As the 20th century draws to a close, a significant group of observers - scientists, business leaders, government officials - see the handwriting on the global wall warning of impending ecological collapse and the subsequent effect on the human race. This work tests that view, looking at what humans are actually doing to the environment and where such behaviour will lead. The topics the book evaluates are pressing; how much of a danger do environmental hazards pose to the future well-being of the human species, and how is ...
As the 20th century draws to a close, a significant group of observers - scientists, business leaders, government officials - see the handwriting on the global wall warning of impending ecological collapse and the subsequent effect on the human race. This work tests that view, looking at what humans are actually doing to the environment and where such behaviour will lead. The topics the book evaluates are pressing; how much of a danger do environmental hazards pose to the future well-being of the human species, and how is humanity faring in its struggle against these hazards? Will human civilization still exist in 100 years from now? Or will our species have been wiped out by disasters of its own making? Mark Hertsgaard travels from Bangkok to the Brazilian rain forests and from Chernobyl to Chongging in China (probably the most polluted place on Earth) to report at first hand what is happening in these environmental disaster zones.
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The author seems to make two claims about the purpose of the book, and depending on which one you look at you get a different impression. On the one hand, he states that he wants to take a journalistic view at worldwide environmental situations through in-person analysis. He succeeds very well at this point and provides an interesting glimpse into the lives and situations of people that I may otherwise have never heard of or cared about. It's easy to become insulated in our great American wealth and forget how unbelievably poor life is for a lot of other people. However, his other stated intention is to analyze whether or not humanity will survive its ecological woes of the late 20th century. On this point he fails to make a convincing argument, offer viable solutions, or at times even stick to his argument. For example, he spends too much time in "The Irresistible Auto" griping about the time that people spend away from their families while stuck in traffic. While this is a very real concern, especially for someone who commutes a total of 2 hours each day, it is secondary to his argument of pollution concerns, destructive impact of road construction, etc.
While the author states fairly early on that he's not trying to write a scientific treatise, one of the things that bugged me was his loose usage of statistics. The first note that I jotted down in the book was on page 11 where he says (in reference to the ozone hole), "Meanwhile, there will be costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1991 that some twelve million Americans would develop skin cancer over the coming fifty years." My immediate question was, "As compared to what?". Did more than twelve million Americans develop skin cancer over the last fifty years? If so, then we're headed in the right direction. If not, is the increase expected because of the larger population?
Another statistical issue that caught my eye was later, on page 195, when he was discussing the miserable health conditions of the poor in Brazil. He says, "Adding to the cruelty of these deaths would be the fact that diarrhea and dehydration were easily treatable ailments; according to the World Bank, a health care package costing a mere EIGHT DOLLARS A PERSON (my emphasis) could wipe out such diseases throughout the developing world." I'm not a doctor, but I'm pretty sure that diarrhea and dehydration are short-term conditions that cannot be "cured" like a disease. Eight bucks may buy a Brazilian youth some Pepto and water to help his diarrhea and dehydration, but what happens in six months when the runs and thirst come back?
The last two pages of "Bicycles, Churchill, and Evolution" are somewhat telling for two reasons. First, the author says, "when a few greedy matatu drives suddenly raised the price of the return trip to Kampala by the equivalent of ten cents, more than half the passenders angrily disembarked and prepared to wait two hours for a later matatu rather than pay the higher fare." Why does the author refer to these drivers as "greedy"? The bus drivers have families to feed, dreams to fulfill, etc. just like the next guy. Does the author feel that they should work for less money when the demand for transportation is high enough to merit an increased fare? The author closes the chapter with several paragraphs bemoaning the loss of a beautiful waterfall because of the construction of a dam, and talks to a local youth about the situation. Going back to my earlier point about the time wasted in traffic vs. ecological concerns, the author here focuses solely on the fact that he finds a waterfall more aesthetically pleasing than a hydroelectric plant. While I agree with him, this doesn't address at all the ecological impact of the dam. Was there habitat lost because of it, what about habitat created, is there pollution associated, have species gone extinct, have other species thrived? And this doesn't begin to talk about the positives and negatives that the plant provides in terms of power, jobs, etc. If the locals prefer the benefits and think that they outweigh the costs, who tells them that they are wrong and by what authority do they tell them? Would the African youth reclining in the sun ever be educated enough on the environmental impact of the dam and still be able to say, "I think it's a good idea" for the author to agree with him?
Finally, his great solution recommendation of a Global Green Deal seems a bit nieve to me, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea. Look at any initiative in the U.S. alone and you'll find tons of beauracratic wrangling and opposition before anything actually gets done. Who does he imagine is going to initiate or enforce this solution across the entire world? Unless he wants the United Nations to evolve into an actual governing body, which he might, I don't know who is going to tell every nation how to change their tax laws, goverment grants, environmental laws, etc.
I would recommend the book to a friend on the strenth of the travel journal aspects of the book, but hope that they would take his environmental ramblings with a grain of salt.
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