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Will We Survive?
Our environmental future looks bleak. What can we do about it? Mark Hertsgaard traveled around the world in search of answers

January 21, 1999

earthodbk picture In 1991, the journalist Mark Hertsgaard set off on an odyssey to gauge whether humanity is likely to be driven to extinction by the changes it has wrought on the environment -- changes that have already caused the disappearance of thousands of other species. Over the course of six years, Hertsgaard visited nineteen countries, interviewing taxi drivers, peasants, and heads of state along the way. Hertsgaard's focus was always on how people's lives are intertwined with the fate of the environment. Among the places he visited were China, where the environment is being sacrificed to build economic prosperity; Russia, including the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, the site of three Chernobyl-sized nuclear accidents and now the "cancer capital" of the former Soviet Union; and the Sudan, where many are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of political instability, environmental degradation, poverty, and starvation. Hertsgaard's report on the future of the human race, Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future, was published this month.
Discuss this feature in the Politics & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

The Animal Point of View (December 1998)
Stephen Budiansky, the author of If a Lion Could Talk, says that in order to truly understand animal intelligence, we need to move beyond our sentimental fascination with elephants that "weep" and gorillas that "save children."

"How Did Your Life Turn Out?" (November 1998)
An interview with Ethan Canin, the author of the new novel For Kings and Planets, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being.

Tell it Like it Was (November 1998)
Steven Spielberg turned to him for advice on Saving Private Ryan. Now, Stephen Ambrose talks about his new book, The Victors-- the culmination of his work on the Second World War.

Coming to Life (October 1998)
An interview with Anne Fadiman, the new editor of The American Scholar, whose latest book proves what she has always suspected -- that there is an essayist lurking inside her.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on Books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

From The Atlantic's archives:

"A Special Moment in History," by Bill McKibben (May 1998)
The fate of our planet will be determined in the next few decades, through our technological, lifestyle, and population choices.

"No Middle Way on the Environment," by Paul R. Ehrlich, Gretchen C. Daily, Scott C. Daily, Norman Myers, and James Salzman (December 1997)
The authors, environmental scientists, warn that in the debate between "cornucopians" and informed prophets of the dangers posed by overconsumption, splitting the difference won't work -- and that the cornucopians are wrong.

"Do We Consume Too Much?", by Mark Sagoff (June 1997)
Discussions of the future of the planet are dominated by those who believe that an expanding world economy will use up natural resources and those who see no reasons, environmental or otherwise, to limit economic growth. Neither side has it right.

See more Atlantic articles on the environment
In a world where almost one sixth of the population lives "a whisper of bad luck away" from starvation, Hertsgaard argues that "environmentalism will not succeed ... if it does not deliver economic well-being as well as ecosystem salvation." What we need, he suggests, is a Roosevelt-like "global green deal," in which the governments of the wealthy northern countries would reform tax and subsidy systems in order to encourage the development and use worldwide of green technologies. And, Hertsgaard argues, developing these technologies could actually help the world economy.

Hertsgaard is a political commentator for National Public Radio and a contributor to numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. He is also the author of three previous books, A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles (1995); On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (1988); and Nuclear, Inc.: The Men and Money Behind Nuclear Energy (1983). A section of Earth Odyssey appeared in The Atlantic Monthly's November, 1997, issue as "Our Real China Problem."

Hertsgaard spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

What inspired you to write Earth Odyssey?

hertspic picture
Mark Hertsgaard   

It was both serendipity and a longstanding interest in environmental issues. My first book, Nuclear, Inc., made me realize that in a way these are the ultimate issues, because if we don't fix the environment, we're not going to be around to deal with all the other issues like poverty, education, women's rights, and so forth. Then, in January, 1991, I was invited to speak at a conference in Stockholm on the prevention of nuclear war, and the idea came into my head, Why don't I just keep right on going? I'd always wanted to do a big trip like that, and this seemed like a good opportunity. As I was turning over in my mind what I would do to put some extra structure and meaning into this trip, I thought back to some of the reporting I'd been doing on the environment in the late 1980s. A lot of the top environmental people I'd been interviewing were saying that the 1990s were going to be the decade when the human race either would begin to turn around these massive trends of global warming and ozone depletion, and so forth, or when these trends would develop so much momentum that they would be irreversible. I didn't necessarily believe that, but I thought it was a very interesting hypothesis, so basically, I came up with the idea of traveling around the world to investigate the question I'd been dealing with ever since Nuclear, Inc: Would humans make it or not? Would we act quickly and decisively enough to save ourselves from all the environmental pressures that were crowding in on us at the end of the twentieth century?

On my way out of the country I saw my beloved editor, William Shawn, who had of course edited The New Yorker, and who also had edited my previous book On Bended Knee. I told him this idea, and he just listened and said, "It's the most important book that anybody could be writing, and you have to go do it; you're the only one who can do it." And so I did.

Could you talk a bit about some of the experiences you had traveling? Which have stuck with you the longest?

I know I'll never forget Africa -- and I mean both sides of Africa. First there's the horrible misery of watching people literally dropping dead in front of you from starvation, children especially. It's something you never forget, and it gives you a necessary shift in your perspective on life. Americans take so much for granted -- our very comfortable lifestyles and our distance from the natural environment. I'm sitting here in my house, and it's about 29 degrees outside, yet I'm very comfortable, because I've got central heating. We drive everywhere, there's air conditioning in the summer, there's hot water at the turn of the tap. This is not the way that many people on this planet live, and it's certainly not the way that most humans have lived for time immemorial. We forget that. We forget that there are costs to the comforts that we enjoy. You go to Africa and those lessons are brought home very immediately.

On the other hand, Africa is an incredibly beautiful place; in a way, that's why I spent so much time in the second chapter of the book on the beautiful vistas and incredible wildlife that I saw while I was retracing Churchill's travels along the Nile. It was also great to go back to where our species began. In Africa you really do sense -- at least I did -- the deep, deep human past on this planet. Whenever people ask me, "What's the place you'd most want to go back to after this trip?" I always say Africa. Everybody should go to Africa -- whether you're white or black, it will change your life.

Did your goals for the book change as you traveled and learned more?

My goals generally stayed the same, but I did realize that the means of going about those objectives would have to change. I wanted to try and find a way to do justice to the lives of the people I was meeting along the way, and that meant that it couldn't be your typical environmental book, filled with a lot of policy-wonk language, dense statistics, and highflown analysis.

I learned that people had one of two visceral reactions to my project. Some didn't want to hear about it. The question of whether the human race is going to make it or not was just too big a question. A lot of us know in our guts that it doesn't look good, so who wants to talk about that? I can remember being at social gatherings and people would just flee to the other side of the room.

The other reaction was just the opposite. People would ask, Well, are we going to make it or not? I knew that there was some degree of interest but that I had to somehow get around people's natural and psychological defenses. So I realized that the way to write this book was to tell the stories of the people I met -- who had taught me so much about what it's like to live with the environmental crisis rather than just talk about it -- and try to engage the reader with their lives, and then take off from there. Once I had the fish hooked, as it were, I could reel readers in and give them the environmental information and analysis along the way.

That seems to have worked, although I have to tell you that the first time I tried to write the book it was a total failure. I wrote about 180 pages of manuscript, and it was bad in about every way a book can be, except for one: I can put together enough sentences that sound capable so that you could actually read about thirty pages before you said, Jesus, this sucks. I wasn't used to writing in the first person, which I had to do, to some extent, in order to provide this narrative line. Also, I know now, I was still way too close to the experience. The Africa stuff, in particular, really did throw me and change my world view. I hadn't yet figured out a way to get that across without being too dramatic, too cloying. So I finally said to myself, I'm going to hope that this book is kind of like wine and it just needs to be aged a little more. I went off and did my book on the Beatles, which had already begun as a New Yorker piece. That gave me an excuse to leave America again and go back to Europe. While I was over there I continued to travel and do reporting for this book. Thank goodness when the Beatles book was finished the pieces for this book fell into place properly.

What do you think of the ways the media typically covers the issues you address, such as hunger and overpopulation?

It's a scandal; it's always been a scandal. There's a belief in the American media, which has grown even more pernicious and widespread in recent years, that Americans don't care about international news, and that at best you can have one international news story going at a time. The idea is that Americans especially don't care about poor black people who are starving. When the Ethiopian famine of 1984 occurred, people were dying in Ethiopia for ten months before the networks in New York listened to what their correspondents in the field were saying -- "This is a story that we have to do." And what finally got their attention was this incredible footage of the famine from the BBC. I think somebody showed it to Tom Brokaw, who said, "We have to put this on." NBC put on three minutes at the end of the broadcast and their phone lines erupted with calls of concern from Americans. This gave rise to "We Are the World" and the enormous media blitz about hunger that occurred after that.

Now, you can obviously poke a lot of fun at "We Are the World" and all of that, but my point is that Americans do care when given the chance. The fault lies not with them but with my colleagues in the media who somehow think these stories aren't important. The same thing happens, with some exceptions, on environmental issues as well. The media is better on the environment than it used to be, but the environment is still seen as a second-tier story. As a result, our society is not focusing adequate amounts of attention on the problems that are going to be our undoing if we're not careful.

Have there been any changes in the issues you covered since you finished your book?

No, I would say there has been a continuation of the existing trends. I was struck this past year by the coverage of the floods in China, for example. The American media coverage of these floods was spotty at best, yet those floods not only killed thousands of people, they left 56 million Chinese homeless. That's about double the population of California. This gets back to the media question. An old saw among overseas journalists is that in order to get a story on page one of The New York Times you have to have 10,000 Africans dying, or fifty Europeans, or five diplomats, or one journalist. There's a little bit of that in the coverage of China. This was a major story that we didn't pay enough attention to. After the fact, the Chinese government came out and admitted that its own environmental neglect had made those floods worse, and they promised to change course. But it's going to be almost impossible for them to do that. It's all very well to say, We're going to stop deforestation, we're going to reclaim the wetlands that we turned into farmland -- but what do you do with the peasants who are living on the wetlands, or the people whose only source of livelihood is logging those forests? You've got to do something to keep them alive or you're going to have more of the social unrest that is such a big fear for China's leaders. As these trends become more and more intense, you hope that they will get people to turn around.

Of your conversations with people all over the world, from the Dinka in Sudan to students from Prague and Beijing, you write that a common feeling emerged: "One cannot starve today to preserve the environment for tomorrow." Could you talk about what this means?
From The Atlantic's archives:

"The NEXT Industrial Revolution," by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (October 1998)
"Eco-efficiency," the current industrial buzzword, will neither save the environment nor foster ingenuity and productivity, the authors say. They propose a new approach that aims to solve rather than alleviate the problems that industry makes.

"A Good Climate for Investment," by Ross Gelbspan (June 1998)
Reducing reliance on carbon for energy -- to safeguard our atmosphere and our climate -- could bring about not personal deprivation but a worldwide economic boom.

"Can Selfishness Save the Environment?", by Matt Ridley and Bobbi S. Low (September 1993)
Conventional wisdom has it that the way to avert global ecological disaster is to persuade people to change their selfish habits for the common good. A more sensible approach would be to tap a boundless and renewable resource: the human propensity for thinking mainly of short term self-interest.

"Mideast Oil Forever?", by Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis (April 1996)
Congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America's leadership in new energy technologies that could generate hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, reduce damage to the environment, and limit our costly, dangerous dependency on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf region.

"Reinventing the Wheels," by Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (January 1995)
New ways to design, manufacture, and sell cars can make them ten times more fuel-efficient, and at the same time safer, sportier, more beautiful and comfortable, far more durable, and probably cheaper. Here comes the biggest change in industrial structure since the microchip.

It means, first of all, that the biggest environmental problem in the world today is not global warming or ozone depletion. It is poverty. The fact is that between four and five out of six people on this planet live a very modest life in material terms, and they want to improve their condition. Part of the reason I started the book in Africa was to help readers to understand why poor people will insist on a better standard of living. The implications of this desire are enormous, because inevitably, even if the standard of living for these people is improved with a lot of green technologies, it is going to increase the overall environmental burden. You see this very powerfully in China. Part of the reason that their environment is so miserably polluted now is that over the past twenty years China has managed to lift literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. People are warm in the winter for the first time in their history, because they're finally burning coal. So we as a civilization have to face up to the enormous challenge of finding a way to raise the standard of living for these people who are living in appalling poverty around the world -- and to do it without fatally undermining the natural systems of air and water and so forth that make all life possible on this planet.

This gets to this issue of environmental space. There's only so much environmental space on the planet, by which I don't mean living space. If you look at global warming, there are only so many greenhouse gasses that the atmosphere can accommodate before we boil the oceans. Right now, most of that space is being taken up by the northern countries, even though we're about 20 percent of the world's population. Well, what happens when that other 80 percent begin even to approach the kind of resource use and pollution production that we exhibit here in the West? You can't square that circle. Somehow we have to find a way to change our distribution of environmental space, and essentially what that means is a much, much more rapid development of green technologies and a diffusion of those technologies, especially from North to South. Also, and this is something that Americans don't like to hear, we in the North have to cut back on our excessive consumption. I don't see any way around that. One of the great reasons for an American to travel in the Third World is that you come to realize that you don't need all this crap that our society is selling us: the VCR, the second car, all the stuff that we buy here. In fact your life might be more fun and more fulfilling if you had less stuff.

You write that before the Rio Earth Summit an American diplomat declared, "The United States standard of living is not up for negotiation." Do you think it's possible to make significant-enough inroads into the earth's environmental problems without changing the U.S. standard of living?

Yes, I do, because these are changes that happen gradually. I don't see any reason our standard of living would have to go down, but I have to admit that when I say standard of living I'm not talking about GNP. I'm talking about quality of life. Our quality of life could very arguably go up, although it might mean fewer sport-utility vehicles. (They're a good example of why people around the world find Americans so puzzling and sometimes irritating, because a SUV just seems to reek of success and self-satisfaction and to say, "We don't care. We are rich and so we'll pollute just as much as we want." What is a sport-utility but basically a portable house?)

Will we need to change our capitalist system?

The honest answer is that I'm not sure. In the long run we probably are going to have to figure out at least how to reform capitalism so that you take away the need for constant material expansion. It's all very well to talk about doing the right thing for the environment, but capitalism is a political and economic system, and the people who dominate politics under capitalism are obviously the big economic interests. In the real world I would have to say that capitalism will have to be very fundamentally reformed, and my own proposal for one way to begin to do that is through what I call the global green deal. Franklin Roosevelt pretty significantly reformed capitalism in the 1930s, and he saved it by doing that.

People have to make reform happen. Essentially what has to happen is for a political climate to be created where politicians have to respect the environment, whether they want to or not. It's kind of like Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Nixon didn't want to get out of Vietnam, but he had to because of how the antiwar movement had changed domestic American politics. That is the kind of change we have to be aiming for. It's not about trying to convince Al Gore to remember his principles. You have to change the political climate of the country so that even a George Bush -- or a George W. Bush -- has to respond.

You quote the energy specialist Amory Lovins as saying, "Climate change is actually a lucrative business opportunity disguised as an environmental problem." Why haven't most industries and governments been able to see it this way?

As Amory would tell you, with a twinkle in his eye, it's because of market imperfections. There are a number of reasons why people don't change: inertia is strong, greed is strong. If you're Exxon and you've been making your money for many decades by pumping oil out of the ground and selling it to people, why change? And Exxon and other oil and gas companies have the political muscle to thwart change. As Ross Gelbspan has pointed out in The Atlantic, it's easier and cheaper for them to mount a public-relations campaign to confuse Americans into thinking that global warming isn't real than it is to get on board. Now, having said that, it's also the case that they are now in danger of falling behind in their own industry. A couple of companies like BP and Shell are realizing that the world is changing, and if they want to be in business twenty years from now they need to get out ahead of this curve.

We're seeing how the market can be used against itself in cars now. Toyota has brought out the Prius, and I just saw a full-page ad for one of Honda's hybrid cars. They're getting eighty miles per gallon -- not the 400 that Amory talks about, but still, it's a step in the right direction.

The government could use its leverage to force changes within the capitalist system. If the government decided to demand that all of its annual vehicle purchases -- that's about 50,000 vehicles -- be noninternal-combustion cars, it would get that business up and running almost overnight. It's both a political struggle and a matter of economic leverage to get these things to change.

You express your disappointment about Al Gore's failure as Vice President to live up to the ardent environmentalism expressed in his book, Earth in the Balance. Is there anyone on the political horizon who can or will take the lead in pushing real environmental reforms? What about Gore himself, if he becomes President in 2000?

Gore is the logical person to push something like the global green deal, and indeed in his book he talks about a similar kind of approach. But when you read the book you have a foretaste of why he didn't do more as Vice President. He ducked the tough questions. He talks about "corporate government partnership" and "opportunity" and "volunteerism," but all that feel-good rhetoric goes absolutely nowhere. Government has to step up, make some tough choices, and say, just like Roosevelt did during the New Deal, No, sorry, we are going to put people to work. It's going to cost money, and in order to get that money we're going to shift money away from our bloated military, reverse environmentally damaging subsidies, and maybe even raise taxes on polluters and other people who can afford it. Gore dodged all these questions. He's obviously a much too cautious politician to take this on. But it seems to me that a winning political formula for any Democratic or Republican candidate would be to show Americans how to increase jobs and business profitability while restoring our ravaged environment through a program like the global green deal.

Discuss this feature in the Politics & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on Books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
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