Review of ‘Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future’

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Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future
Mark Hertsgaard
Broadway Books

"The light is mute in Chongqing nearly all the time in winter," writes Mark Hertsgaard. And he asks: Is Chongqing our future?

Chongqing is dim, we learn, because this industrial city has some of the worst air pollution in China, "which makes it a strong candidate for the most polluted city in the world." It has other sorts of pollution, too. Behind the local paper factory, Hertsgaard finds pipes spewing various colors into the Jialing River, including "bizarre clusters of dried orange foam the size of pineapples." A second pipe spews black sewage. And from a third flows a "vast, roaring torrent of white, easily 30 yards wide, splashing down the hillside from the rear of the factory like a waterfall of boiling milk." Pollution, it turns out, has its own aesthetic, however grotesque: "Decades of unhindered discharge had left the rocks coated with a creamlike residue, creating a perversely beautiful white-on-white effect."

A few minutes later, Hertsgaard and his Chinese interpreter must hold their breaths and run from a cloud of poisonous chlorine. "My poor country," the interpreter mutters. "My poor country." By this book's end, many readers may also find themselves muttering, "My poor world."

After traveling through China, Hertsgaard notes, "Everywhere, it seemed, the land had been scalped, the water poisoned, the air made toxic and dark." In this country of at least 1.22 billion people, expected to be the world's largest economy by the year 2010, water and air pollution kill more than 2 million people a year. Up to 90 percent of the rainfalls in Guangdong, center of China's economic boom, are acid. Lung disease causes a quarter of all Chinese deaths. Between 1950 and 1990, sprawl and erosion ate up as much farmland as exists in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, combined. Already choking on power plant fumes, China plans to add 18,000 megawatts of electric capacity per year, equal to Louisiana's entire power grid, doubling or tripling coal burning by the year 2020.

To see if humanity can survive its self-befouling, Hertsgaard traveled the world for six years. He saw many reasons to despair, and a few to hope. As the research director at France's chief scientific institute told him, it will be tough solving such problems as global warming (atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution) and exploding population (a billion more people every 12 years): "You can't just have two men sit down at a table and agree to stop being stupid."

In Bangkok, Hertsgaard shows us nonstop 24-hour traffic jams. Also in Bangkok he spent a week hospitalized because "most of my white blood cells abruptly vanished one morning, the victims of contaminated water." In the Sudan, we hear a nutritionist lecture starving Dinkas on how to prevent the common and deadly diarrhea, which is killing their children. A woman asks: "We know how to boil water like you say, but you tell us to mix salt and sugar with it before we give it to our children. You know we don't have these things. So why do you tell us this?" "I realize that," the nutritionist replies. "Still, you must do the best you can with what you have."

The average American car, we learn, "assuming (generously) that it gets the federally required 27.5 miles per gallon of gasoline and travels one hundred thousand miles in its lifetime, ends up emitting nearly 35 tons of carbon dioxide," the global-warming gas. Meanwhile, since 1950 world population has doubled, but cars have increased by a factor of ten. Pollution has costs: 11 percent of Russia's children are now born with birth defects.

When Hertsgaard pauses for a visit home, he confronts the rich-poor gap: "Many San Franciscans were wearing more money than African and Chinese peasants would earn in a lifetime." Industrialized countries lecture southerners on destroying rain forests, but with 25 percent of the world's population, they burn 70 percent of its fossil fuels. "We are," says Hertsgaard, "akin to a glutton admonishing a beggar on the evil of carbohydrates — he lacks a certain moral authority."

Hertsgaard does perceive hope in certain arenas. For one thing, through simple efficiency, Germany and Japan consume energy at half the U.S. rate. And Hertsgaard says: "In fact, if humans are smart, repairing the environment could become one of the biggest businesses of the coming century, a huge source of profits, jobs, and general economic well-being." As a matter of fact, in April 1999, just after this book's publication, China's premier visited the United States. He said America could cut its Chinese trade imbalance while at the same time helping China with its horrendous air pollution by exporting clean coal-burning technologies. (This spring, too, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement to adapt acid-rain control programs to Chinese needs.) As Hertsgaard puts it, "restoring our embattled environment could become the biggest stimulus program for jobs and business in history."

An enlightened acknowledgment that comprehensive solutions are called for could, in Hertsgaard's estimation, serve as the basis for charting our course for the future. "Some environmentalists," he writes, "have suggested that the race to the moon in the 1960s serve as the model for the race now needed to save the earth." The analogy is apt: that extraordinary effort demonstrated how a "clear mission and deadline can focus resources and fire public enthusiasm."

Perhaps, Hertsgaard suggests, we should draw on the lessons of yet another inspired effort to implement profound change: "Why not," he asks, "revive these New Deal policies but apply them in a green and global fashion?"

His book is admirable in its willingness not only to document the dimensions of environmental degradation imperiling the planet, but in its careful attempt to suggest real strategies for change. Hertsgaard is, at heart, a pragmatist. "Most people," he writes, "want to do right by the environment and, if given the chance, they will — as long as they are not penalized economically for it."

He recommends, for example, that the federal government should alter certain tax, subsidy and economic accounting systems in order to support environmentalist problem solving. Federal investment in the fledgling solar power industry, he reports, could produce substantial results in the near future.

We have only to look at the success of similar efforts, to extrapolate about the possibilities. Investment by the Pentagon during the 1960s, he points out, fueled the rise of the computer industry. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration was instrumental in creating a market when the federal bureaucracy began purchasing recycled, rather than virgin, paper. In a year's time, he adds, the government purchases seven million vehicles. If even a substantial fraction of those automobiles were fuel cell- or hybrid-powered, Washington "could help create market demand for green cars....There would be a certain poetic justice in this, for the government's lavish subsidy of conventional automobiles throughout the twentieth century is no small cause of our current problems." The government, he contends, can be the catalyst for new directions in the marketplace.

But that approach offers only a beginning. The underlying issue is that a redistribution of resources, worldwide, is called for. "Contrary to conventional wisdom," Hertsgaard observes, "there is lots of money available — we're just spending it foolishly at the moment.... Even minor redeployment of resources can yield large gains." One estimate for the price tag put on preserving two-thirds of the Amazon rain forest is $3 billion — approximately the amount of cash that is required to purchase just six U.S. Stealth bombers. "If even half of the estimated $500-900 billion in environmentally destructive subsidies now being doled out by the world's governments were pointed in the opposite direction, the Global Green Deal would be off to a roaring start."

Finally, Hertsgaard tackles the thorny problem of consumption patterns. The wealthy nations of the world are hooked on material acquisition. The point is to strike a proper balance — improving conditions in the impoverished countries and convincing better-off nations and individuals that it is in their interest to share rather than squander resources.

The need for application of inspired solutions could not be more urgent. "Human beings may or may not still be able to halt the drift toward ecological disaster," he writes. "But we will find out only if we rouse ourselves and take common and determined action."

Richard Wolkomir writes from Vermont.

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