Thursday, December 17, 2009

Al Gore and Jane Jacobs

As much as I admire the work that Al Gore is doing on global warming, I cannot help but shudder when I compare his Inconvenient Truth with Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I see how much American culture has changed in the last half century.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is what everyone used to think of as a book: a few hundred pages of solid text meant to be read from beginning to end. Jacobs was not known before it was published. She became famous for writing this book, because it presented new ideas that challenged conventional thinking about city planning. People read through hundreds of pages to learn about these ideas.

An Inconvenient Truth is more like a very long magazine article: much of it is color photos with captions. Magazines are designed this way - and some books now are also designed this way - because people are not expected to read them from beginning to end. Most people skim through this book, looking at pictures and reading their captions, to get a general idea of what it is saying. It is an excellent summary of the mainstream science of global warming, but it has no original ideas. Gore did not become known because he wrote a book with interesting ideas; he became known as Vice President, and people bought his book because he is a celebrity.

It is easy to give more examples of the same contrast.

Fifty years ago, the most popular writer on economics was John Kenneth Galbraith, a professor who became famous because he wrote a book who challenged conventional thinking about economic growth.

Today, the closest equivalent we have is Thomas Friedman, a journalist who became popular by writing punchy 800 word columns, whose books people buy because he is a celebrity, and who repeats the very conventional idea that we need to invest in clean technology to promote economic growth.

To deal with global warming, we need fundamentally new ideas that challenge conventional thinking about growth. But Americans seem to have developed such a short attention span that they will not do the concentrated reading needed to grasp new idea. I cannot think of any writers today who first became well known because they wrote books about complex new ideas, as Jacobs, Galbraith and many other did a half century ago.