitarian, is comparable to saying the best answer to man’s problems is to colonize space. Exporting problems doesn’t solve them, it just makes them endemic, more protracted, and more intractible. Or, to use a simpler if somewhat exaggerated analogy, it’s like saying the answer to SARS is to dilute it by spreading it evenly around the world, instead of isolating it.

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