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An Environmental Odyssey

Mark Hertsgaard, award-winning journalist and author, has stepped forward with a wake-up call for our environmental future. His newly released book, "Earth Odyssey," chronicles the six years he spent travelling around the world, surveying the damage humans are inflicting on our environment, and wondering whether humanity will survive its own short-sightedness. The news is not good -- but in Hertsgaard's words, "If things look too hopeless, and if that scares us off, then we are probably going to fail the evolutionary test." Hertsgaard speaks candidly about his experiences and impressions in this striking, provocative interview.
 
 
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We live in a Tabloid World. The entire media establishment has invested in titillation and celebrity as a way to hang on to an audience and make money.An interesting consequence of this transformation, as reported in February's Vanity Fair, is that the circulation of the supermarket tabloids plummeted during the first half of last year. Apparently, in the year of Monica, we just didn't need them as much. Axiomatically, a tabloid world means that substance -- the news and information we need to live intelligently -- is harder to find, when it exists at all.Remember early in the '90s, when the hole in the ozone layer was discovered and the effects of global warming were major news items, provoking constant debate? An Earth Summit was held in Rio. Eighty heads of state attended.That was then. What's happened in the intervening six years? Have the problems been addressed? Are we in better shape as a species and a globe? Unfortunately not. It's safe to say that the globe is in decidedly worse shape and there's much more trouble on the horizon, especially as China rapidly transforms itself into an economic superpower. But the continual degradation of the environment is now media background, at best.We have resumed our collective avoidance of news about potential environmental disasters. Relentless public relations by the fossil fuel industry and the sports utility vehicle makers who profit from pollution nurtures our denial. The industry flacks and advertisers continually trot out thoroughly discredited "evidence" that global warming isn't a problem. Meanwhile, the developing nations -- especially China -- insist that economic growth is more important than protecting the environment: A lesson they have learned well from the biggest polluter and consumer of all, the United States.At different points along the historical path, when things looked bleak and many had their heads in the sand, individuals have stepped forward with wake-up calls. These people feel so strongly about what they see around them that they dedicate their lives to sounding the alarm. They take that extra step and interrupt the zeitgeist. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" did it; Jonathan Schell's "Fate of the Earth" did as well. Now Mark Hertsgaard has stepped forward with "Earth Odyssey."Hertsgaard is a fine journalist. His book, On Bended Knee, exposed the enormously effective manipulation of the media by the Reagan administration's political machine. But with "Earth Odyssey" Hertsgaard raises the stakes and forces us to examine the totality of our future on the globe. He traveled the world, on and off for 6 years, to see for himself, from the bottom up, what the situation was. His quest: To gather information and decide if our species would survive for the next hundred years. The news is not good.Hertsgaard combines his skills as a reporter with serious research and scholarship. He packages his material so that the reader can easily grasp the problems at hand. And he offers serious solutions, ones that will take hard, hands-on organizing to achieve. "Earth Odyssey" is published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House. Don Hazen recently sat down with Hertsgaard at the AlterNet offices in San Francisco.Don Hazen: Symbolically, your book begins where your trip ended: In China, a country of 1.22 billion people with devastating pollution. You suggest that because of China's market reforms and economic growth, the problems of ozone depletion and global warming will worsen for the rest of the world. What do you expect from China? What can the rest of the globe do to work with China or confront China?Mark Hertsgaard: Reporters spend too much time predicting. That's not what we're here to do. But I can describe the dynamics in play. The Chinese government knows it has to clean up, not because they are good guys, but because the environmental degradation is canceling out nearly all of China's famed economic growth. Air and water pollution is costing $54 billion a year -- 8 percent of the gross national product. And that doesn't count such environmental costs as the enormous floods that China suffered last summer. It didn't get much media coverage in this country, but 56 million people were left homeless by those floods. That's nearly twice the population of California.The government responded by admitting its policies helped cause what were some of the worst floods to hit China in the 20th century, and it pledged to reverse those policies. It promised to stop the deforestation in the upper Yangtze ecosystem and to restore the lakes and wetlands in the Yangtze flood plain that used to absorb the excess flood waters. But the government almost surely isn't going to be able to carry out those reforms. If you stop logging, for example, what do you do with the tens of thousands of unemployed loggers? And where do you resettle the tens of millions of people who live on the Yangtze flood plain? There's no room to put them somewhere else. The Chinese government is caught between the economic costs of environmental damage, which is forcing them to change, and the political consequences of environmental reform, which don't let them change. The latter will probably win out, because the only thing keeping the party in power anymore is continued economic growth. No one in China respects the Communist party anymore, including high party members who I talked to. And the party knows damn well that nobody respects them. So even top environmental officials in the government say, "We've got to keep economic growth going. If we don't, its chaos. Its back to the cultural revolution and then all bets are off." If that happens, they say, forget cleaning up the environment. It's a gloomy picture.DH: Your time in Africa seemed both daunting and uplifting. You use Jimmy Carter's quote that the "biggest prejudice we face is not black versus white, but rich versus poor." Why did you use that quote for the Africa chapter?MH: I felt very strongly when I was traveling among the Dinka tribe in a civil war and starvation zone in Sudan, that these people simply do not exist in the minds of most Americans. They may as well be living on another planet. At the same time, I was struck by how their sad fate is largely the luck of the draw. Why wasn't I born into that life, rather than the privileged one I got? But most of the wealthy people in this world just don't want to be bothered. They basically don't care, and I suppose my trip has left me less tolerant of that kind of complacency.DH: Yes, it's amazing how people feel that their privilege is God-given. That they don't have to give anything back.MH: With privilege should come a sense of responsibility.DH: Say a little bit about being on the road so long. What was it like? You were in 19 countries. Did you get sick? Were you eager to get back on the road? What kept you going, besides your book contract, of course?MH: I had no book contract.DH: No contract? Really?MH: Before I left, I met with William Shawn, who had edited "On Bended Knee" In fact, "Earth Odyssey" is dedicated to Shawn. After "On Bended Knee," he and I had gone back and forth on a couple of other book ideas that neither of us liked. Finally when I pitched him the idea for this book, in what turned out to be my last lunch with him at the Algonquin, he said, "This is the most important book anyone can do. You are the only one who can do it. You (ital)have(end ital) to do it." I sent a proposal from the road. I was in The Czech Republic at the time to interview Vaclav Havel. However, Roger Straus --the publisher at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who had loved "On Bended Knee" -- turned down this book. So I had no contract. That was pretty early, about six months into my trip around the world. But Shawn -- and this shows the kind of guy he was -- I asked him to be my editor and to guide me on the book, and, despite Roger's rejection of it, Shawn said he would carry on. Unfortunately, about a year later Shawn passed away.As hurt as I was -- well, maybe more surprised than hurt -- by Roger's decision, ultimately I found it felt oddly liberating. One of the reasons why I had left the United States in the first place was to get away from the world view of New York editors. I had been getting censored in my professional life, like when I was fired from NPR. I had a regular gig there doing commentaries until one day when I did a satire, which everybody on the staff loved, except for my executive producer who complained that I had made fun of the free enterprise system. And then I didn't get my contract renewed at Rolling Stone because I had done this big piece about 60 Minutes and inadvertently turned up evidence of egregious sexual harassment of female staffers by Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt. Hewitt (executive producer of "60 Minutes") went after Jann (Jann Wenner, owner of Rolling Stone) in a pretty big way. Jann didn't renew my contract, basically, I think, because he didn't want to piss off a Manhattan cocktail acquaintance who happened to be the boss of the biggest news show in the history of television. I was very disgusted with all that. Having written "On Bended Knee," I didn't want to be restricted anymore into writing only what New York editors wanted me to write.As for getting sick, I got quite sick in Bangkok, when most of my white blood cells just disappeared one morning. I was in the hospital for a week, the loneliest week of my life. Later, I also got sick in China, with throat stuff from all the air pollution, plus a chemical explosion in Chongqing scalded my lungs. And I suppose I was also exposed to a lot of carcinogens, but I won't know about that for another 20 years.DH: One of the themes of the book is that corporations give lip service to environmental reform, but don't change policies. Yet there is a lot of evidence that money can be made by being more environmentally sound in business practices and that global warming will have enormous economic impact. One example you use is that most of the beach along the East coast of the U.S. -- insured to the tune of $2 trillion dollars -- may be wiped out. It seems profits are greatly threatened, but action is negligible. Can you explain this paradox?MH: I would call it a contradiction, as Karl Marx used to say.DH: Yeah, I guess Marx never used the word paradox.MH: You know, Lenin once said, "A capitalist will sell you on Tuesday the rope with which you plan to hang him on Friday." Capitalism by its very nature does not see or care about the long term. That's why you have to have government intervene to keep the system working. It's like that story in "Earth Odyssey" about the insurance guys in Germany (Gerling-Konzern Globale), who in theory are as green as you can get. You've got a guy at the top of the company -- a billionaire -- who knows green is where they've got to go. But the finance department would not let them switch their investment portfolio to encourage the transition to solar energy. And even the green billionaire boss will not intervene in the portfolio decisions of the company. That's the epitome of the contradiction. They are completely caught in the pressures of the marketplace. These guys running the insurance industry have $1.4 trillion a year that they have to invest and they still put a lot of it into fossil fuels development and use, which will only make things worse for them ultimately.DH: I've wondered why the maximization on return, required by law on the part of a company's trustees, can't be measured in the long term?MH: Yes, and as globalization continues and the financialization of modern capitalism increasingly dominates all the economies, this will get worse. Now it's not even quarterly. It's daily. They are watching their stocks all the time.DH: Like the Internet stocks.MH: Again, that's why you've got to have government. Over the last 20 years we've had the ascension of utterly unregulated capitalism. We've had a pretty good laboratory for observing what happens when we have the so-called free market. We see it in the environment. And also in the media. There are complaints coming all the time now from the right to the left of the political spectrum about the tawdriness and sex and sensationalism constantly purveyed in the media. We act as if this is some kind of moral failing on the media's part, when in fact it's very concretely related to practical policy changes that Ronald Reagan initiated in the '80s to deregulate television and remove it from any kind of public interest obligation: In essence, to have an ultra-free market approach to the media. All right folks, this is what you get.DH: In the book you seemed almost surprised at how normal people across the globe are aware of environmental issues. Why did this surprise you?MH: I think of the woman in Entebbe, Uganda, who talked about the ozone layer as "that hole in the sky." First of all, I come from a culture where people are often saturated with media yet often know next to nothing about the issue, maybe because they have the luxury of their wealth, which allows them to be insulated from the problem and not have to worry about it. But the women in Entebbe, what access to news did she have in Uganda? Basically a government-run-paper that's about four pages long. It doesn't even come out in Entebbe. And she doesn't have the money to buy the paper. I don't know how she knew what was going on.Then there was a guy who didn't make it into the book, a wonderful squatter who lived in the interior of Brazil, in the province of Goias. When he found out that I had just been to the Earth Summit, he started peppering me with questions. What had happened there? How had Brazil acquitted itself? And so forth. He lived in a house of concrete blocks with a tin roof, in the middle of nowhere, without even a radio. So how did he know the summit was even happening? And to be so animated about it! Yeah, I was astonished. It stands in such contrast to the lassitude here.DH: You say that change is difficult, but not because people don't care. Polls consistently show people believe in protecting the environment over economics. But then you seem to blame some people; they are not animated by a sense of urgency. Don't you think that if people saw there was a chance to win something, they would invest in the effort? There's a big difference between we who are professional activists and those who have other types of jobs, families responsibilities, etc. It's more of a sacrifice for them. Cynicism is rampant because of the way elections are run; by the power of public relations; by the special interests stranglehold on government. Were you too hard on the everyday citizen and not critical enough of how the system makes change very difficult?MH: I wish I would have been a little more understanding about that in the book. People do feel politically powerless all over the world. However, I must say I have less tolerance for that feeling among my fellow Americans than, say, in China. As distorted as our political system is here, there are far more opportunities for effective political action here than in China, Uganda, Russia or most places around the planet.Let me put it this way: If the idea is that things look too hopeless to change them, well, if that scares us off, then we are probably going to fail the evolutionary test. When people say, "It's hopeless," There's a part of me that thinks, "Well, buck up! Buck the hell up or you are going down. I understand that money drives the political system, but I still believe that at the end of the day we may not have the money, but we do have the numbers, as inert as the public support for the environment sometimes is. That's why the Republicans failed to overturn the environmental laws in 1995. Two-thirds of the population, including a majority of Republican voters, didn't want them overturned. It shouldn't take much for activists to build on that foundation and to keep the bad guys from winning. Nixon got out of Vietnam not because he wanted to but because people were in the streets, people were writing letters, people in all sectors of the society were doing what they could do to oppose the war. They changed the political context Nixon faced, so he had to get out. Likewise with civil rights and Kennedy. If you do the slow, patient, often thankless work of political organizing, I think you can win. Not every time, but you can win.DH: Keith Schneider (former New York Times environmental reporter) gave you a great half of a review in the New York Times Book Review, but he was unhappy with your solutions. He said you were "... bogged down. It was like breathing through a dish rag." What to you want to say to Keith Schneider?MH: I want to say: "Thanks for the first positive review I ever had in the New York Times Book Review." All my previous books got pretty much the same review in the Times, saying essentially, "He's a great reporter, works hard, but don't pay attention to his ideas about how the world works." You can read into that what you like: He's too radical, too naive, he's whatever. I even got a bit of that for my Beatles book, and Schneider's review of "Earth Odyssey" had a hint of it, too. Schneider's complaint was about stuff I didn't put in the book that he thought belonged there, but hey, you can't write about everything. There are a lot of things I would have like to have added to the book. For example, I devoted entire chapters to two environmentally crucial technologies: Cars and nukes. If I had dared to make the book longer I would have loved to do a chapter on the environmental implications of what television has done to people's heads around the world. But I've gotten used to reading reviews by people who write about the book (ital)they(end ital) would have written.DH: Al Gore is perhaps the Benedict Arnold of your book... a turncoat against the cause of the environment. After penning an intelligent book that grasped the real issues, he became Vice President and promptly ignored most of what he wrote. He's got a good chance to be president. What do you think?MH: Obviously anybody who read his book has to be disappointed by what he's done since being elected VP, which gives us a hint about what his rhetoric means, which is not much. And yet you still find environmentalists in Washington who give him the benefit of the doubt and say he still has his principles, he just hasn't been in a position to insist upon them. These are usually the very environmentalists who are angling for positions in his future administration. Me, I don't see it that way. I think if you are going to wait for Gore to find his principles, you are waiting for Godot. I don't think he's a bad man, he's just a normal politician.DH: So why did he write the book? It's not what a normal politician would do.MH: No, it's not, and he explains that at the start of his book: He got scared by watching his son almost die in front of him. He said he wrote the book after watching his son get hit by a car at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore one night, and the boy apparently remained at death's door for days.DH: What does that have to do with the environment?MH: Apparently that accident was part of a larger mid-life crisis for Gore. He had just turned 40, he had lost his first race for president, he was evaluating his role in life. He thought, "What is it I really care about," and that led him to write a book sounding the alarm about the escalating environmental crisis. At one point in the book, he writes, "Sometimes I worry that I've gone too far on these environmental issues. Then I look at the data pouring in from around the world and I conclude I haven't gone nearly far enough."DH: But when you chased him up the escalator he said "I am a cautious man."MH: Right, exactly. That's why I don't think he will be any different if he does become president. He's no different than politicians anywhere. Which is why you have to change the context they operate in. Somebody asked me, "Who do you want to read the book? Probably Al Gore, right?" No. I want readers who are going to dedicate their lives to changing the political context in which people like Gore operate. It doesn't matter if the next president is Gore, Libby Dole, George Bush Jr., or someone we don't know yet. It's important that they confront a political climate in the country and the world that forces them to do the right thing about the environment, just as Nixon was forced to do the right thing about Vietnam.DH: You make the case that good environmental policy doesn't have to translate to loss on the economic level. How do we get that idea across? The UAW, the car makers and Clinton all collude to protect the special tax privileges and ignore the safety problems of the gas guzzling SUV's. There are obviously safer and cheaper cars available, but the advertising world helps create the desire for bigger, faster symbols of wealth and influence. And then these cars kill, maim, tear up pristine land, and pollute the air. It seems only government intervention can slow down the SUV juggernaut, but in theory it will at the expense of the auto industry's profitability. How can we address that?MH: Well, I do think that what I call the global green deal -- where government encourages a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive technologies and practices towards environmentally enhancing ones -- can be profitable for most of us. But we have to be honest, it's not going to be profitable for all sectors of the economy. Oil and coal, for example, are historically doomed industries. And we can acknowledge that, and plan for it, and assist those workers and assist those companies in the transition to solar and other renewable energy technologies, or we can try and hold back the flood and watch it eventually burst the dam, and make those people drown.The irony is, American firms happen to be leaders in the energy efficient industry. You'd never know it by how we behave in the U.S., but firms like Honeywell and Allied Signal are leaders, and they could be making lots of money right now in countries like China while also helping the planet at the same time. If Congress and the White House were smart, they would stop wasting time with the trivialities of impeachment and they would start cutting deals with China. Instead of sending them militarily sensitive nuclear and satellite technology, we should be sending them environmentally sensible energy-efficient technology. Environmental conditions could change a lot if there were active and engaged leadership in the world. We could take China's commitment to reducing energy consumption and say, "We'll double it, make it 40 percent. We'll finance the deals." That could change things a lot.DH: How do you address the powerful capacity of members of Congress to protect their state's interests -- particularly the fossil fuel states with small populations like Montana and Oklahoma, which exercise as much power as states with many times the population?MH: You just have to go out and organize. You have to build a political constituency in favor of the shift. We're seeing that now, I think, in the global warming fight, with the building of coalitions of firms who are going to benefit from the transition. You have to organize the companies along with the unions, and say to the unions, "Your guys are going to get re-trained for the jobs created by the shift to solar."DH: If you've got enough money to re-train them and the jobs. We've got a lot of evidence that the welfare to work shift is not producing living wage jobs.MH: That's because the welfare to work shift doesn't create, or even try to create additional jobs for people, the way the global green deal would. One of the most hopeful developments in this regard has happened in Germany, where the red/green coalition is pushing through a tax reform where carbon taxes -- on coal, gasoline, et cetera -- will be increased 2.5 percent. Simultaneously, there is a 2.5 percent reduction in payroll and investment taxes. So You're taxing the things you don't want -- pollution and greenhouse gases -- and you're using that money to encourage the things you do want: Job programs for coal workers, retraining for gas station owners, and so forth. The problem here in the United States is that Max Bacus (Senator from Montana) is going to be carrying water for the coal people, and the oil industry is going to be running their ads about no need to worry about climate change and that diverts the debate. As far as how to deal with that, I'm afraid I don't have anything terribly original to say. Of course you've got to have campaign finance reform, and you've got to do that patient, local political organizing and just get out there and beat them. Remember, we've got a two-thirds majority agreeing with us on this stuff.Parenthetically speaking, one of the things you learn while traveling around the world on this kind of investigation is that the U.S. is the only advanced industrial country where there's this notion that there's any real debate about global warming. You go to Germany or Britain and everyone from the business press on the right to the Greenpeace types on the left acknowledges that there's global warming. There is debate -- about how to fix it, and how fast -- but the idea itself is about as controversial as the second law of thermodynamics. The idea that global warming remains a mere theory is almost entirely a creation of the propaganda campaigns of the coal and gas interests in this country, reinforced by the connivance or at least gullibility of the media.DH: In "Earth Odyssey," you write: "Hope is the foundation of action." So how do we find that hope?MH: I look at our strengths, the fact that we do have a two-thirds majority. I look at examples like Vaclav Havel. If anybody had the excuse to give up because things looked hopeless, it was Havel during the cold war. But of course he didn't give up, and in the end he triumphed. Havel says, "It's a mistake to ever worry about the likely consequences of a given political action, because while a certain action might lead to nothing, what will surely lead to nothing is not taking any action at all."Often on the media tour for this book I've been hit with that question -- where do we find hope -- especially from people who are philosophically inclined to care about the environment. It's a fair question, but again, part of me wants to tell them, "Buck up and stop whining. You don't have the right to whine. Wei Jingsheng (Chinese political prisoner for 17 years) has the right to whine and give up. You do not. Get out there."DH: What's you final conclusion about human species? Are we going to survive the next hundred years? Do we get two thumbs up?MH: Well, I distinguish between optimism and hope. You can't be optimistic about the human environmental future, because most of the trends are still galloping in the wrong direction, and some are accelerating. Even where there's good news, like on population growth, the overall picture is mixed at best. Birth rates are down, but we're still not going to stabilize until we're eight billion people on this planet. With the ozone hole, we've agreed to stop producing CFC's, but the hole itself is guaranteed to get bigger for the next 15-20 years. So, if you have kids, make sure they're not spending a lot of time unprotected in the sun over the next fifteen or twenty years. The EPA estimates there are going to be 12 million more cancer cases. So you can't be optimistic, but then you wouldn't have been optimistic in 1981 about Vaclav Havel's chances of becoming president either. I do think you have to be hopeful, however, both because of examples like Havel's and because what other choice is there? And the fact is, as I say in the book, magic has struck fairly often in recent human history -- not just the changes represented by Havel, but also Gorbachev, Mandela and others. But magic doesn't strike by itself. We have to get out there and push.DH: And those guys had been pushing for decades.MH: But so have we. So have we. Environmentalism is one of the ascendant social forces of the century, led by activists like Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, all the way back to John Muir. This is a political movement that is very deeply rooted in the American tradition, and there's no reason to think that we can't bring it to fruition. And besides, what's the alternative? As Hubert Reeves (French cosmologist) tells me in the book, "I am involuntarily optimistic. We don't have a right to be otherwise, because that will only make things worse."