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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Just a Few Words of Optimism From Green Enemy No. 1 : A MOMENT ON THE EARTH: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, by Gregg Easterbrook , Viking $27.95, 745 pages

June 16, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Had the Green Movement drawn up an enemies list a couple of years ago, it would have embraced the usual suspects: James Watt, Dixie Lee Ray, Western ranchers, commercial fishermen, conservative legal foundations, corporate executives by the hundreds at Exxon, Hooker Chemical, Kerr-McGee and Weyerhaeuser, to name just a few.

Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist prominent and respected for his assaults on conventional wisdom, wouldn't have made the Top 20, even though many environmentalists knew--from related articles appearing in Newsweek, the New Republic and other magazines--that he was working on a book challenging contemporary notions about environmental degradation.

Now it's 1995, and Easterbrook, thanks to his mammoth "A Moment on the Earth," is Green Enemy No. 1.

That's evident from Easterbrook's declaring in the preface that "the Western world today is on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has known," from his publishing 700 pages backing up that claim and from the early reviews in which Easterbrook has been slammed for just about everything--from his facts to his interpretations, from his optimism to his tone.

To the committed environmentalist, "A Moment on the Earth" isn't a reactionary, fundamentalist, pro-business screed but something much worse: an invitation to complacency, a declaration of victory in a war that's far from won.

Easterbrook's sanguineness, be it noted, is Pollyanna-ish, for there's little reason to assume that the environmental gains of the last two decades have been internalized and made permanent.

The United States, at least, remains money- and profit-oriented, so there's no telling what hazardous forces may yet be unleashed on the world in the name of economic progress, particularly if prevailing hard-won environmental strictures are rescinded.

It's also true, though, that "A Moment on the Earth" is powerfully persuasive, both in detail and in perspective.

Some readers have maintained that Easterbrook parrots the industrial, anti-environmental line, but the book is much more subtle, and independent, than that.

Easterbrook argues that the Green Movement has become an entrenched, ideological special-interest group that has failed to make the transition from campaigning for a cause to governing a persuaded society. The bulk of "A Moment on the Earth" is 20-odd chapters debunking the crisis atmosphere surrounding a score of legitimate environmental problems.

Humankind, Easterbrook argues, has made great strides controlling, and very often rolling back, its myriad despoliations, from acid rain to water quality, air pollution to radiation.

In this country, at least, the air is cleaner, forests are expanding, toxic wastes are largely under control, energy is generated and used much more efficiently, and some once-threatened species have made impressive comebacks. Much environmental progress has been made, Easterbrook holds, and it should be acknowledged.

Most of the time it isn't acknowledged, though, and Easterbrook believes that's because good news is no news. Disasters make headlines while progress is buried, if printed at all, in the lower right-hand corner of page A17.

He's right, to some extent; environmentalists do have a tendency to become Chicken Littles, to demonize their adversaries, to narrow their vision to the point of narrow-mindedness.

What Easterbrook fails to add, however, even as he pats the Greens on the back for past accomplishments, is that their paranoia is frequently justified.

Yes, many environmental scares ultimately prove exaggerated--the asbestos that shut down New York City schools in 1993, for instance, posed virtually no threat to students. But imagine a world in which such events are met with indifference: Truly bad things would begin to occur, for apathy is an invitation to exploit.

Who can believe otherwise, having learned in the last few years that major industries (tobacco producers foremost among them) have tried to cover up the carcinogenic nature of their products?

The major strength of "A Moment on the Earth" is Easterbrook's critique of blinkered, reflexive environmentalism that seems to value nature primarily when it's uncontaminated by humans. Cries to "save the whales" have been heard and heeded for more than a decade, for instance, but only recently have Greens begun to notice that millions of humans die annually in the Third World from easily preventable diseases and unsexy, unpublicized environmental degradation.

Green opposition to nuclear-waste disposal sites has meant, too, that existing debris ticks away unsafely where it sits, and hostility to genetic engineering has delayed not only the creation of "Frankenfish" but also of crops and treatments that could save countless human lives.

Fifteen years ago I was green to the core and would have joined the chorus calling for Easterbrook's head. Over the years, though, my views about environmentalism have shifted and I've come to believe, as has Easterbrook, that the distinction between humans and nature is itself artificial, that any reference to "natural states" is self-deceptive.

Human beings are products of nature, so it's impossible to say that nature grieves before cities, loves wolves more than viruses, prizes lively green Earth above lifeless green Neptune.

Many in the environmental movement who claim to speak for nature are simply projecting their personal beliefs, indulging themselves in an ironic, paradoxical form of anthropomorphism.

Easterbrook, by contrast, doesn't hide his belief in a human-centered Earth. But he doesn't underestimate nature, either; he is confident that our species now grasps that it must go green, at some level, in order to save itself.

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