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Moles. Theskin doctor lasered them off with a shrug, but I have to tell you I was spooked.A sunburn is one thing, random skin-cell mutation is another.
A few weekslater, a colleague who's sailed all his life reported a similar experience.First time in his life, a sunburn turned into a weird rash, followed by strange hairs popping out of affected parts of his epidermis.

"Humanshave been getting sunburned for a million years," I complained. "Since when does the sun do this?"

"Whereyou been?" he replied. "The sun's not the sun anymore."

Then, visitingfamily in Pacific Palisades, I noticed that the little kids at the beach weren'twearing normal swimsuits, but these miniature surfer-dude sort of wetsuits.It was explained to me that they weren't to keep the kids warm in the ocean?theall-body covering was to shield more of their skin from the sun. The sun'snot the sun anymore.

Okay, soin my lifetime we've entered a phase in the history of the species wherekids can't play outdoors anymore. You don't need to be a tree-hugger.And don't get me started about nukes. I used to live not far enough downwindof Three Mile Island, thanks.

Still, noone listens to eco-pussies whining about our imminent destruction anymore. Ourenvironmental problems may not have gone away in the almost 30 years since thefirst Earth Day, but some have improved markedly and, more to the point, byand large our desire to read yet another book about them has definitely waned.How many of you bought Gore's Earth in the Balance? How many readit?

That'sthe challenge Mark Hertsgaard faces with Earth Odyssey (Broadway, 372pages, $36.95). Between '91 and '97 he traveled around the world?allover Eastern and Western Europe, and Africa, and China and the Amazon and theredwood forests in the Northwest?looking at environmental issues close-up.He came back with a book that sets out a lot of familiar old issues?globalwarming, ozone depletion, nuclear waste, save the rainforest, zero populationgrowth, reduce auto emissions?and poses the tree-hugger's jackpotquestion: Can the human species survive the ecological mess it has created?

Mark, Itell him, buddy, no offense, but it's not like we haven't heard thisall before.

"Thepoint of this book was exactly to get at that mindset," he replies. "Thefact that we've heard all this before I don't think vitiates the needfor such a book, because we're obviously not doing enough about it yet.It's like that famous science experiment?if you drop a frog into aboiling pot of water he hops out instantly. But if you warm it up slowly he'llnever leave the pot and just expires. I think the human race, and especiallyAmericans, are very close to that second attitude. It's now, as you pointout, 28 years ago that we had the first Earth Day. Kids are learning about recycling.We think we've heard all about this. But we're not doing enough. We'renot gonna make it under the current trends. Something has to happen. I hopethis book will reawaken a new appreciation for the urgency of the moment."

Well, allright. I like Hertsgaard?he's a Baltimore boy, which counts, and hasappeared in NYPress once or twice. A career journalist who just turned42, he's written for the major papers and magazines, from the Timesand The Washington Post to Newsweek and The New Yorkerand Vanity Fair?and, to his credit, managed to get himself censoredat Rolling Stone (for an expose of 60 Minutes) and fired froma regular slot on NPR. "I was doing commentaries [on Morning Edition],and one of my commentaries poked fun at McDonald's and NBC and the free enterprise system. This was not allowed, apparently." His previous booksinclude two investigations of the nuke industry, Til Death Do Us Part(1979) and Nuclear Inc. ('83); On Bended Knee, about howhe believed the media kid-gloved the Reagan administration and sold the publicdown the river (1988); and a Beatles book, A Day in the Life, from 1995.

The ideafor a book that was sort of an eco-travelogue came to him in 1991 and was eagerlyreceived by a mentor, William Shawn, the former New Yorker editor who'dbeen squeezed out by new owner Si Newhouse to make room for Tina Brown. Shawnhad edited On Bended Knee for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was alsolegendary in environmentalist circles for editing Silent Spring and TheFate of the Earth.

"Wehad what turned out to be our last lunch together at the Algonquin," Hertsgaardrecalls. "I told him my idea... He listened to the whole thing and thensaid, 'It's the most important book anyone could be doing. And you'rethe only writer who can do it. And you have to do it. You have to doit.'"

Unfortunately,Shawn passed away in 1992, and though he'd been so encouraging about thebook, FSG's Roger Straus "officially declined it while I was on theroad. I was nine months gone or something. They said, 'We wish you well,but we don't think this is for us.'" Hertsgaard continued towork on the book on his own dime, and it was picked up eventually by Broadway'sJohn Sterling, who edited Earth in the Balance.

Among theAfrican countries Hertsgaard visited was Sudan, where in '92 he spent timewith the Dinka, a tribe of farmers made refugees first by civil war in Sudanand then by military strife in neighboring Ethiopia. He saw military killings,starvation and disease?but also the human will to survive still operatingagainst the most savage odds and with the sparest of resources. It's alesson.

With mynukes phobia, I was most disturbed by his chapter on an old Soviet nuclear weaponsproduction facility, code-named Mayak ("Lighthouse"), near the Siberiancity of Chelyabinsk. Three separate nuclear disasters at Mayak make it a farworse place than Chernobyl, but we never heard about it because the KGB andthe CIA colluded on keeping it secret. Chelyabinsk was still officially closedto journalists when Hertsgaard was there in '91. Locals were kept in thedark as well?doctors told them that their hideously high rates of radiation-relatedcancers and leukemia were caused by "ABC disease." (The Soviets triedto cover up the disaster at Chernobyl as well, but it was detected throughoutEurope, and Gorbachev, who'd just announced his policy of glasnost a fewmonths before, had to admit something. Hertsgaard writes, "The engineerswho investigated the blue-hot remains of the reactor were rewarded for theirhonesty with lethal doses of radiation that killed them within ten weeks.")

From 1949until '56, Mayak poured nuclear waste directly into the local river. "Tensof thousands of people living downstream received average doses of radiationfour times greater than those subsequently received at Chernobyl," Hertsgaardwrites, and a Geiger counter used by the river's edge still jumped intothe get-the-hell-out-of-here zone when he visited 35 years later. A waste dumpat the facility exploded in '57, "severely contaminating air, water,and soil" in the region. Then in 1967 a freak cyclone swept up huge amountsof radioactive dust and rained it down on half a million people. In '91,there were still areas inside the crumbling Mayak facility so hot "an adultmale could die from radiation in less time than it takes to read a morning newspaper."It's been called the most contaminated spot on Earth.

Althoughofficials and experts here knew much of what had happened at Mayak, Hertsgaardwas the first journalist ever to visit the site and write it up. In that sensehe broke the story. "But of course, in the United States I broke it inMother Jones," he demurs, "which was like throwing it in ahole and pouring dirt on it. However, in Britain I broke it in the London Independent.And in Japan it was in the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is the biggest newspaperin the world, I believe... I published it in about eight different countries."

What doeswhat he saw at Chelyabinsk say to him about the status of the current Russiannuclear "industry"?the waste sites, the other aging reactors,the nuclear subs creaking around in the oceans?

"I'dsay this is right up there with the India-Pakistan nuclear tests. This is theticking time bomb on the nuclear front in many different respects. There isall this waste?Mayak is only one of the sites. I just saw a story the otherday that up in the Arctic Circle another site is leaking very badly. That'sgoing to be slowly poisoning us for decades, and if not centuries. And the poor people I wrote about there are just nuclear conscripts in essence, and theyare being completely ignored by this government that has no money.

"Now,the other problem with that government having no money is that, as you know,the scientists are beginning to leave, to go to places like Iran and Iraq. Theworld just has not focused on this adequately. We are so glad that the immediatenuclear danger has receded that we think everything's okay. We dodged thenuclear bullet as it were, and we think there's no problem, and we couldnot be more wrong."

In '96The Atlantic Monthly sent Hertsgaard to China, home to one-fourth ofthe world's population?and to some of the filthiest air, most pollutedwater and stripped-bare landscapes anywhere. His article, "Our Real ChinaProblem," ran in the Nov. '97 issue and was the template for a chapterin the book. Though less spectacularly frightening than a Chelyabinsk or Chernobyl,Hertsgaard says, the industrial pollution in places like China, or the strip-mining,logging and subsistence farming in the Amazon, present what he considers themost real, most pressing stresses to the global environment: poverty.

In China,where people are just now reaching the very bottom rung of the ladder towarda quality of life we'd consider barely tolerable, if the trade-off fora bit of heat, a lightbulb to read by, a clean hole to shit in is a pollutedriver, a hole in the ozone, then it's a bargain they're willing toaccept. Impoverished Brazilians told him the same: Fuck off, white man. Billionsof people are just beginning to taste a lick of the comfy life Westerners enjoy,and it's supremely foolhardy to expect them not to go for it?and whocares if that means burning so much coal Beijing is in a constant smog cloud,or cutting down the entire Amazonian rainforest to farm yams?

"Thebiggest environmental problem in the world today is not global warming, it'snot the ozone, it's not population?it's not any of those things,serious as they are," Hertsgaard says to me. "The biggest environmentalproblem is poverty. You see that very strongly in China, where people have beenutterly poor for so long. Now they're having a chance to get out of that. As are people in Africa and the poor of Asia and South America. And there'sonly so much environmental space on this planet. So somehow, if those peopleare going to have a better life, we've got to come up with both bettertechnology and a much quicker way of diffusing those technologies around theworld. That's a message that I think hasn't gotten through to Americans.We think that we'll take care of our own, and if the Chinese and the Africansare in trouble, well that's their problem. No. We're all either goingto sink or swim together on this. And I hope that that message comes throughvery strongly in this book."

At leastin China "there are major institutions focusing on" the problems,he goes on. "You could wonder about whether they're doing enough,but the World Bank, the United States government, the Japanese government, alot of people recognize that this is a big problem and we have to do somethingabout it. There are also major business opportunities there. If China were toinstall?this is somewhat of a hypothetical exercise because this isn'tthe way societies work?but if they were to install today, throughout theireconomy, the energy-efficiency technologies that are available today?offthe shelf, no new development, nothing, just the better lightbulbs, more efficientinsulation, better coal-burning power plants, etc.?they could reduce theirenergy consumption by 50 percent.

"Nowit just so happens, although you wouldn't believe it from looking at ourcountry, that the United States is the leader in energy efficiency. So if Clintonand the Congress were smart, they'd be helping China buy a lot of thattechnology, instead of helping them buy nuclear power plants and idiotic fighterplanes and all of that. And they'd be doing American workers and American businesses a big favor."

A dyed-in-the-woolliberal, Hertsgaard is big on blaming "capitalism" for much of theworld's environmental mess?never mind that the former and currentCommunist nations have far worse records?and has little faith in effortsto clean up the world through incentives, like those now being dilatorily discussedin Congress, that would reward environmentally sound industries and the bankingand insurance institutions that back them. He's a government regulationsman. So, like many liberals, he feels the Clinton administration has sold outthe environmental movement (Clinton in fact has a worse environmental recordthan Bush or Reagan before him, as Cockburn has often noted in his column).Wonderfully, he once ambushed Gore in a hotel elevator, needling him about thehuge gap between what Gore wrote in his book and what the administration haswrought in the real world. Gore hemmed, hawed and escaped as soon as he could.

So if neitherthe Commies, the former Commies, the developing nations, the industrialistsnor the Democrats can be expected to fix things, where does that leave us? Willwe in fact sink or swim?

"Imake a distinction between optimism and hope," Hertsgaard replies. "AsI look at the trends, most of them are going in the wrong direction. The oneexception is population, where we are beginning to see improvement. So, on thescientific and intellectual count, you have to be pessimistic."

But then,he says, there's hope. In the final chapter he interviews Vaclav Havel,"and he says, 'I can't imagine living without hope...' It'snot that we don't know how to fix this, that we don't know how toget out of this jam. We do. But," he adds, "the institutional andpolitical obstacles are enormous."

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