10/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spending Our Way Into the Apocalypse

Fate loves a little irony, and it finds plenty in the convergence of two of America's struggling industries: cars and journalism. The magazine Esquire published its 75th anniversary issue on September 8 with a cover sporting the courageous new "e-ink." This includes a panel of flashing images on the cover and a twinkling Ford ad on the inside--Ford underwrote an undisclosed portion of the cover's cost.

Huffington Post contributor Dave Burdick thoroughly explained, in July of this year, how environmentally wasteful the operation would be, describing the cover's wide-ranging, fuel-burning chain of production (which is proudly enumerated on the magazine's website).

But Burdick assumed Esquire was even thinking about the environment in the first place. It wasn't. The cover is a more cynical move than anything else: Hoping to electrify the general print media readership with the equivalent of 3-D glasses stuffed into boxes of cereal, Esquire is looking to awe its readership in an effort to boost its circulation.

It might even be working a little bit. Monthly circulation for the magazine hovers around 725,000--slightly up from last year--and the percentage of ads in the special issue is the most editor-in-chief David Granger has ever seen. Esquire hasn't revealed how much the cover cost the magazine; regardless, for an industry as increasingly tight-fisted as print media, it's a small miracle such a project found the light of day. All the same, it was an act of too little, too late--and in the wrong place. The simple fact is that the cover has no purpose other than to be a different cover than what you're used to.

Ford, meanwhile, underwrote part of the whole shebang, clearly banking on the visibility of such glam histrionics as a means to boost its declining bottom line. The American auto industry is in the throes of a well-documented emaciation. Congress recently boosted fuel-efficiency standards for the first time since 1975, a long-overdue measure. But before the hemorrhaging of jobs and benefits and factories can be stayed, we need a push for renewable energy and better cars, and this push must come from the three branches of our government and from the industry itself. Our problem with oil could not be more stratified in our society. It's an addiction quilted with privilege, tradition, politics, money, corporations and war.

The whole scenario found in this month's Esquire verges on gallows humor. Print media is clearly halfway down the slope of Media 2.0, and the auto industry is still circling the wagons to prevent as much environmental policy change as possible. Esquire and Ford are forging a seemingly opportunistic alliance. It's a sham, and the irony is stifling.

It looks like things will get worse before they get better. The idealist in me, though, is confident that print media will dramatically, irrevocably evolve--not die out--in the coming decades. Perhaps e-ink--better represented (but not by much) by Amazon"s Kindle--will play a key role in that future, and it will then be noted that Esquire nominally led the charge.

But that will be the governance of hindsight; in the here and now, Esquire's costly move more closely resembles Pickett's Charge: bull-headed and ultimately useless. I don't have an alternative solution for Esquire. (In fact, I find the entire magazine to be a cyclonic mass of contradictions. Its tough-man, Joe Sixpack--and very liberal--prose doesn't pair well with ads for $3000 suits and watches.) And if the irony wasn't enough already, last month's issue contains the (foreshadowed) icing on the cake. The opening note from the editor-in-chief explained why meat, specifically steak, is, well, good (meant to introduce one of the issue's features). Granger recalled a scene in a Detroit steakhouse:

"Depressed American city at the onset of a recessive economic moment. Dined in a new steakhouse in Birmingham. Barely an empty seat in the house, and every seat there was paying more than forty dollars a steak and well into double digits for their drinks. The place was raucous. Big, loud, boisterous tables. In a recession. In Detroit. Do you see what I mean? Do you feel the false bravado, the attempt to convince ourselves that all is well by spending our way into the apocalypse: If we're eating this well and spending this kind of money, things must be okay."

This column originally appeared at SpliceToday.