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Greener Than Thou
By Mark Hertsgaard; Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future" and a commentator for National Public Radio's "Living on Earth."
Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists:A Conservative Manifesto.
Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century.
Like other mom-and-apple-pie issues, the environment is a cause everyone supposedly cares about. But in recent years the environmental movement has lost energy and focus, even as temperatures rise, forests shrink and species continue to disappear. How did this happen, and what can be done to restore vigor to environmentalism? These are among the vital questions explored by Philip Shabecoff's "Earth Rising" and Peter Huber's "Hard Green," though the books have almost nothing else in common.
From its messianic subtitle to its hortatory prose, there is nothing subtle about "Hard Green." Peter Huber's message is that the environmental crisis is much ado about little. Most supposed dangers either never existed or they were real once but have now been brought under control (for example, the air pollution caused by cars and power plants), or they are merely potential threats that humanity can overcome if it must.
"There is an excellent chance that if global temperatures rise modestly, the planet will just grow very much greener than it is today," Huber writes, though he grants that "Miami might end up underwater." But then humans don't really need functioning ecosystems anyway. "Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks," he writes without irony, "harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers."
Huber is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for Forbes, the self-described "capitalist tool," so it is perhaps not surprising that he regards environmentalism as an evil plot. He disparages environmentalists as "soft Greens" who "do not look very different from soft Reds of yesteryear." Still, his unsubstantiated, blunderbuss approach disserves his own point of view. He claims that he wants to save the environment, and that an assertion of property rights and not government regulation is the way to do it. (He does allow government one role: wilderness protection, since "doing nothing" is the one thing government does well.)
The problem is that he supplies almost no documentation for his claims, even when advancing such controversial notions as "Alaska's Prince William Sound has fully recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill." More disappointing is his simplistic insistence that the answer to (almost) all of our environmental problems is to unleash the power of the market. Whether market mechanisms can be harmonized with ecological values is a question of utmost importance, but Huber does little more than declare that unfettered market forces and privatized pollution will take care of everything.
If Huber despises environmentalists, Philip Shabecoff wants to help them. Shabecoff covered environmental issues for The New York Times before leaving in 1991 to establish a daily paper on the topic, and in "Earth Rising" he draws on this experience as well as on interviews with nearly 100 movement leaders. In his acknowledgments, he thanks two of the most influential of them, Joshua Reichert of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Wade Greene of Rockefeller Financial Services, for financing his investigation; Reichert also read the manuscript before publication. What effect these relationships may have had on the final book is hard for an outsider to know. Certainly Shabecoff does not refrain from leveling stiff criticisms at the movement. But unlike Mark Dowie in "Losing Ground," the last big book on American environmentalism, Shabecoff rarely attaches criticisms to specific individuals or groups, which may make his book more popular, if less discussed, among his subjects.
As a sympathetic observer of the movement, Shabecoff believes that it is "winning battles but losing the war," and that it will keep losing unless it makes some fundamental changes. He singles out the gulf between the national organizations based in Washington and grass-roots groups, many of which charge that the former have been co-opted by power and are too willing to compromise principles. Equally crippling is the movement's lack of class and racial diversity, which leaves it disconnected from the ordinary Americans who should be its allies. Shabecoff proposes a long list of remedies. Environmentalists must raise more money, he says, aggressively engage in electoral politics and learn to reward friends and punish enemies. They must communicate better (though he also criticizes the news media for underplaying environmental stories—a commercial mistake, in view of one study he cites in which a majority of respondents said that they were "extremely" or "very" interested in such coverage). And they must improve their scientific expertise and work harder on international issues.
Above all, they must get serious about economics. After all, most people worry first about putting food on the table; environmentalists must show how an economy can generate jobs even as it respects ecological values. Here the argument in "Earth Rising" is much more nuanced than that of "Hard Green"; though respectful of the market's efficiency at creating wealth and raising living standards, Shabecoff criticizes its environmental blindness—its inability, for example, to reflect the social costs of oil extraction and smog in the price of gasoline. Environmentalists should not abandon the stick of regulation, he argues, but they must use carrots, too, to encourage the market economy to better performance.
At times, Shabecoff's analysis is more wishful than shrewd. Nevertheless, his book could provoke much-needed rethinking within the movement. Environmentalism was one of the ascendant social forces of the 20th century, but it will not succeed in the 21st if it does not offer people a positive, practical vision of a better world and how to get there.
© 2000 The New York Times
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