mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future

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From the publisher

Like many of us, Mark Hertsgaard has long worried about the declining health of our environment. But in 1991, he decided to act on his concern and investigate the escalating crisis for himself. Traveling on his own dime, he embarked on an odyssey lasting most of the decade and spanning nineteen countries. Now, in Earth Odyssey, he reports on our environmental predicament through the eyes of the people who live it.

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From the gilded boardrooms of Paris to the traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok, we travel from the deep human past to our still unfolding future. Much of the story revolves around people like Zhenbing, Hertsgaard’s charismatic interpreter in China, whose desire to escape poverty leaves him indifferent to his country’s horrific air and water pollution. We also meet Garang, a proud Dinka tribesman whose response to Sudan’s famine shows the difficulty of building an environmentally sustainable future without bridging the gap between rich and poor. Drawing on interviews with Václav Havel, Al Gore, Jacques Cousteau, and numerous other prominent figures, Hertsgaard offers fresh insight into such complex issues as humanity’s growing addiction to the automobile, the insidious spread of nuclear technology, and the inevitable tension between unfettered capitalism and the health of the biosphere.

Earth Odyssey is a vivid, passionate narrative about one man’s journey around the world in search of the answer to the most important question of our time: Is the future of the human species at risk? Combining first-rate reportage with irresistible storytelling, Mark Hertsgaard has written an essential—and ultimately hopeful—book about the uncertain fate of humankind.

  — Broadway Books, 1998

Excerpt from the book

By the time I left China in 1997, I had spent the better part of six years trying to answer that question. My quest had taken me on a trip around the world that included extended (and sometimes repeated) stops in nineteen countries and interviews with everyone from heads of state like Vàclav Havel in Prague to starving peasants in war-torn Sudan. I had left the United States in May 1991, eighteen months after the Berlin Wall fell and three months after a U.S.-led army drove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait to maintain the flow of oil that modern economies crave like lungs crave oxygen.

Leaving San Francisco and traveling west to east, I began my global tour in Europe. After two months in Holland, France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden, I went to what was still the Soviet Union for five weeks. I continued on to Czechoslovakia, Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Thailand, and Brazil, where I visited the Amazon and attended the UN Earth Summit in June 1992. I later returned to Europe and the United States before concluding my travels with six weeks in China. I financed my wanderings by traveling light, living low on the food chain, and writing occasional magazine articles from the road.

Scientists had long studied whether elephants in the wild and 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, I planned to analyze human behavior in relation to the earth’s ecosystems to gauge the environmental prospects of Homo sapiens.

In The Naked Ape, his provocative study of the human animal, zoologist Desmond Morris observed that humans “suffer from a strange complacency that … we are somehow above biological control” and that our collapse as the earth’s dominant species is therefore impossible. Such complacency, Morris pointed out, flies in the face of all we know about the natural world. Biologists have estimated that 99 percent of all species in the history of the planet have ended in extinction. These 99 percent have been unable to survive the ceaseless competition—against the elements, against other species—that is the biological essence of life. The best known example is the dinosaurs, which, if current scientific thinking is correct, were doomed by a dramatic shift in the earth’s climate some sixty-five million years ago, perhaps brought on by an asteroid colliding with the planet. Dinosaurs flourished for one hundred million years before meeting their demise, but the average species lasts no more than one million years before expiring. That bodes well for humans if one dates the birth of our species at 200,000 years ago, as recent DNA studies suggest; it is less comforting if one begins the count with the earliest cases of stone tool creation, between 1.5 and 2.5 million years ago. In any case, Homo sapiens are part of the lucky 1 percent of species that have survived so far, as are the millions of other species currently in existence. But survival is a constant challenge. Ecosystems are forever in flux, and the scramble for life takes unexpected turns.

“The main piece of bad news at the end of the twentieth century is that we humans can now destroy ourselves, in either of two ways. We can destroy ourselves quickly, through nuclear weapons, or slowly, through environmental degradation,” Hubert Reeves told me in Paris near the start of my global journey. Reeves was a cosmologist and bestselling author—a sort of French Carl Sagan. His appearance was dominated by a full gray beard that hung down to his chest and gave him the look of a wizard from the dim past who had miraculously been reincarnated and fitted out in modern garb. Yet in fact, he was the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the French government’s main science institute. With the Cold War over, Reeves was optimistic that humanity could avoid nuclear self-destruction. He was less sanguine, however, about the threat posed by global warming, excessive population growth, and other more gradual forms of environmental overload. “This problem will be much more difficult to solve,” Reeves said, “because it is so much more complex. You can’t just have two men sit down at a table and agree to stop being stupid.”

Indeed, many modern environmental hazards are rooted not in the collectively suicidal “logic” of nuclear weapons deployment but in economic activities and technological choices that bring pleasure, profits, paychecks, or simple survival to millions: the production and use of automobiles, the felling of rainforests by landless people, the relentless advertising and consumerism that boost sales figures the world over. Averting global warming, for example, could require phasing out fossil fuels altogether in favor of solar and other renewable energy sources, a shift that even solar advocates like Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., acknowledge is “inconceivable” to most people (not to mention anathema to some powerful economic interests).

Of course, human activity has always imposed burdens on the earth’s ecosystem. But the scale and technological power of twentieth-century civilization are many times greater than those of earlier generations, and so are the environmental side effects. Historically, sewage disposal has been the great challenge for human societies trying to maintain clean water supplies. That challenge remains today, especially in poor nations, but modern humans also live in a world awash in man-made chemicals. Global production increased 350 times between 1940 and 1982; the U.S. alone produced 435 billion pounds of such chemicals in 1992. Dioxin and other hormone-disrupting chemicals persist in the environment for decades and can travel thousands of miles; contamination and fertility declines have been detected even among Arctic polar bears. Likewise, the explosion at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 was arguably the most destructive accident in industrial history. The blast left the surrounding countryside uninhabitable for decades and brought death and disease to thousands of civilians. (The precise number of victims is still uncertain; see chapter 4.) The fact that different wind patterns could have sent most of the explosion’s radiation across western Europe, where much of it blew in any case, attracted attention across the continent and generated new respect for environmental issues among masses and elites alike. “It was Chernobyl that caused the big change in public opinion about the environment,” Antonio Cianciullo, the environmental reporter for the Italian daily La Repubblica, told me in Rome. “Our readers were more interested in these questions after the accident. This caused editors to take environmental issues more seriously and increase coverage of them.”

Chernobyl made clear the irrelevance of national borders to modern environmental problems, a theme underlined by other key developments of the 1980s. Scientists had suspected since 1974 that the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects the earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation, was being damaged by man-made chemicals, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the active agent in air conditioners and refrigerators. Epidemics of skin cancer, weakened immune systems, and damage of the marine food chain were but some of the potential consequences of ozone layer destruction. But definitive proof of the problem did not come until 1985, when scientists observed a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The hole was so large that at first it was dismissed as impossible and blamed on a faulty sensor. But after subsequent observations confirmed the initial finding, and large ozone losses were also reported over much of the northern hemisphere, an international agreement ordering a phaseout of CFC production was signed in 1987. The negotiators of this so-called Montreal Protocol breathed a sigh of relief—prematurely, it soon turned out.

Another atmospheric threat making headlines in the late 1980s was global warming. Once again, the scientific community had long known about this danger; the first scholarly analysis appeared in 1896. But not until 1988 did global warming become a household term, thanks to the combination of an extremely hot summer in the United States and some remarkably frank congressional testimony by a prominent government scientist, Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Space Institute. “It’s time to stop waffling,” Hansen said. “. . . The greenhouse effect is here.”

Svante August Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who authored the 1896 paper, had theorized correctly that the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels were burned could have a warming effect on the planet’s atmosphere. Like glass in a greenhouse, carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun that otherwise would reflect off the earth and back into space. Perhaps because Arrhenius hailed from a cold weather country, he speculated that the greenhouse effect might produce “more equable and better climates.” Modern scientists, however, saw trouble ahead. Higher global temperatures could melt glaciers and expand oceans, causing sea levels to rise and flooding such low-lying capitals as Amsterdam, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C. Since one-third of the world’s people lived within thirty-five miles of a coastline, the potential loss of life and property was enormous.

  — Mark Hertsgaard, 1998

From Bill Moyers

“I didn’t intend to read this book: Too many deadlines, too little time. But during a bout with insomnia the other night I picked it up merely to thumb through it. I was still reading at dawn! Mark Hertsgaard has circled the earth to report on a global drama of enormous implications and his exceptional skills as a journalist make each one of us a companion on the journey. Even insomniacs will find Earth Odyssey a wake-up call.”

  — Bill Moyers, author of Healing and the Mind

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5 Responses to “Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future”

  • Scott Rowland says:

    Have you considered an update to Earth Odyssey? – still have my copy from 1999 – a wonderfully unsettling read.

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Scott. Actually, I view my latest book, HOT, as kind of an update to Earth Odyssey, since one basic finding of Odyssey was that if we waited ten years to respond to such cumulative environmental threats as climate change, those threats could acquire so much momentum that they threatened to become irreversible–which is more or less where we stand now on climate change, alas…..

      • Lorelei Moosbrugger says:

        I’ve been using Earth Odyssey as required reading in my Comparative Environmental Politics course for ten years. I’ve watched as your writing has opened the eyes and minds of hundreds of my students. They uniformly praise the book in course evaluations and they often tell me how grateful they are that they have read it – and that they in turn give it to family and friends. I pair the book with films from around the world, including two from Russia and St. George on nuclear power and radiation that you discuss. But the book is now dated and I need a new edition! Please consider revising it if nothing else – updating us on nuclear radiation, deforestation and air /water pollution – as well as climate change. Your ability to make problems outside the United States real to young people really is invaluable. Thank you, Lorelei

        • admin says:

          Dear Lorelei (if I may),
          Thank you so much for assigning Earth Odyssey all these years and for your heartening words about how the book has opened the eyes of hundreds of your students. That is music to my ears; influencing (young) minds is one of my chief motivations for writing what I do.
          Of course you are right that the book, published in 1998, is now dated in parts, though I think the main thesis and even many of the subject areas (e.g., Africa, the auto, capitalism vs. sustainability) still hold true. In any case, I take your point about the need for a sequel, and I think I have provided one, at least in regards to climate change, with my latest book, HOT: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth. Published in hardback last January, it will be released in paperback in March 2012. It features a number of quotes from your UCSB colleague, Robert Wilkinson. In fact, Bob and I were talking about trying to get me down to UCSB (I live in San Francisco) for a visit, public speech, classroom visits, etc. Would that be something you’d like to collaborate on? If so, and even if not, please contact me at mark@markhertsgaard.com, and we can make a plan.
          And thanks again for taking the time to write and for sharing my work with your students–I appreciate!

  • [...] his book Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future, Mark Hertsgaard makes a very good case that we in the developed world cannot blame people in [...]


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HOT

Hertsgaard’s latest book, HOT, describes how his five year old daughter and the rest of Generation Hot can cope with the massive climate impacts that are now inevitable. Packed with eyewitness reporting on existing solutions for "avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable," HOT shows how we all must think--and act--differently now in the fight against climate change. Read more

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About Mark

Called "one of America’s finest reporters" by Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Hertsgaard is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Earth Odyssey and On Bended Knee. He has covered climate change, politics and the media for leading media outlets around the world, including Vanity Fair, The Nation, Time, The New Yorker, NPR, L’espresso, Die Zeit and Le Monde Diplomatique.

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