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Book Review: A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism.

A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism.
by Gregg Easterbrook

Reviewed by Michael Specter

IT has been just 25 years since a group of long-haired, sandal-clad activists came up with the idea of Earth Day as a way to publicize the struggling environmental movement. But that's more than enough time for a revolution. The United States–a country where not long ago major rivers were so polluted they sometimes caught fire; where the signature bird, the bald eagle, was threatened with extinction; and where urban air became deadlier every year– has pursued environmental protection with a zeal reserved for only the gravest social problems.

The results cannot be doubted. In the past quarter-century, mostly under pressure from environmentalists, air pollution has diminished across the nation. Drinking water is often cleaner than it was before the first factory was built on the shores of any American river. There are hundreds of laws against toxic waste and thousands of towns that recycle garbage. Endangered species are protected by law. Littering used to be as common as smoking; now they are both roundly despised by a large percentage of Americans.

But, Gregg Easterbrook asks in "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism," what do environmentalists think about their stunning successes?

They think the world is coming to an end. They argue with victory, delight in doom and refuse to accept even the possibility that their worst estimates — about ozone depletion, the diversity of life, the prospects for nuclear energy, the future of the planet — could ever be wrong.

"The primal urge of contemporary environmentalism is to decree a crisis," Mr. Easterbrook writes in his meticulously researched and insightful assessment of the fate of the earth. Most recent books about the environment come from one of two extremes: the Chicken Little crowd, mostly on the left, who believe that the end is near and it is all our fault; and those, mostly on the right, who essentially say we should stop whining about global warming, about the problems of the rain forests and about strange new chemicals in our food.

"A Moment on the Earth" is the most powerful antidote to the noise of all those others. Mr. Easterbrook, who has written on environmental issues for Newsweek, The New Republic and other publications, is at his best when he attacks the liberal ideologues of the environmental movement for ignoring their own triumphs. They will hate it. Unfortunately, some of those who are peddling a contract with America will embrace the book, because it says that — in the developed world at least — our problems with the environment are disappearing far faster than the rain forests.

But "A Moment on the Earth" offers far more to its readers than a few sound bites. Mr. Easterbrook has taken one of the most complex modern subjects and made it pleasurable reading. His essays on air pollution, acid rain, population, water problems and the third world are all written with great vigor, and plenty of heart. He explains with clarity why so many educated people are so afraid of tiny risks from things they don't understand, like alar or dioxin, that they will buy bottled water in a city with no water problems and extremely expensive organic fruit when there is no need to waste the money. He reserves special hostility for the notion, common among environmentalists, that the old days were somehow always better for the earth and that if we could just turn the clock back nature would thank us.

Mr. Easterbrook has a fairly simple point, although it is one that many environmentalists bitterly dispute: Nature takes the long view. Were the 1980's the hottest decade in the history of weather records, as most environmental reporters (including me) wrote? Yep. How long have temperatures been kept this way? Less than 100 years, which in the many-billion-year history of the earth — the green fortress, in Mr. Easterbrook's felicitous and accurate phrase — is less than a spit in an ocean.

When 11 million gallons of crude oil gushed out of the tanker Exxon Valdez and into Prince William Sound in 1989, was that a disaster for the pristine Alaskan coast? Absolutely, but through the remarkable regenerative powers of nature, the sound is once again biologically alive in a way that no person could have predicted at the time. Mr. Easterbrook in no way suggests that because nature is good at defeating the insults of man one should then assume those insults don't matter. But, he argues, this fact does let us put them in perspective.

Mr. Easterbrook wants a far more global view of saving the environment than is displayed by most Americans who consider themselves sensitive to issues of ecology. Disease, he maintains, is by far the biggest environmental threat to humans. He wonders at great length — and convincingly — why, if millions of children die each year of infectious or waterborne diseases that could be prevented with relatively little money, environmentalists aren't worried about that problem. He illuminates the remarkable differences between the developed world (where millions of dollars can be devoted to the dubious defense of the spotted owl from loggers) and the developing world, where every type of pollution is endemic, where minor efforts could produce enormous gains, but to which the liberal American environmental leaders rarely pay attention.

It would be a disservice to describe "A Moment on the Earth" merely as a group of essays on the misguided predilections of environmentalists. It is really about the earth itself. Mr. Easterbrook provides rare context for current debates about the potential for nuclear dumps to become accidental weapons (in an earthquake, for instance); what warming really means to most living things; and the relative hazards of natural and man-made substances. He asserts — effectively, but not for the first time — that environmentalists can pray to the spirit of George Orwell all they want about the hazards posed by artificial genes inserted into vegetables. Those genes, he says, are nowhere near as troublesome as the natural chemicals found in peanut butter, for instance, or broccoli.

MODERN science can measure anything. It not only can find the needle in any haystack; it can almost certainly produce the fingerprints of the guy who put it there. That ability means we need new barometers, new levels of hysteria and a new rationality when we talk about the threat of many potentially harmful substances, because everything in a certain amount is a potentially harmful substance.

Mr. Easterbrook's book will help people see that. But the author would have served his subject slightly better if he had just laid down the prodigious facts. Unfortunately, he is occasionally guilty of the same excess of rectitude that he says often afflicts environmentalists. Where they repeatedly point to crises that don't exist, he has a habit of saying that good news is never noted. He writes, for example, that the end of the dumping of raw sewage into the oceans in 1992 was "an environmental milestone whose passage went entirely unremarked upon owing to its positive character."

Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Mr. Easterbrook clearly must have known, since he uses quotations from contemporary newspaper accounts of that event to illustrate the importance of the moment he said went "unremarked upon."

That raises another problem. While Mr. Easterbrook's book is rich with the fruits of his research, it is very weak on sharing the primary sources. He has sifted through thousands of documents, books and scientific articles in his reporting, and he takes many positions that will surely provoke controversy. It would have been nice to see more extensive footnotes so we could decide for ourselves how he used the data. That isn't to suggest that the data do not exist, or that Mr. Easterbrook doesn't give credit where it's due. But there is no useful guide to finding it. If, for instance, readers want to argue with Mr. Easterbrook's interpretation of a famous paper by Bruce Ames and Lois Gold on comparative risks — and many will — they will have to somehow discover on their own the issue of Science magazine in which it was published.

That is a shame, because "A Moment on the Earth" deserves to be read, investigated, argued about and honored. Mr. Easterbrook has taken an enormous subject, looked at it honestly and told us what he found out. Few approaches to the truth could be more dangerous.

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