Printer Friendly

The True State of the Planet.

Edited by Ronald Bailey. Free Press. 4 72 pp. Paper $15.

The green movement leads a double life. On the surface, romantic idylls and semi-scientific reductionism decorate a history that runs far back into the traditions of liberal optimism. Beneath there flows a second and more somber tradition in which radicalism, sought in appeals to biology and nature, too often substitutes for clear-eyed political explorations.

Greens know this well enough, though they generally take it as a family secret, one that is rarely discussed in public. Here, then, is a wake-up call in the guise of a literary trend. Attacks on environmental romanticism and on social-ecological pessimism in general have become weapons of anti-environmental backlash, as liberal and libertarian pundits--and some of the more aggressive corporate P.R. departmemts--attack environmentalism by pretending that in its most fundamentalist corners they have found its truest secrets.

The founder of this genre was, I think, Anna Bramwell, whose 1989 Ecology in the Twentieth Century is an irritating but not unhelpful dark-side history of green romanticism. More recently came Martin Lewis, with his 1992 Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. Lewis made much of the rather wacko claim that radical green ideas have "devastating implications for the global ecosystem" because they lead to "self-defeating political strategies," thus "preventing society from making the reforms it so desperately needs." This was not the standard anti-green position, for it did not altogether deny ecological problems, but its main focus was on ridiculing the "radicals."

Today distinct brands of anti-environmentalism line the shelves, and the more insidious come costumed as attempts by reasonable men and women to reject the "extremes" and "pessimism" of the past and search for a new and "better" environmentalism. The answer, typically, is "science" and "realism." This is particularly clear in economic debates, in which the "science" most loved by anti-greens is often not the same science most widely accepted by the scientific community. This raises no end of fine questions about method and meaning, but it does not disturb the believers. Money cannot, perhaps, buy love, but it certainly buys confidence.

Here, as Exhibit A, is The True State of the Planet, a compendium of anti-environmental antiscience just published by the Free Press in partnership with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-libertarian think tank whose specialty is attacking greens. To that end, editor Ron Bailey, former writer at Forbes, contributing editor of Reason and proud author of Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, has collected the strongest anti-environmental narratives he could find. Some, like Bruce Ames's argument that the vast bulk of all chemical carcinogens are either natural pesticides (like spices) or (like high-fat foods) taken electively, will be all too familiar to connoisseurs of greenwashing. Some, like Robert Balling's claims that global warming is only a doomster myth, are well known and dismissed as ideology by the majority of climatological scientists. Others, like Dennis Avery's "Saving the Planet with Pesticides," are 1990s rehashes of old technology-uber-alles fairy tales, in this case the tale of the Green Revolution's boundless capacity to increase grain supplies. Taken together, packaged with Cato Institute optimism and padded out with a bit of vague, seemingly liberal filler, they form a sort of attack syllabus for the long-suffering friends of "progress."

The True State opens with " Population, Food, and Income," by Nicholas Eberstadt. It's a strong lead, for it plays upon the oldest stupidity of green reductionism--the confusion of the biologic notion of "overpopulation" with the political problems of poverty and sustainable food production. If ever there was a measure of the green movement's confusion, it is that so many environmentalists honestly believe that by soberly intoning that there are just "too many people" they somehow cut across all the moral and political agonies of globalization, of rising human migrations, mass extinctions, atmospheric instability and all the rest of it. In fact, "overpopulation" explains none of these things, and as long as we cling to it we remain the confused citizens of an incomprehensible world. This is where Eberstadt comes in, for with rigorous disregard for the realities of global poverty, he sounds the collection's theme: Even for the world's poorest people life is rapidly improving, and if only markets are left alone to work their magic it will inevitably continue to do so. Such optimism is, of course, anything but new. The core of neoliberal dogma is that growth will bring prosperity to all; Julian Simon, an economist of limitless faith (see The Ultimate Resource), long ago found fame by wielding it against Paul Ehrlich.

Simon is the spiritual godfather of The True State, and his voice echoes in its relentless technological confidence. The forests are in no real danger--in fact, ecosystems are incredibly resilient and even monocultural tree plantations, far from endangering biodiversity, actually protect wilderness by satisfying the demand for wood. High-tech, high-yield agriculture will feed us all, and produce enough meat to provide even the world's poor with the "better" protein they deserve, and at the same time it will actually reduce the amount of land that must be granted to agriculture. In fact, by a marvelous irony of the invisible hand, it is just now, with ecological pessimism high, that we are approaching the "age of abundance." There is no "population" crisis, and even the oceans, which really are in trouble, can be saved. We need only privatize them!

Lies are not always simple things. The True Staters insist that "overpopulation" is not an essential problem, and though the conclusions they then draw are unjustified, the claim itself is quite correct. Around the world, human fertility is dropping rapidly, and today's projections of the likely peak human population are far lower than those made even ten years ago. That's the good news. The bad is that the fertility decline in poor lands has been caused by what one team of demographers called "the sharp economic contraction of the late 1970s and early 1980s," and by the widespread realization by people throughout the Third World that with more children, "their standard of living fell." This is not how it was supposed to be. The most widely accepted theory of demographic transition had it that "development" would bring security and even affluence, and thus, painlessly, smaller families. Instead, insecurity, urbanization, birth control and the cosmopolitanism of a small world in which people have a clear sense of their bad prospects have stepped in to do the job.

Right-wing optimism about declining human fertility cannot last. Too bad, then, that greens, well-schooled in reducing explosive political issues to biological abstraction, only continue to mumble Malthusian pieties, and too bad that the right has become so adept in manipulating the resulting confusion and in constructing a strategic caricature that seeks to tar the environmental movement as a whole with its fundamentalist excesses. Too bad greens are so rarely able to refute the Big Lie that tells us that, given only time and free markets, the poor will follow the rich into the kingdom of development.

A Moment on the Earth weighs in at 745 pages and claims the last word on everything from global warming (no problem) to petrochemicals (no problem) to nuclear power (no problem) to deforestation (no problem) to biotechnology (no problem) to extinction (no problem) to God (see page 138).

Moment is the creation of Gregg Easterbrook, a clever journalist with an ax to grind and a finger to the winds. Easterbrook's approach is essentially the same as that of The True State--to paint environmentalism as a quasi-religious movement full of "transrational" souls who cannot tolerate good news. But unlike Bailey and company, Easterbrook would be a liberal, an "ecorealist," an avatar of the "coming age of environmental optimism." He claims the center by blithely dismissing the Wise Use movement--that bastard child of right-wing populism and corporate public relations--as a "minor fad" (which it is not) and pointing out that the right has done more exaggerating--"communists running the State Department, fluoride in the water, nuclear weakness"--than the left. His strategy, in a nutshell, is to speak for "logic" and "rationalism," to demolish easy targets (he finds plenty and makes up more), to overlook the (copious and often excellent) objections to his arguments and, of course, to position himself against green romanticism as the voice of the "new" environmentalism. His very marketable conclusion is that heavy-metal development-as-usual, with some minor green model changes, is the true path of progress and justice.

Easterbrook has long patrolled the environmental perimeter for Newsweek and The Atlantic, but it is a piece that appeared in The New York Times Magazine on September 11 of last year that perhaps best illustrates his strategy. "Forget PCB's. Radon. Alar. The world's greatest environmental dangers are dung smoke and dirty water" could almost take the Oscar in green-tinted casuistry. The foreground here is the environmental problems that plague the world's poorest people, and thus we are primed--all we good people--for sympathy. But observe where Easterbrook steers us. First comes the introduction, and then the setup: A large faction within the environmental movement "focuses on the real but comparatively minor problems of developed nations in part to support a worldview that Western material production is the root of ecological malevolence." After that we are given a quote from water scientist Deborah Moore ("Issues like African sewage are not sexy, so they always fall to the bottom of the agenda") and a twisted retrospective on the 1992 Earth Summit--"the prospect of global warming . . . was put above the palpable, urgent loss of lives from Third World water and smoke pollution"--as if Rio's failure to address poverty could be chalked up to "Western guilt-tripping and America-bashing." From there, the knockout is easy: "What developing-world nations need to free their populations from extreme air pollution is . . . . hydroelectric dams, modern petroleum refining, advanced high-efficiency power plants."

Deborah Moore, for one, was not convinced. An activist in the global campaign to redefine development and stop large dams, she told me that Easterbrook had deliberately "manipulated" concern for poverty and wretched Third World conditions into support for a development model that routinely devastates the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people--just the opposite of what he claimed to be doing. Indeed, a few months later, Hydro Review, a trade journal that carries the burden of making big dams appear modern and humanistic (in fact they are as socially and ecologically destructive as nuclear power, and as uneconomic and corruption-friendly), ran a paean to Easterbrook that commended his lucidity, eagerly quoted his attacks on solar power ("How come if small solar is too expensive for the Sierra Club set, it's a great idea for peasants in Malawi?") and recommended mass purchases of Moment, "not just to read, but for friends as well."

In his book, Easterbrook is more careful. Solar power would be welcome, if the price was right, and unlikely though it is, global warming could be a threat. It doesn't matter. Carbon emissions will be brought under control, since liberal ecorealists will find ways to transfer clean technologies to the Third World and, in fact, will soon be boasting of "having saved capitalism from itself by curbing environmentally destructive aspects of the market system and compelling corporations to become resource-efficient." If, in the meantime, utility industry front groups are running ads in magazines as liberal as Harper's (see the April issue) counseling us to oppose the "radical environmental agenda" and "Repeal Rio" (the greenhouse treaty), and if these ads make exactly the same argument as does Moment, what can this be but an odd coincidence?

Readers who slog through The True State and Moment should try to find time as well for the real thing--the 1995 edition of the Worldwatch Institute's State ?f the World. This is an annual that serious students of environmental politics not only buy but actually read. Worldwatch is one of the most cited research organizations in the world, and State of the World, its flagship publication, is each year translated into twenty-seven languages. The 1995 edition, as always, is a judicious mixture of the grim and the upbeat. This year, on the grim side, we have the crisis in world fisheries, pressures on mountain peoples and environments, human migration, rising ecological strains in China and that most vexed of subjects, "nature's limits." On the upbeat side, there are the ongoing revolutions in solar and wind technology that will, any year now, become impossible to ignore, the prospect for a "sustainable materials economy" and, on an overtly political line, "Budgeting for Disarmament" and "Forging a New Global Partnership."

State of the World is not Malthusian or Pollyanna-ish, but somehow, peculiarly, both and neither. When Lester Brown, Worldwatch's president, offers a dark analysis of trends in global rice production and consumption, he does not omit the new bioengineered varieties now being developed at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. He just gives the numbers, which don't look particularly good, and reiterates the pressures--from aquifer depletion to the boom in Chinese demand for pork and beer--that make predictions of grain-market strain so plausible. A far cry from The True State's wild optimism about yield increases which altogether ignores the many and serious problems that come with new hybrids. These range from herbicide dependence and soil compaction to what UNICEF once called the "paradox of plenty"--increases in food productivity, when won by methods of industrial agriculture that promote land monopoly (and they commonly do), often increase hunger as well.

As will be obvious to any fair reader, State of the World: 1995 is a careful text, full of considered detail. Far from an organ of doomster culture, it is a model of discretion and scientific balance. Worldwatch has its pragmatists and its Big Thinkers, its hard-nosed researchers and its closet apocalyptics. Its politics do not altogether suit my temper, but I gladly admit that its culture allows a rigorous, descriptive pessimism to coexist with conventional technical and political optimism. Indeed, it seems that it is just this balance that most infuriates the right. If even mainstream outfits like Worldwatch are finding positions in which (1) scientific details are taken seriously and (2) there is nevertheless room to legitimately and publicly doubt if small changes will finally be sufficient, then the green movement may, after all, be incubating a new and radical form of realism. And without such a realism, clearly, there can be no hope of emancipation.

Tom Athanasiou lives in San Francisco. His book Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor is forthcoming from Little, Brown.
COPYRIGHT 1995 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Athanasiou, Tom
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:2429
Previous Article:Can the states do any better?
Next Article:A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters