Just a moment! Can we learn from a bogus book?

  • Cover of "A Moment on the Earth"


A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, by Gregg Easterbrook, 745 pages, $27.95; cloth, Viking.

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 Omaha.

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 story.

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 conservation.

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.

But 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 footnotes.

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 388).

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 doing.

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.

The 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 short.

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?

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