Sunday, June 29, 2008

More News From Nowhere

I can't read newspapers any more. The line, which ten years ago when I retrained as an editor was getting hard to distinguish, between news and opinion is no longer even recognisable as a line. Even the Fairfax papers, in which I have long placed my trust, have succumbed to the lure of the sensational. My own mental state, these days, is somewhat fragile, and any sensational news story, of which there are now plenty, involving oil prices, retirement savings, climate change, and general existential crisis, is likely to send me into a nosedive. Thus, I find myself holding my breath and crossing my fingers whenever I find myself anywhere near a headline.

At least I know where I stand with the New Yorker. One of the best pieces they have run of recent times was by Jonathan Franzen, who went to China ostensibly to find the people who made a fake puffin golf club cover, and found a country where growth has taken on a life of its own, and where fake-fur soft-toy animals are being made in places where fewer and fewer real animals can be found.

Franzen is a novelist, not a journalist, and brings to the story a novelist's eye for small details, a sense of the absurd, and a strong sense of irony. This is my favourite sentence:

"It was as if the gods of world history had asked, 'Does somebody want to get into some really unprecedentedly deep shit?' and this place had raised its hand and said, 'Yeah!'"

Franzen's story is about Chinese industrial growth, and the struggles of a small number of concerned individuals to have any impact at all on the destruction of the natural environment. In fact, what he describes sounds a bit like the world of "Mad Max 2", a few years before the time in which that movie is set, and without Mel Gibson and Bruce Spence.

It's all bad, really, and whatever destruction is wrought there will be (a) on an unprecedentedly large scale and (b) unconstrained by geopolitical boundaries. In other words, we all have a stake. Which gets me thinking: a good place to start would be the toys that come with McDonalds meals. All of which are, aside from those few that are bought by collectors, five-day wonders, and all of which are made in the same Chinese factories that Franzen was visiting. (Or at least similar.) So: they consume a ridiculous amount of natural resources; their creation merely fuels the destruction of the Chinese landscape (sell more toys; build more factories); they end up as landfill; and they exist only to lure innocent children into eating crap food. And yet kids love them. (We have a large container of the damn things under somebody's bed at our house; most of them acquired at school fetes and garage sales.)

In short, the sheer magnitude of what Franzen is writing about makes you wonder how much good replacing your light globes with compact flourescents can really do. So many things are conspiring to destroy the planet's equilibrium that it's impossible to see how disaster can be averted. But at least a couple of things are starting to bite: oil prices are actually starting to affect the way people think about car use; everything is getting more expensive, which puts its own brake on consumption; and if these things, coupled with Wall Street greed, serve to tip us into a prolonged worldwide economic depression then, in some ways anyway, so much the better (if not exactly fun for anybody).

And the newspapers, in their neverending search for the story of the moment, are now doing their bit as well. Which is where we came in.