I’ve been preoccupied with politics a lot since the beginning of the year, maybe too much. It seems like everyone is. The tone has grown shrill but the words ever more ineffectual.
Late last year I found myself thinking about the often ineffective semblance of dialogue we carry on, talking past each other as those on the right demonize those on the left and vise-versa. We libertarians try to get a word in as well but it sometimes seems no-one is listening.
Watching this, I’ve often in recent years felt I was listening to empty rhetoric or relatively thoughtless regurgitations and re-capitulations. About 4 out of 5 news networks hate Donald Trump and he can do no right… we know. We know… On the right, the military is never adequately supported and the southern border is the great crisis of our day. We have to pitch our tent in one camp or the other and then begin towing the line or risk excommunication. To me, it’s come to seem that the ever more shrill dialogue rushes on before we’ve addressed a set of fundamental questions about government and society.
What are the fundamental pre-political questions?
What are the proper bounds of government? What can it touch and what can it not? What is the purview of the federal government, what of the states and what is reserved to the individual? Which is more important, equality or liberty? Just a few examples but I’ve come to feel that if one of my verbal or literary combatants hasn’t struggled a great deal with these, then his opinion carries little weight and I’d be wise not to spend a great deal of time with him.
And the line of reasoning loops back again to the environment. What are the fundamental “pre-environmental” questions that should precede dialogue in this realm? What needs to be considered before we weep for the lonely polar bear stranded on his ice boat, we give to the National Wildlife Federation or we join Al Gore’s Climate Reality project?
Without using the term “pre-environmental questions,” Gregg Easterbrook takes on this monumental challenge in “A Moment on the Earth.” This is a very serious tome on the environment which has kept me preoccupied intermittently for years. Having finished at the tail end of 2018, it’s about time I offered some kind of a book report. This is the kind of work one does not simply put down and forget. Rather, it will certainly change the way any reader thinks about their home planet.
Mr. Easterbrook was imminently qualified to write this, if anyone was. He’d built a career around environmental writing and consulting for decades before beginning work on “A Moment,” mingling with most of the high-level environmental thinkers of the 1980’s and ’90’s. He had the access, the experience and the mind for such an unprecedented work. He’s been published or was a columnist in almost any news source worth mentioning. But what’s remarkable is the perspective readers will encounter from the earliest pages. Gone is the right/left dogma, replaced by a more realistic earth-centric perspective.
Shockingly, the author doesn’t think the earth is worried about us. He reminds us that the earth has seen far worse, as has the biome. He reminds that the earth thinks in long thoughts, not in the momentary politics we get caught up in. He makes a case, over the course of 700 pages or so, that the earth is now, quickly, getting cleaner, even as we are instructed that environmental doom is imminent. The author persuades that there is no fundamental conflict between the artificial and the natural. Humans can be seen as making this world a better place.
At the same time, he’s not pontificating about such ideals and offers much praise for specific environmental controls enacted through the ’70’s and ’80’s. Clean water and clean air acts were inestimably important to bringing us to the levels of environmental purity we enjoy today. He offers some scorn for industrialists who threw millions into the campaigns against these acts or who said that specific pollution mitigation technologies could never be economically viable. Gregg Easterbrook was hardly a partisan of the right and would likely be scorned by the more dogmatic reactionary segment of conservatism. Indeed, as a libertarian, he offered much that challenged my own thinking. He doesn’t dwell on the same downsides of over-regulation that we would.
But the rather in-depth history of environmental legislation is leading somewhere. In the author’s view, pollution has largely been conquered. But still, the EPA chases pollutants down to the level of parts-per-billion, or to any measurable trace in the case of some toxins. In a few of the book’s 38 chapters, the author offers a great deal of science on the correlation between pollutants and health outcomes, enough to demonstrate that the EPA today pursues a policy of virtually no risk to health outcomes greater than natural levels. Which is difficult when little we touch in this world really contains absolutely nothing carcinogenic or otherwise detrimental (Just ask the state of California).
A story that arises again and again across disparate real-world examples, is the activist outcry initiated against any pullback to more realistic levels of risk. His chapter on toxic waste sites is particularly instructive here. The author doesn’t go to great lengths to attack groups on the environmental left but he does show how deeply entrenched their position is, how any relaxation of the most rigid stances possible results in excoriation of “weak on pollution” leadership.
Again, we’re brought back to the fundamental dichotomy between our momentary political view and the way the vast and ancient earth views all of this. The planet cleans our scars, our emissions and effluents in ways we hardly imagine, in ways that are seldom publicized and begins doing so from the moment nature takes custody of them.
So, back to the beginning:
What are the fundamental “pre-environmental” questions – those things that need to be thought through seriously long before embracing an activist position?
Pulling from his work, I think these are some of the questions Mr. Easterbrook wishes we would contemplate:
- Is every way in which we change the planet a net negative?
- How can we separate our understanding of the earth from our feelings about it?
- Is it right to see environmental challenges primarily as emergencies?
- Are only man’s changes environmental calamities while natural cataclysms are not?
- Why don’t we hear the environmental good news?
- Is it possible to separate our politics from our environmentalism?
- What is the correct time scale in which to think about the environment?
- Is humanity a special threat?
- Does nature have values?
- Is environmental degradation irreversible?
- Do we confuse Change with degradation?
I could excise about another 100 important big questions addressed within but I’ve come away from the last couple of years of reading with a big one of my own:
Why has almost no-one today heard of this work? I asked a high-level National Park Service administrator recently about it and he’d just never encountered it. This was hardly a minor contribution to the environmental dialogue of the 1990’s. Indeed, William Reilly, former head of the EPA wanted his blurb to reside on the front cover:
“Will be the most influential book since Silent Spring.”
A Moment on the Earth far exceeds Silent Spring’s quality and thoroughness but falls far short of its influence. I’ve never heard it mentioned in today’s environmental dialogue though it was a 1995 Best Seller. As a book that takes a principled stand against ideologically pre-fabricated ecological thought, perhaps this is to be expected. The ideas expressed within offer politicians and activists little.
Then too, maybe there’s no market for good news.