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Eco-Eschatology : HIGH TECH HOLOCAUST by James Bellini (Sierra Club Books: $10.95, paper; 256 pp.; 0-87156-686-9)

April 16, 1989|Kirkpatrick Sale | Sale is the author of "Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision" (Sierra Club) and "Human Scale" (G.P. Putnam's Sons). He is co-director of the E. F. Schumacher Society and a founding member of the New York Green Party and the Hudson Bioregional Council. and

Straight out, I have to tell you I am an apocalyptic: I believe that most of the life forms of the planet Earth, and the workings of the planet itself, are seriously imperiled and may not survive the next two or three decades.

That should put me solidly on the side of "High Tech Holocaust," since its somber conclusion--the next-to-last sentence of the book, highlighted in 18-point type on the back cover--is that "if the scale of the assault on our well-being is not reduced . . . then humanity will itself become the species facing a slow, but inexorable, journey to extinction."

And, well, I suppose I am on its side, for the most part. This is the sort of message that must be heard--and taken deeply, deeply to heart--if there is any chance to avoid the holocaust.

And yet, I somehow doubt that a book like this, which is essentially a catalogue of all the perils we know the industrial culture has unleashed on our environment in recent decades, will really help anyone to hear and heed that message. Not only is it depressing, as it moves from toxic wastes to nuclear accidents to acid rain to poisoned foods to contaminated waters, but its collection of horror stories and horror statistics is eventually numbing to the point of insensibility.

I mean, you can open to any page and be overwhelmed by the awful lethal ailments provided by our industrial age. Just at random--and I assure you this is totally unplanned--I open to:

"Scientists drilling the Greenland icecap have discovered that lead levels in the air we breathe have increased two thousand percent since the start of the industrial revolution. . . . Lead too is a poison; there is mounting proof that our brains and nervous systems are being steadily eroded."

"In practically every area of toxic pollution, mankind has reached a cross-over point, beyond which the natural balance of the Earth's chemistry becomes seriously distorted."

"All nuclear plants produce waste products . . . radioactive substances . . . that are beyond the capacity of man to destroy. And so long as they exist, these substances present a mortal danger."

"After Chernobyl, we can now have no doubts about the inability of man to control our nuclear technology."

"Acid rain is destroying our forests, contaminating our water supplies, changing our climate, eroding irreplaceable historic buildings and, we are now discovering, causing the slow wasting of mankind through corrosion of our own body chemistry."

I suppose it is true that Bellini--a free-lance "forecaster" and adviser to British TV projects--might well say that the only way to show people how horrible the world has become is to pile up horror stories. And yet, there is nothing really new here, nothing that is not derived from rather well-known scientific or popular materials of the sort that have become increasingly common since "Silent Spring"--with not much perceivable alteration, either, in the conditions they condemn. (They banned DDT, you will say; but "Silent Spring" was not about DDT but chemicalization, which has increased sharply since 1962.) Having all this information together in one place certainly serves some encyclopedic purpose, but it is not really calculated to invite the skeptical or uninformed, and it simply overwhelms the sympathetic.

There is another similar danger, too, to this book, and it has to do with its doomsday tone that "we have five years to make the choice" between "a cleaner, safer world" and extinction. As an apocalyptic, you understand, I can't exactly disagree--but nowhere is this proven, or even addressed in fact, nowhere is there any justification for such a time-line. It is simply not convincing, certainly not to the unconverted, and it is the sort of wolf-is-coming exaggeration that has served in the past to discredit ecological critics. And it may also be quite off-putting even to the receptive reader, since it is fair to say that the chances of our achieving radical environmental changes in the next five years are remote in the extreme.

Which brings me to what I regret to describe as the fundamental flaw of this book: its failure to identify the root cause of our eco-crises and thus to have any intelligent suggestions for any real remedies. Bellini does, from time to occasional time, put forth "a devil called industry" and "the high-tech age." But he is really quite placid about it, quite happy with its "wonder drugs" and "skyscraper cities," and all he really seems to worry about (though I must say this is not dealt with very clearly) is its scale and its secrecy, and all he can think of by way of remedy is for industry "to establish a climate of open business" so as to become "more accountable" (ditto) and for the public to have a "more acute recognition of the biochemical threat that confronts us" (ditto). Puerile pap, that--thin gruel for an apocalyptic menu.

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