Should The Greens Take A Breather?


The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism

By Gregg Easterbrook

Viking 745pp $27.95

Chicken Little may be part of an endangered species. With the recent 25th anniversary of Earth Day came the release of a spate of books on the environment--including several suggesting that the apocalypse may not be coming after all. Perhaps the best of these revisionist efforts is Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth, a refreshing, evenhanded appraisal of the state of the planet.

Once-damaged forests, the author reports, are rebounding, the number of bird species has not plummeted as predicted, and even smog has been dissipating in most U.S. cities. Yesterday's toxic-waste sites often teem with wildlife, he says, while "degradation of pristine rivers by new water pollution has essentially ended in the U.S." After expanding on several such cases, "ecorealist" Easterbrook sends a stern warning that green groups risk losing whatever political clout they still have in Washington by sounding the alarm long after it has been shown that the sky isn't falling. "Accurate understanding of the actual state of the environment will serve the Earth better than expressions of panic," he contends.

That's no doubt true. But demands for further investigation of environmental damage can be employed to delay needed regulation. Moreover, Easterbrook expends so much effort on a bullish evaluation of the environment that when he then calls for strict enforcement of existing laws to protect flora and fauna, you wonder what he's talking about.

Still, Easterbrook is right when he argues that man-made predations should be understood in a broader context. Inviting readers to take the long view, he insists that the harm done "to nature by nature" has been far greater than any damage done by humans. For example, he says estimates of cataclysmic asteroid and comet collisions with the earth show that the planet "has been battered a thousand times by hammer blows as strong as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs"--yet the earth survives.

In 23 painstakingly reported chapters on problems ranging from acid rain to water pollution, Easterbrook demonstrates his skills. Accounts of the behind-the-scenes politics of environmental battles, such as those over the Northern spotted owl and Superfund sites, help make a case that environmentalists have overplayed their hand.

Consider the hysteria over the demise of the nation's forests. In the mid-18th century, he reports, 35% of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont was wooded. Today, as a result of forest management, the figure is 59%. Easterbrook also revisits the dire predictions of Rachel Carson's 1962 environmental wake-up call, Silent Spring. Carson had forecast that as many as 40 bird species could meet extinction if the use of pesticides and other chemicals were not curbed. Of the 40, Easterbrook finds 19 with stable populations, 14 increasing in number, and 7 declining in population.

Some of that success is attributable to changes prompted by Carson's book. Yet Easterbrook faults environmentalists for downplaying the achievements of government rules. His portrait of the green movement reveals why it clings to a doomsday script. On a visit to California, for instance, he documents the existence of many more spotted owls than environmental groups admit. Later, environmentalists privately concede the exaggeration but justify their numbers on the grounds that "a valid goal, old-growth forest preservation, is served."

Easterbrook also has barbs for environmentalists who care more about plants and animals than humans. In the Third World, he notes, green groups agitate for forest and species protection but don't pay nearly as much attention to such problems as pollution-caused respiratory illnesses that kill millions of children annually.

Many of these points are on target. But Easterbrook's vision of the future and his nostrums are marked by excessive optimism and exaggeration. He declares, for instance, that the Western world is "on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has known." And he calls for "people, machines, and nature" to work together toward a "New Nature"--a world where advances in genetic engineering could be used to stop human violence.

Most troubling are Easterbrook's unsupported inferences. On global warming, for example, he states that "reasoned discourse leads to the conclusion that reforms are justified but also that end-of-the-world rhetoric may

be dispensed with." But following a lengthy discussion downplaying the danger of global warming--Easterbrook goes so far as to assert that gradual warming would actually benefit worldwide agriculture--he then changes direction and concludes that "any reasonable policy that reduces the odds of climate change is more than worth the price." After such an argument, the reader may be more likely to draw the opposite conclusion.

Coming from a self-proclaimed "political liberal," such analysis could prove a windfall for conservatives determined to dismantle environmental programs. If, however, the book is used as Easterbrook intended--to improve protections by basing them not on emotional appeals but on scientific investigation--this book will help put the U.S. on a path toward more rational environmental protection.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE