We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Gregg Easterbrook
Round One - September 13, 2000

If the question is what the global environment will look like in the year 2100, I take the Pollyanna Position. Barring nuclear war or a comet strike, by 2100 it may be that nearly all current environmental problems will be resolved, though something totally unexpected may pop up to replace them. By 2100, zero-emission or negligible-emission manufacturing will be the standard nearly everywhere, including in the developing world; some combination of clean renewable energy and advanced nuclear power will have supplanted most uses of fossil fuels, halting the artificial buildup of greenhouse gases (though global-warming effects may still be apparent in 2100, especially in the oceans); species protection will be a global concern; recycling and waste-minimization will be old hat; and human population growth will have ended, allowing natural restoration in many places as the forest portion of the world expands and as the agricultural, human-control portion contracts.

I think you can make Pollyanna projections for the whole world in 2100 by assuming that the trends in the United States and the European Union will eventually spread almost everywhere, and that most of the developing world achieves affluence. (Of course that's a Big If, dependent on sustained commitments to democracy and market economics.) Here in the United States, air and water pollution have been in pretty much linear decline for three decades -- roughly since the creation of the EPA -- while the economy has boomed and the populations of people and cars have grown. The technology and regulatory standards now exist to make it possible to have economic growth and improving environmental conditions simultaneously. Eventually the whole world will get this message -- after all, it is in every nation's self-interest to protect its environment -- and growing developing-world affluence will make it possible for most nations to afford environmental technology and regulations.

That's the century-long perspective. The our-generation perspective, in contrast, is troublesome. Neither the United States nor the European Union has done any systematic thinking on how to balance the competing desires for suburbs and vacation homes (with the resulting sprawl, of which there simply must be more, owing to population growth) and the preservation of wild habitats and biodiversity. The next-generation perspective for global warming is also troublesome. Here in the United States we can clean up our smog and acid rain, but no amount of money will buy us a pass if an artificial greenhouse effect begins. It is entirely possible that there are reasonable technical fixes for the greenhouse effect -- the first ones would be to limit greenhouse gases such as methane, which do not play a central role in the world economy, as does carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. And it looks increasingly likely that there are clean, renewable energy forms (from affordable solar to safe nuclear) that will take us into the post-fossil age. But America has yet to get off the dime on global warming. And since the world looks to us for leadership in all things technical, no one else is going to act until we do.

For the developing world things may get worse before they get better. Already developing-world cities such as Karachi and Beijing are choked by levels of pollution not seen in the West since the turn of the century. Anyone who travels the world quickly discovers that it's a fallacy that the industrial nations are the polluted ones. In much of the developing world, indoor fires are still used for heating and cooking, because most people lack electricity; industry and vehicles operate without the elaborate emissions restrictions of the West. The result, according to the World Health Organization, is that each year more developing-world children die of respiratory diseases caused by air pollution than all deaths at all ages from all causes in the European Union. Water pollution in the developing world -- and the deaths caused by it -- are often equally shocking. And habitat- and species-preservation efforts are at best halting in the developing world, often because peasants have no choice but to raze forests for firewood.

The solutions to these fundamental developing-world environmental problems will be expensive, and will require us to bust our mental blocks. Today many enviros angrily oppose the electrification of the developing world, though they themselves would never dream of giving up electricity, a clean energy form, for indoor fires. (Electrification is supposed to be bad because it would be centralized and consume fossil fuels, not necessarily true on either count.) And Western enviros have guilt-tripped the World Bank and similar agencies into withdrawing support for developing-world hydro projects like the Three Gorges dams in China, which would provide both zero-emission electricity and clean water. Yes, dam construction floods part of the environment. But for the moment, with the human population still expanding, that is the lesser evil, compared to indoor fires and unclean water. Nature has cyclically flooded every square meter of the Earth through the geologic past, and will do so again whether we act or not.

What I think is most important in the next ten years of environmental policy is for Western public opinion to come to understand that the environment of the United States and the European Union is under control and improving. (Polls consistently show that Americans and Europeans believe pollution in their countries is growing worse, when it's actually declining across the board.) Americans and Western Europeans will never support big commitments of technology and money to help solve developing-world environmental problems as long as they continue, falsely, to believe their own environments are degrading. But once the Western public understands that things are basically okay at home, it will be generous enough to back a major initiative -- an environmental Marshall Plan, in Al Gore's phrase -- to save lives and protect the environment overseas.

That's why I think the first step to saving the developing-world environment is admitting that doomsday thinking no longer applies to the Western environment. And I don't see any sign that the enviros are politically ready to do that, any more than that the right wing is ready to admit that environmental regulation worked without economic harm.

Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round Two -- September 15, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round One -- September 13, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Return to Introduction

What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Gregg EasterbrookGregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of The New Republic and and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His books include A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1995) and Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt (1998).

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.