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Book Review : Determined Souls in Hot Pursuit of Polluters

August 14, 1986|LEE DEMBART

Restoring the Earth: How Americans Are Working to Renew Our Damaged Environment by John J. Berger (Knopf: $16.95)

For two decades now, Americans have worried about environmental pollution, the degradation and potential destruction of the air, water and soil that result from ignorance and greed--mostly the latter.

In the typical case in the past, environmentalists in a community started out virtually powerless, and they found important economic and political interests arrayed against them. Industrial polluters wanted to hold costs down and to avoid liability for the damage they had created. So they pooh-poohed the dangers of unchecked use of the environment as a sewer. Organized labor, for the most part, saw a threat to jobs and therefore sided with the bosses.

Eventually, however, wisdom and the public interest prevailed over short-term economic self-interest, and Congress and state legislatures passed laws prohibiting environmental pollution. Some of these laws are stronger than others, but in general, wanton industrial pollution is no longer the case.

Economically Infeasible

But few polluters are required to go back and clean up their messes from the past. The laws prescribe what must be done now and in the future. Companies argued with some justification that undoing the damage of past activities was economically infeasible. They don't have enough money to do it.

So polluted lakes and streams remain polluted; strip-mined land shows the scars of the quest for coal; toxic dumps continue to leak dangerous chemicals into the ground.

But not everywhere. Here and there, individuals have become obsessed with the sorry condition of a local stream or the absence of a natural prairie or the disappearance of wildlife. They have mobilized their neighbors, used the political process and devoted thousands of hours to projects that made a difference in a small case. "Restoring the Earth" is the story of some of these determined individuals and their work.

Here we meet Marion R. Stoddart, a grandmother who organized the cleanup of the Nashua River in Massachusetts; Thomas U. Gordon, who drove pollution from Lake Annabessacook in Maine; Tony Look, who saved a redwood forest in rural Northern California, and Tom J. Cade, a biologist who organized a project to nurse peregrine falcons so they could overcome the effects of DDT pollution.

Their stories and others like them are interesting, but the book as a whole is sadly disappointing. Each chapter is devoted to the story of one individual's successful assault on one problem, but after a while, the stories become repetitive. The names are different, the places are different and the pollution is different, but the details of each case are not sufficiently engrossing to carry the book.

There is too much detail in each case, too much who said what to whom, too much of the ins and outs of the technologies of restoring rivers and cleaning lakes. The level of abstraction is oddly out of focus. There is too much to hold the interest of the general reader and not enough to make it a how-to book.

Here is Berger describing the reclamation of Indian land in New Mexico: "Where topsoil is absent, the company spreads a top dressing, usually a subsoil mixture of shale and sand with fertilizer added later to compensate for nutrient deficiencies. Then the soil is disked to break up lumps and to mix in the fertilizer. The steeper slopes are finally contour-furrowed to slow runoff and aid the soil in retaining moisture." You get the picture.

Rugged Individualists

All of the good guys in the book are of a single type, rugged individualists of no particular political persuasion who see a wrong, want to right it and won't take no for an answer. One of them explains his reasons for getting involved:

"If you want to have a nice place to bring your kids down and look at birds and flowers, you're going to have to put some work into it and restore it yourself. Nobody's going to do it for you."

At the end of the book, Berger recalls some of the people he has written about and says of them, "They owe their successes mainly to the drive and persistence that comes from passionate commitment to environmental causes." Well, yes, but in the real world, success--and successful people--are always a bit more complicated than that. Berger fails to tell us enough about the heroes of his book to make them quite believable. His book serves up more admiration than characterization.

Nor does the writing add much to this book. Berger's prose is pedestrian and flat. Each chapter contains a description of the natural beauty that his heroes seek to recover, but the author tries too hard, and the writing is forced.

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