Commentary Magazine


A Moment on the Earth, by Gregg Easterbrook

Down from Eden

A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism.
by Gregg Easter-Brook.
Viking. 745 pp. $27.95.

Beginning with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring almost 35 years ago, a parade of books on the environment has marched up and down the best-seller lists, virtually every one arguing that without radical change in the practices and values of Western civilization, humanity will be doomed. A new book, A Moment on the Earth, has now joined the procession, but it appears to have done so without a fully validated permit.

Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor of both the Atlantic and Newsweek, is a dogged researcher and independent thinker who writes with unusual verve, conviction, and wit. He is also a self-declared liberal, who affirms that “I long for examples of government action that serve the common good.” When it comes to the subject of this book, Easterbrook hails “the extraordinary success of modern environmental protection” as “perhaps the best instance of government-led social progress in our age.”

Yet despite his praise for what environmentalism has wrought, A Moment on the Earth is, in fact, devastating to the environmentalist cause. The heart of the book is a review of some two-dozen purported and highly-publicized threats to nature from human activity. In each case, Easterbrook finds that activists grossly and often unscrupulously distorted the facts and exaggerated the dangers in their effort to force government action. Along the way, he limns a powerful critique of the anti-rational, misanthropic concepts that lie at the heart of environmentalist thought.

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A particularly telling sample of what Easterbrook discovered can be found in his treatment of the controversy over acid rain. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, activists directed much of their energy toward publicizing how power-plant and industrial emissions were bringing about a second “silent spring,” poisoning trees and killing lakes on a grand scale. But this new silent spring was never in danger of dawning. Drawing upon the results of a ten-year, $540-million research effort by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, Easterbrook shows that the problem was limited to only a few high-altitude forests and a tiny fraction of lakes, where excess acidity could be inexpensively ameliorated by the simple expedient of pouring in lime.

In the greener-than-thou world of American politics, however, these findings were ignored by politicians on both sides of the congressional aisle. Ultimately, the campaign against acid rain culminated in the passage of draconian air-pollution legislation; the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, signed into law by a timid President Bush, compelled industry to spend billions of dollars on additional and wholly unnecessary emission controls.

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As A Moment on the Earth shows, the broader intellectual underpinnings of environmentalism are as shaky as the “science” that produced inflated claims about acid rain. The central tenet of the movement—that the natural world has been steadily deteriorating from the Edenic purity of the preindustrial era—is wholly divorced from observable fact. Nature, writes Easterbrook, is never moving in any one direction but is constantly in a state of flux. Over the eons, massive geological forces have acted and continue to act to transform any particular location on earth from lush tropical forest to frozen glacier, or from ocean bottom to mountain top, while life forms adjust or perish or flee. In comparison to the damage nature itself can do, mankind’s power to wreak destruction is paltry and insignificant.

And nature, the great destroyer, also possesses recuperative resources that are consistently underestimated by those who subscribe to the environmentalist creed, a point nicely illustrated by A Moment on the Earth’s post-mortem on the Exxon Valdez accident. When Exxon’s supertanker ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilling millions of gallons of oil, much wailing was heard over the allegedly permanent damage to the pristine waters of Prince George’s Sound. Yet with the passage of only a few years, nature, alone and unassisted, has cleaned up virtually all of the oil, and the photogenic living creatures of the region have returned. Ironically, the recovery proceeded most slowly in those very areas where Exxon, spurred by public outrage, devoted extensive efforts to removing every last trace of oil. The vigorous steam-cleaning utilized in this process destroyed the microbial life that elsewhere enabled nature to heal on its own.

Furthermore, and contrary to what environmentalists fervently preach, industrialization and development are not the prime causes of environmental degradation, but rather the essential prerequisites for eliminating it. Thus, the depredations of the early industrial revolution, as Easterbrook points out, have long since been ameliorated in the advanced Western world by the march of technology and the efficient use of resources that invariably follows in its wake. Today, the world’s worst air-pollution problems are certainly not found in the United States (where regulators are busy contemplating ways to reduce, of all things, lawnmower fumes) but in the underdeveloped third world, where millions of children die every year from respiratory diseases linked to the ubiquitous use of dung as a cooking fuel, and where all sorts of other all-too-real environmental horrors abound.

The environmental movement, of course, has tended to ignore such real problems, concentrating its fire instead on remote and hypothetical dangers to the earth. As this skewed perspective suggests—and as Easterbrook’s book convincingly documents—environmentalism’s deepest problem is not intellectual but moral. It has long exhibited a sustained disregard for the needs of living people, and a persistent inclination to devalue the worth of human life. Some environmentalists, in fact, speak openly of humanity as “a cancer on the face of the earth.” This sentiment is by no means confined to the movement’s extremes—Easterbrook recounts his own experience of being hissed by an audience at the Harvard Divinity School when he asserted that people are more important than animals and plants.

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Nonetheless, and in contradiction to its powerful indictment of the environmentalists, A Moment on the Earth concludes on a most peculiar note. According to Easterbrook, the excesses of the movement could easily be remedied. All it need do is adopt a philosophy he calls “ecorealism,” which substitutes logic and the priority of human needs for the emotionalism and one-sidedness he decries. But even as he urges environmentalists to follow the light of reason, Easterbrook soars off on his own high-altitude flights of utopian speculation. Ecorealism, he prophesies, will bring us to a new stage of development which may well entail “the end of predation by animals against animals,” “the end of predation against animals by people,” “the end of extinctions,” “the end of disease,” “security against killer rocks” (asteroids), “no more aging,” “an end [to] the waste of the Sun’s output,” and, finally, “an end to oblivion” after death.

A Moment on the Earth has a flaw yet more serious than its occasional departures from terra firma. After persuasively demonstrating how environmentalism has both distracted our attention from serious problems and wasted untold resources, Easterbrook, unaccountably, declares that “a few decades hence . . . society will consider every environmental program running now to have been a bargain, and wish more programs had been started sooner.” Statements like this make vivid the cost in intellectual honesty exacted by Easterbrook’s determination to hold on to his credentials as a liberal.

Still, if one can overlook such lapses, A Moment on the Earth provides a most valuable corrective to environmentalist hysteria. Just for that reason, perhaps, one cannot help wishing it were even better than it is.

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