Around the World in Search Of Our Environmental Future
Mark Hertsgaard

by Marc Oliver
Earth Odyssey

by Mark Hertsgaard
hardcover; $26.00; 372 pages
New York: Broadway Books, 1999

     Citizen Reporter Mark Hertsgaard became concerned with the decline of the planet’s environment and went on a quest to document it.
     First Hertsgaard travels the world and takes stock of conditions. He interviews citizens in South America, China and Africa on their thoughts about pollution. He finds a surprising degree of understanding among peoples who have every right to be ignorant, given their sparsely available media. A business lady in Nigeria, for example, more clearly understood the world’s condition than many U.S. politicians.
     Readers will enjoy Hertsgaard’s travels and variety of interviews.
     He reports there is a strong reluctance to agree on meaningful pollution reduction, which he concludes is due to the corporate powers’ stonewalling change because they think short-sightedly that this saves them money.
     He also credits this reluctance on ‘Have and Have Not’ politics. Poor countries want the right to sustainable development, and thus want few restraints. They want rich countries that did the most polluting damage--in North America and Europe--to minimize polluting first. Developed countries (particularly the U.S.) don’t want to agree to a greater pollution reduction than required of the lesser-developed countries.
     Supporting the current Do Nothing situation, Hertsgaard found, is the assumption that “...there is an open-ended time frame for resolving... [pollution] problems... which ignores a central aspect of the environmental crisis: the enormous lag time between cause and effect... “
     Maurice Strong (an environmentally active Canadian business executive who organized the first U.N. conference on the environment in 1972) has explained: “The fate of the earth is likely to be decided in our generation. It doesn’t mean the earth is going to die in our time, but the earth does have a cancerous condition. By the time the symptoms are so acute that they are giving us real pain, it will be too late.”
     “...At a [recent] conference held in New York to evaluate progress since [the Earth Summit in] Rio,” writes the author, “no one could even pretend the news was good. ‘By most measures, the world seems to have moved in reverse,’ noted the Washington Post. Despite the convention on Biodiversity signed in Rio and later ratified by 161 countries [not including the United States], species were becoming extinct at an ‘unprecedented’ rate of fifty thousand per year, the U.N. estimated.... [and] most other environment trends were headed in the wrong direction. For example, more than 60 percent of the world’s fisheries were being harvested at or beyond sustainable limits.”
     Thankfully, since this conference an economic (business) case has arisen for doing something meaningful. William Ruckelshaus, a top corporate executive and former EPA administrator under Reagan, spoke out that there was no time to lose in shifting from business-as-usual to sustainable civilization. Warning that the magnitude of the transition calls for a fundamental transformation of major spheres of human activity, including agriculture, transportation, energy, housing, industry, etc. Tinkering with the problem won’t do the job.
     Joining the cause were Greenpeace activists led by Jeremy Leggett. Leggett has connected common business sense to the pollution problem by meeting with banking and insurance industry leaders and analyzing the financial risks if current global warming and pollution effects materialize.
     Analyses have found that trillions of dollars in property and long-term investments are in fact at risk, and the time for reckoning was fast approaching. In the relative near-term, “scientists are warning that most of the beaches on the East Coast of the United States could be gone by 2020, victims of rising sea levels. With $2 trillion in insured assets along U.S. coastlines alone, the threat to the insurance industry was clear. As Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurance company, explained in a full-page advertisement in the Financial Times, ‘Giant storms are triggered by global warming; this is caused by the greenhouse effect; which is, in turn, accelerated by man.”
     “They know that a few major disasters caused by extreme climate events... could literally bankrupt the [insurance] industry in the next decade,” said Hans Alders, director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), in explaining the about-face in attitudes.
     The flowering of understanding that there is a huge business case to do something to arrest the damage to our planet holds great promise, Hertsgaard maintains. Perhaps if effects are quantified, consensus for action can be achieved where emotional pleas fall on deaf ears.
     Market-oriented policies for changing our polluting practices have great potential, because capitalists will be vigorous to pursue their self-interests. Jeremy Leggett and others are encouraging the use of incentive programs so that businesses can profit from pollution reduction. They are also counseling against unwise energy subsidies that further the use of non-renewable energy sources, like oil and gas. (The U.S. spends $30 billion per year subsidizing the expansion of the oil supply.) Similarly, they believe governments must stop hidden subsidies for automobiles, which make drivers think roads are free; user fees, they suggest, should be imposed. Perhaps then people will understand the true costs for SUVs and the convincing logic for mass transit.
     There are many aspects to the environment education process. Many subsidies mask true costs. Prices for products systematically under-value the services provided by the ecosystem and disregard the interests of future generations.
     “...Clean air, fresh water, fertile soil--these and other foundations [of life on the planet] are often considered free goods, and since people do not pay to consume them, they have no incentive to conserve them,” writes Hertsgaard. “This attitude is rooted in classic economic theory, which considers nature to have a value of zero; production is assumed to be a function solely of capital and labor. The real world is a different matter, of course.”
     Hertsgaard explains the history of such attitudes and theory. He also gets into prospective environmental tax reform, where hidden subsidies would be removed and market forces would then motivate consumers to buy environmentally-friendly goods that will honestly cost less, while users of environment-unfriendly goods would pay more due to the addition of fairly-assessed user fees.
     I heartily recommend Earth Odyssey. Hertsgaard paints a depressingly accurate portrayal of our planet’s decline, which is perhaps the biggest problem mankind has ever faced. He also reports that there is some hope; that not all business and government leaders are ignorant (just a plurality of them).

Mark Hertsgaard teaches nonfiction writing at Hopkins. His father is the late popular Baltimore media figure Rolf Hertsgaard.

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This story was published on Mar. 3, 1999.