Forty-odd years ago, it seemed that, week after week, the Notes and Comment piece that opened the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker (now just “Comment”) launched a new attack on the conduct of the Vietnam War; failing that, the administration of the day was taken to task for bungling the Cold War. This scolding seemed brave and daring at the time; national magazines didn’t the government in a relentlessly unflattering light. It wasn’t the magazine’s disagreements with specific policies that one remembered. It was its impatience with the clutch of morons who seemed unaccountably to be in charge of things. In the end, The New Yorker turned out to be right: Vietnam was a pointless waste — we are doing business today with the same government that we sought to crush for nearly twenty years — and when the Cold War came to an abrupt end in 1989, it was clear that George Kennan’s modest policy of containment would have been sufficient to halt the spread of Russian influence in the world — without the need for bellicose imagery. But the fact remains that nobody in power paid attention to The New Yorker while the war was underway, and nobody in power is paying attention to it now, when climate chance poses a far greater menace to the American way of life than Communism ever did, and the magazine is still at it, scolding away, week after week, in pieces that are signed, usually, by Hendrick Hertzberg.
It’s not enough to be right; what’s wanted is persuasiveness — persuasiveness aimed at the unpersuaded. What would such exhortation look like? It would not look like this:
Meanwhile, the “overwhelming evidence” that Obama used to cite continues to mount, relentlessly and ominously. The decade just ended was the warmest since systematic recordkeeping began, in 1880; the year just ended was tied (with 2005) for the warmest on record, and it was the wettest. The vast energies released by moister air and warmer oceans are driving weather to extremes. Hence epic blizzards as well as murderous heat waves, unprecedented droughts alongside disastrous floods, coral reefs bleached white and lifeless while ice caps recede and glaciers melt.
We may ask, what is the point of this paragraph? Aside from the pleasure, which for Mr Hertzberg, we imagine, must be considerable, of delivering the thwack of a sound, articulate rebuke, we can’t imagine what sort of effect the passage is supposed to have on those who peruse it. No individual reader is in a position to do anything about moister air or bleached coral reefs. Surely no one at The New Yorker is naive enough to suppose that Mr Hertzberg’s words would serve their purpose if the magazine’s readers were motivated by them to vote, en bloc, for a slate of candidates committed to reversing the dire trends herein outlined. Any such candidates, once elected, would be mown down by representatives of the much larger portion of the electorate that wants to muddle through, with as little inconvenience as possible — the majority of Americans who will never be prodded into constructive action by being made to feel ashamed of themselves. Nor will ordinary homeowners ever worry more about faraway environmental problems than they do about their own real estate; they won’t even worry half as much.
Maybe concern for the environment isn’t much of a prod when it comes to reducing the consumption of energy and the production of waste. Complaining about the callousness of the general public isn’t going to accomplish anything. Fear isn’t much of a spur, either; it makes people either sullen or escapist (or unhelpfully crazy: remember those bomb shelters!). It’s unlikely Americans will do much of anything about the environment until they feel good about trying, and can see that their efforts are making their own territory a better place. Just how to make them feel good about visible results — that’s probably as daunting a challenge as actually reversing global warming. (It is certainly not the job of the President of the United States, whose principal duty is to hold the country together, or at least to prevent it from flying apart.) But reversing global warming isn’t going to happen first. And for my part, instead of rapping the knuckles of politicans who oppose the progressive environmental agenda, and spanking their supporters, I prefer to bemoan Hendrik Hertzberg’s failure to write something useful.