A Calculated Call To Ecological Arms


Senator Al Gore

Houghton Mifflin -- 407pp -- $22.95

Al Gore's prescription for the world's environmental crisis, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, is well researched, informative--and a bit strange. It mixes such favorite baby-boomer topics as global-village citizenship and mid-life angst and adds some very fresh scientific thinking. The result is a book that is often confusing, but nevertheless worthwhile.

First published in January, book sales have picked up since Gore became the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee. GOP campaign strategists already are using it to paint Gore as an environmental extremist whose remedies would result in economic paralysis. Betting that most voters won't actually read it, the GOP snipers choose to ignore the fact that the book is hardly radical.

Less partisan readers may simply object to the preachy opinions and introspection that obscure the book's important points. After a touchy-feely introduction, however, the first eight chapters are a useful primer on the world's environmental problems. Here, Gore adroitly brings such dangers as climate change and deforestation to life.

It's the second part of the book that begins the magical mystery tour into Al Gore's soul. Subtitled "The Search for Balance," it actually reels so much as to induce motion sickness. Gore careens from the Harvard core curriculum to the greatest hits of public TV, then rushes us through hundreds of sources, ranging from Aristotle's Ethics to Carl Sagan's Broca's Brain and--whee!--over the rapids into Saturday Night Live.

TV, Gore says, has led the public to focus on form over substance in politics and has forced politicians to become actors too spineless to take any environmental steps that would discomfort the electorate. With characteristic overstatement, Gore likens this complacency to the appeasement of Nazi Germany, even going so far as to assert that economists who neglect environmental costs are as morally blind as antisemites.

Next, our interdisciplinary tour guide ventures into psychology, comparing modern civilization to a dysfunctional family. Society's detachment from nature makes us like neglected children, desperate for self-affirmation as we suppress "emotions that might allow us to feel the absence of our connection to the earth." Just as these unfortunate children create false selves to hide their despair, "we have constructed a false world of AstroTurf, air conditioning, and fluorescent lights, windows that don't open and background music that never stops, days when we don't know whether it has rained or not, nights when the sky never stops glowing..."

Gore himself admits in the book that he's the kind of guy who has the air-conditioner on full blast while driving to give a speech against the use of chlorofluorocarbons. The book is introspective right to the end, where Gore tells us that a new physics theory on how sandpiles build up and collapse led him to understand subtle and profound changes in the world and himself.

If the people of the former East bloc could topple their oppressive old order, Gore reasons, Americans can mobilize themselves to be world environmental leaders. He proposes a Global Marshall Plan, a series of measures to stabilize population, promote environmental technologies, and reform economic indicators such as the GNP to account for environmental costs. But American voters may not have the urge to upset the status quo that Poles had in the waning days of communism, even if Gore says they should. Many Americans find driving their gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive vehicles a pleasurable experience, not a sign of a dysfunctional civilization. Lots of folks don't fear the automobile or shopping mall. They fear giving them up.

A seasoned politician, Gore knows all this. His "tough new proposals," in fact, aren't all that tough. Many of his energy-efficiency measures were actually proposed by the Bush Energy Dept. in its first National Energy Strategy draft. (As reasonable as they seemed, they were later either removed by Administration hard-liners or watered down in the Senate under industry pressure.) Gore proposes taxing businesses based on the carbon content of the fuels they produce or use. But he balances it with cuts in income taxes. His Global Marshall Plan requires action from international organizations and producers and only indirectly affects consumers. It would impose strict energy-efficiency standards on appliance manufacturers, tax the use of nonrecyclable materials in manufacturing, and insist that international finance institutions use environmental criteria in awarding development grants.

Even though he wasn't on the ticket then, one senses he wrote the book worrying as much about political fallout as acid rain. Despite his repeated warning that only decisive action will save the earth and his condemnations of America's overconsumption, Gore ducks any measure that would really make voters pay for their lifestyles--such as high gasoline taxes, which he admits would be "logical." Suggestions such as restoring U.S. participation in worldwide population-control programs require scant voter sacrifice. All in all, Gore risks very little political capital in his proposals. That shields him from opposition researchers, but weakens his book.

Gore, however, says he sees the light. "I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously," he writes. But one can't help but notice that Gore's finger is still out there.

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