mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Clinging to the Green Dream

Talk about a problem that tests one’s capacity for hope! I spent much
of the 1990s traveling around the world, investigating one of the
great questions of our time: Will humanity act quickly and decisively
enough to avoid environmental self-destruction? I returned home
sobered by all I had seen and wrote a book (Earth Odyssey), which
tried to provide answers. In the years since, I’ve continued to cover
environmental issues, and I confess that there have been moments when
reports from around the world have made me question anew my species’
long-term prospects.

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But the most important lesson I learned during my global travels was
the difference between optimism and hope, and that lesson continues to
sustain me. Optimism is the belief that things will turn out well, but
sad to say, the objective facts give little reason to expect that
humanity will avoid environmental suicide. Hope, on the other hand, is
an active, determined conviction that is rooted in the spirit, chosen
by the heart, and guided by the mind. Hope has triumphed numerous
times in recent human history—think of the falls of apartheid and the
Soviet Empire—and it is indispensable to humanity’s chances of
creating an environmentally sustainable future.

Hope, after all, is the foundation of action, and in my travels I
uncovered two principal reasons for hope. First, most people want to
do right by the environment and, if given the chance, they will—as
long as they are not penalized too much economically for it. Second,
far from being enemies, economic and environmental health can
reinforce one another. That means humans could get rich—always a
powerful incentive for our species—by cleaning up our ravaged
environment. But will we?

Global quests

My quest to investigate humanity’s environmental future led me to set off
around the world in 1991, and I didn’t return home for good until 1997. In
2001, I left on a second global journey to explore why America fascinates and
infuriates the world—and I learned that its environmental behavior was no
small part of the reason. In my travels, I made extended and sometimes
repeated stops in twenty-five countries, including such environmentally
devastated nations as Russia and China; I also spent considerable amounts of
time in Africa, Europe, Japan and Brazil.
I spoke with hundreds of individuals along the way—politicians such as Al
Gore and Vaclav Havel, activists like Jacques Cousteau and Kenyan human
rights leader Wangari Matthai, businessmen like Ted Turner—but my most
illuminating exchanges were invariably with ordinary people: working men and
women on the streets of Istanbul, London and Bangkok; peasants scratching out
a living on Brazil’s central highlands and Botswana’s Okavanga delta; young
students in Tokyo, Havana, and Thessaloniki, yearning for a brighter future;
starving villagers in war-torn Sudan.

Scientists had long studied whether elephants in the wild or dolphins
in the deep were heading for extinction; I wanted to shift the gaze
and turn the binoculars on my fellow humans. Just as scientists
compare a given animal’s behavior with the dynamics of its habitat to
determine whether it is endangered or not, I wanted to analyze humans’
collective behavior in relationship to Earth’s ecosystems in order to
gauge the environmental prospects of Homo sapiens. Library research
was essential to this task, but there was no substitute for getting
out and talking with the people who were actually living the story.

This grassroots reporting yielded one of the most encouraging results
of my investigation. In hundreds of conversations with individuals
from all walks of life, I found that not only had the vast majority of
people heard about the gathering ecological crisis, they cared and
were eager to talk about it (which is more than could be said about
other issues of global import, such as the vicious slaughters then
taking place in Bosnia and Rwanda). People tended to be better
informed about their own area’s environmental ills than about such
global questions as biodiversity and climate change. Often they did
not grasp the scientific details of either, but the overall importance
of environmental hazards was accepted without question, as was the
need to do something about them. That such awareness existed in
virtually every country I visited (the exception being China, where
official censorship pertained) and at all levels of society was all
the more remarkable considering the limited information available to
many people.

A world of doubt

I remember a woman in Uganda who ran a small grocery store near the
Botanical Gardens in Entebbe. Tall, big-boned, she looked about 35 and
wore a light blue bandana that knotted behind her neck. Although this
woman lived in a country where the leading newspaper was four pages
long and devoted largely to government pronouncements, she was
remarkably well informed. She crisply explained to me how
desertification was threatening her village, and she was even familiar
with the more distant hazard of ozone depletion, which she referred to
as the hole in the sky. She did not know what caused ozone
depletion, and she had not heard about the greenhouse effect at all
(in this she was no different from some urban Europeans and Americans
I had met), but she seemed genuinely interested in my descriptions of
these problems and hopeful that remedial action would be taken.

Nevertheless, I also encountered despair about humanity’s
environmental prospects; most people I met doubted that sufficient
remedial action would be taken in time. When strangers learned I was
writing a book about whether human civilization would survive the many
environmental pressures crowding in upon it at the dawn of the 21st
century, their response usually was to ask, Well, will we? And
often, before I could reply, they would ruefully add words to the
effect of, It doesn’t look good, does it?

No, it doesn’t, and there’s no sense denying it. To be sure, some
progress has been made since I began my travels in 1991. Population
growth is slowing in many parts of the Third World; production of the
chemicals that destroy the ozone layer has declined (though the ozone
hole itself will keep expanding for years to come); energy efficiency
is increasingly recognized as being both environmentally and
economically clever. But compared to the magnitude of the global
environmental threat, the progress has been too incremental, too
grudging and slow. Most key trends are still moving in the wrong
direction, and many are picking up speed.

The best example is arguably the most worrisome: climate change. The
world’s leading climate scientists, gathered under the auspices of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have called for 60 to 80
percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the world’s
climate system from spinning out of control. Such reductions go far
beyond the world’s official response, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997,
which urges mere 5.2 percent reductions. And despite its inadequacy,
the Kyoto Protocol has still not come into force, because the United
States and Russia have refused to ratify it on the dubious grounds
that reducing emissions will hurt economic growth.

The science/politics gap

For most environmental hazards, the gap between what science demands
and what our political structures deliver remains vast, and it is
vigilantly patrolled by powerful interests that profit from the
existing order. In the United States, the 2000 election brought to
power George W. Bush, a former oil man who staffed his government with
executives from extractive industries. They simply ignored science
they didn’t like in order to push policies that benefited corporate
colleagues. Bush compiled the most anti-environmental record of any
modern American president. Yet he paid little political price, largely
because the public was distracted by his so-called war on terrorism.
Many of Bush’s anti-terrorist policies, most notably in Iraq, promised
only to make the problem worse; as I reported in the November 2003
issue of Vanity Fair, Bush was doing worse than nothing to prevent a
terrorist attack on U.S. nuclear weapons facilities—a nuclear
September 11th—that could kill not three thousand but three hundred
thousand people and leave huge areas uninhabitable for decades.

The larger point is that environmental threats such as climate change,
water scarcity, and loss of species pose dangers to security and
prosperity no less ominous than those posed by terrorism, only less
sudden. If terrorism continues to push environmental concerns to the
back of the public agenda, our civilization’s breakdown may still
come, just with a whimper rather than a bang.

The crowning complication that darkens the environmental picture is
how rising consumption, especially in the wealthy North but
increasingly in the impoverished South as well, threatens to push
Earth’s carrying capacity past the breaking point. Nowhere exemplifies
the problem better than China. The market reforms China instituted in
the early 1980s ignited one of the most fantastic economic booms in
modern history. Average real incomes doubled by 1997, as hundreds of
millions of Chinese were lifted out of absolute poverty into mere
ordinary poverty. Since then, living standards have continued to
improve, and who would wish otherwise?

The environmental effects, however, have been catastrophic. China has
the world’s worst air pollution—nine of the ten cities with the most
polluted air are in China—and water pollution is equally severe.
According to World Bank figures, nearly one of every three deaths in
China is attributable to the toxic air and water. And China’s gigantic
population—one of every four humans is Chinese—ensures that the
effects extend to the world at large. China is the second-leading
emitter of greenhouse gases, and it is projected to overtake the
United States by 2020.

Yet virtually every Chinese I met was willing to tolerate these
appalling environmental conditions in return for more jobs, higher
incomes, greater comfort. What else is China supposed to do, one
senior government official asked me—go back to no heat in the winter?
Impossible.

Renovating civilization

And China is only part of the problem. Bear in mind that most people
on earth are desperately poor; 45 percent of them live on $2 a day or
less. As the bottom two-thirds of humanity strives to improve their
lot in the years to come, demanding such basics as adequate heat and
food, not to mention cars and computers, our species’ environmental
footprint is certain to grow. The great challenge facing civilization
in the 21st century is to accommodate this mass ascent from poverty
without wrecking the natural systems that make life on this planet
possible in the first place.

Sounds daunting, no? But remember, people worldwide are willing to act
to protect the environment, so long as we don’t force them to choose
between a life of perpetual scarcity or a path that will destroy our
planet. And we already have in hand most of the technologies needed to
chart a new course. We know how to use oil, wood, water, coal and
other resources much more efficiently than we do now. Increased
efficiency—doing more with less—will enable us to use fewer
resources and thus produce less pollution per capita, buying us the
time to bring solar power, hydrogen fuel cells and other futuristic
technologies on line. If we’re smart, humans could make restoring the
environment the biggest economic enterprise of our time, a huge source
of jobs, profits and the alleviation of poverty.

The idea is to environmentally renovate human civilization from top to
bottom, in rich and poor countries alike. People would remake
everything from our farms to our factories, our schools, houses,
offices and everything inside them. The economic activity such
renovating would generate is enormous. Better yet, it would be
labor-intensive, providing jobs and addressing the poverty that is the
irreducible other half of the environmental challenge.

Governments would not have to spend more money so much as spend it
differently. For example, every year the United States government buys
from Detroit some 56,000 new vehicles for official use. Washington
could help bring green cars to market if it told Detroit that from now
on, the cars it buys must be hybrid-electrics or hydrogen-fueled.
Detroit might scream and holler, but if Washington stood firm, Detroit
would soon be climbing the technological learning curve and offering
those cars on the open market. We know such government pump-priming
works; it’s how the computer industry and Internet went from being
government projects in the 1960s to the key engine of the 1990s
productivity boom.

Global Green Deal

Reform is needed overseas as well. China would use 50 percent less
coal (and thus produce 50 percent less pollution) if it simply
installed energy efficiency technologies already available in the
marketplace: better lighting, more insulation, smarter motors. The
United States and other wealthy industrial nations should help China
buy these technologies, not only because it would reduce climate
change but because it would create jobs and profits for workers and
companies back home.

All this sounds good on paper, but in the real world reform is often
blocked by beneficiaries of the status quo, be they executives at
Exxon-Mobil or bureaucrats in China’s coal industry. For change to
happen, politics must be committed. If even half of the $500 billion
to $900 billion in environmentally destructive subsidies now offered
by the world’s governments were redirected, the transition to a green
future would be off to a roaring start. Likewise, if the world’s
governments made sure market prices reflected the real social costs of
air pollution and other environmental hazards (increased health care
costs alone amount to billions of dollars worldwide), the immense
power of the market would lead businesses and consumers alike to act
in more environmentally positive ways.

I have dubbed my proposal the Global Green Deal, but the name matters
less than the concept: putting people and businesses to work in
environmentally healing rather than destructive ways. I’m happy to
report there has been real progress since I first outlined this idea
in my book, Earth Odyssey. The Apollo Project is a ten-year, $300
billion plan to create manufacturing, construction and other
well-paying jobs by promoting green cars, high-speed rail and other
forms of technological innovation and energy efficiency in the United
States. In the lead-up to the 2004 presidential campaign, ten of
America’s biggest labor unions endorsed the Apollo Project, and major
Democratic candidates backed similar plans.

A green jobs program is no silver bullet. It might, however, buy
humanity time to make the more deep-seated changes—in our often
excessive appetites, in our curious belief that humans are the center
of the universe, in our sheer numbers—that will be needed to repair
our relationship with the environment. And if the United States takes
the lead, other nations will follow. As Beldrich Moldan, the former
environment minister of the Czech Republic, told me, As a European,
you may like the United States or not like the United States. But you
know it’s the future.

Hope trumps optimism

So I remain hopeful that humanity will change its ways in time to
avoid catastrophe. I can’t say I’m optimistic, but that returns me to
the difference between optimism and hope.

It was Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and human rights hero, who
first made me recognize this distinction. I interviewed Havel in
Prague in September 1991, two years after he became the president of
Czechoslovakia. If anyone ever had an excuse for giving up the fight
because the outlook seemed hopeless, it was Havel at the start of the
1980s. He was serving a four-year prison term then because he refused
to accept the totalitarian regime’s restrictions on his, or anyone’s,
freedom to do, say, and think what they wanted. He chose to go to jail
rather than compromise at a time when such sacrifice seemed quixotic
at best. No one expected the Soviet system to end anytime soon; its
hold over the lives of its citizens seemed as absolute as the
passivity of most of the citizens. So what good was it for Havel to
endure prison? Who could expect his action to make a practical
difference?

But hope ended up trumping optimism. By decade’s end, the Velvet
Revolution had overthrown the regime and catapulted Havel into the
president’s castle—not only because of his own leadership but because
tens of thousands of ordinary Czechs and Slovaks had thrown off their
fears and passivity and poured into the streets to demand change.

What is Havel’s relevance to the environmental challenge? He always
insisted he was no hero; he was simply driven by an unshirkable sense
of personal responsibility. As discussed earlier in this book, his
compatriot, the novelist Milan Kundera, once refused to sign a
petition that Havel was circulating on behalf of political prisoners
in the late 1960s; Kundera questioned whether such symbolic acts of
opposition had much practical effect against a totalitarian
government. Havel insisted that calculations about what was practical
must never stand in the way of doing what was right, not least because
such calculations often led a person not to act at all. When a person
tries to act in accordance with his conscience, Havel explained,
…it won’t necessarily lead anywhere, but it might. There’s one
thing, however, that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating
[about whether] such behavior will lead somewhere.

Fight paralysis

Substitute Nelson Mandela’s or Martin Luther King’s name for Havel’s,
and the same point applies: fighters for a better world must do what
is right, must act, and let the consequences take care of themselves.
Be strategic, of course. But don’t let apparently long odds paralyze
you. When supposed experts disparage a given point of view or strategy
as unrealistic, remember that the same was said about Mandela’s and
King’s and Havel’s fights for justice. History is cunning. The fact
is, humans aren’t wise enough to know what lies ahead—what is
realistic—not least because their own actions will help decide that
mystery.

Change can come fast once the times are right, John Passacantando,
now the executive director of Greenpeace USA, told me. In 1957,
Lyndon Johnson was voting against the Civil Rights Act as the Senate
Majority Leader, but by 1965 he was signing that Act as President—not
because he had changed, but because the world around him had changed.
Now our world is changing. So I do have hope. And with hope, you can
have magic.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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