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

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

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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