Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Letter to Bob Herbert of the New York Times

Dear Mr. Herbert,

Let me introduce myself. I’m a 52-year old New Yorker, who has worked in public relations and tried a few times to pitch ideas (unsuccessfully) to your column. I primarily write for labor unions in the New York City area. I am a registered Democrat, and have voted in every election since I was 18.

I am a fan of your column, and the consistently progressive views you put forward. But with your latest column, “No Recovery In Sight,” on the need to create jobs for the 30 million unemployed and under-employed, there’s a fly in the ointment – a very big one. That fly is the connection between economic growth and climate change, and the necessary connection between jobs and economic growth.

It isn’t hard to make the argument that economic growth is bad for the planet, because it uses up irreplaceable natural resources and creates pollution, including greenhouse gases. Can economic growth be good for humanity, if it is bad for the planet? Does the fact that we are ushering in the sixth great extinction of other species important? Are we bound to honor the life with which we share the planet? Is managed economic growth possible, which is both good for us and good for the natural world on which we depend? What if it isn’t? What if we’ve already gone too far?

My objection to your column is its implication is that any new job is a good job, no matter what it means for the environment. You can buy a dozen brands of toothpaste in Rite-Aid, but I suppose you would champion it if I created the Brooklyn Toothpaste Company and put 20 kids to work making yet another brand. The net effect of all this extra toothpaste would be to use energy and create packaging that isn’t renewable, and produce pollution that is hard to clean up. But at least the kids are getting a paycheck!

Economic growth has brought with it a revolution in how work is done. It takes many fewer people today to do work that occupied large armies of laborers in the past. This is especially true of agriculture. Yet we have many more people in the world than ever before, with much less necessary work for them to do than ever before. Bring on the toothpaste factories, and more mountains of stuff!

Continuing economic growth, which you advocate, is leading us towards environmental disaster. If you believe the scientists – and I notice you haven’t written much on global warming – we can expect sea levels to rise by between 3 and 6 feet by 2100 – and perhaps much more, if the west Antarctic ice sheet and the ice covering Greenland melts. We could see a rise in sea levels of 60 feet by 2100, if the worst predictions come true. That puts much of Manhattan under water. About the only places that would be spared include my comfortable digs in Sunset Park, the highest point in Brooklyn. But I wouldn’t be able to take the subway into the City, assuming there would be anything to visit.

The question is, how much credence do you give these predictions, and are you willing to modify your economic growth flag-waving to accommodate them? Ignoring the contradictions between economic growth and responsible environmentalism isn’t a stance for a responsible journalist. Please write a column illuminating this issue.


Alan Saly
Sunset Park