A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, by Gregg Easterbrook, 745 pages, $27.95; cloth, Viking.
Review by Ed
At no extra charge,
you get with Gregg Easterbrook's 745-page, $27.95 book, A Moment on
the Earth, an erratum. Easterbrook had incorrectly written that the
Environmental Defense Fund had sold, instead of given, its advice
to McDonald's, Johnson and Johnson, and Mutual of
Unnamed rich environmentalists in the
Northwest could also demand a correction. The book charges (page
405) that they yanked their support from Randal O'Toole's Forest
Watch magazine because the free-market environmentalist "... began
to advocate market-based wilderness protection."
I read the passage over the telephone to
O'Toole, who said, "That's an interesting story, but it's not
true." O'Toole said he had been subsidizing the publication and
when he and editor Jeffrey St. Clair couldn't decide on a joint
approach, O'Toole shut it down and started his present publication,
Different Drummer. It is a well-known, well-documented
The many vanishing salmon species of the
Northwest might demand a correction. On page 410 Easterbrook
writes: "The Bonneville Power Administration, which runs the
Columbia River dams, is rearranging its water releases to
accommodate salmon migration ..."
If only it
were true. And if only we could be sure, as Easterbrook is, that
tree farms are like old-growth forests, and that spotted owls are
happy in both. Perhaps the salmon and spotted owl could jointly
demand an erratum.
Or should those who care about
the land and wildlife launch a class-action suit against
Easterbrook? Whenever he quotes environmentalists, we're in a fancy
restaurant or climbing out of a jet plane, or enjoying an affluent
lifestyle while we lecture others about
In Easterbrook's book, only
environmentalists are hypocrites. Industry executives and
conservative politicians are never criticized for fishing in trout
streams or hunting in intact forests that environmentalists have
shielded from development. Executives are never criticized for
watching their children breathe air that would be much dirtier if
their class had its collective way.
Easterbrook's main failing is that he lays claim to too much
expertise. He hands down pronouncements not just on spotted owls
and old growth and the salmon, but on global climate, on soil
erosion, on acid rain, on the ozone hole, on nuclear energy. He
documents his incredible knowledge with a sloppy index (that's why
I've included page references), a generic bibliography and no
Easterbrook can be expert in
everything because he knows as a matter of faith that every day, in
every way, the Earth is getting better and better. For example,
like souls going to heaven, soil isn't being lost to erosion - it
is just moving around the soil sheds (page
Most tellingly to Easterbrook, we still
have robins despite Rachel Carson's alarmist warnings in her 1962
book, Silent Spring. Carson's crime, in Easterbrook's eyes, was not
realizing that her book would cause the nation to cut back on
pesticides, thereby saving the robins. Easterbrook takes her
implicitly to task for lack of foresight about the immense effect
of her book.
He has the same attitude toward
environmentalism in general. We did some good - we got society in
motion. But now, with the publication of his book, it is time for
us to shut up and let the system heal the earth, as it is rapidly
Easterbrook is living proof of Henry
Adams' dictum in his Education: "The world can absorb only doses of
truth; too much would kill it." Easterbrook is furious with
environmentalists for giving the world too much truth. And while he
may have written a lousy scientific book, he has written a
first-rate political tract. Adams was right: People can't take the
huge doses of truth - mixed at times with gratuitous false alarms -
that environmentalists hand out. As a movement, we have been
politically naive and counterproductive.
science and analysis in Easterbrook's book do not matter. They are
mainly gibberish. What matters is that he has tapped into the
public's yearning to be told that everything is going to be fine.
In that sense he is much smarter than the environmental movement.
We who speak so glibly of sustainability should have recognized
that frightening and polarizing people is not a sustainable
strategy. We should have found alternatives. Instead, we kept
beating the doomsday drum until others - Easterbrook, wise-users,
voters in the 1994 election - brought us up
It is not too late to change our approach.
What better revenge on this mean-spirited, destructive - but
inevitable - book than for us to learn from it how to make
environmentalism more effective?