Book Review

A Moment On The Earth: The Coming Age Of Environmental Optimism, (1995, New York, NY: Viking).
Written by: Gregg Easterbrook

Reviewed by: Nemanja Babic, December 2007

What does nature want? Can people, machines and nature learn to work together? Does life have any larger significance? These are just some (though key ones) of the questions Gregg Easterbrook asks in the book, and even if they seem to be tackling something much broader than the questions of environment, he ties the questions to the current environmental thoughts and actions. And, rather than giving answers, the author provides some possibilities, options and hints, maybe acknowledging that the questions are not fully answerable, yet recognizing they are crucially important in forming human mind and behavior.

Easterbrook opens with a vision of Nature’s perspective – of the world, life and change, introducing the notions of “long time” – a long (in geological sense) perspective of the evolution – considering it a necessary part of any evaluation of the second perspective  – the short term view of humans. Overview of Earth’s history is unexpectedly involving and passionate – not a simple listing of geological evolution, catastrophes and progress of life, but rather a look at what the world has already endured, what were the challenges and how marvelous the survival of life actually is. The overview however takes a detailed, similarly passionate and strong-worded critique of current environmental though – examining everything from how the current (that is, by mid 1990s) environmentalists think and act about climate change, genetic engineering, deforestation, pollution etc. The critique moves on the structure of environmental action – political, institutional, even advertising, discussing many cases (like logging in the Northwest and spotted owl protection, Love canal pollution in upper NY state, Alar pesticide ban etc), where the movement at the time failed in solving an issue, raised a minor one overlooking some more serious ones or generally accepted a strategy that in the long run, at least in Easterbrook’s view, can be considered irrelevant, wasteful or through and through damaging to the environmental movement itself. Of note is that while Easterbrook recognizes incredible achievements in the area of environmental protection, law and thinking – and actually claims that the movement has won the last 20 years of political battles by a wide margin, though general population would never think this from the statement the movement makes – so much so, that a reader would probably wonder at least a few times – what is wrong with these “enviros”? Why do they want to ruin our economy, make us feel guilty and are overall so gloomy and pessimistic? Easterbrook himself is an environmentalist and liberal – both self-declared – and insists on the need of strong and effective environmental pressure on all levels of social and political action, however is against almost every mode (and especially what he reads as pessimistic approach) existing environmentalism has adopted in dealing with the problems of the world. Even as the criticism abates in one (and only one moment), he is consistently critical of the accepted environmental beliefs, but also provides an alternative – so called “eco-realism”, an approach that should replace current thinking, and that will eventually allow for “nature, machines and humans to work together”.

Eco-realism, Easterbrook affirms, is based on a number of key principles (an actual “Ecorealist Manifesto” pp 651– which might be important to list here: i)Rationalism – which includes objective evaluation of the problems, graduation away from overstatements, acceptance of skeptical debate etc. ii)Pollution – which affirms that in the Western world the Age of Pollution is nearly over, recoveries from pollution will happen faster than even optimists project, technology grows more cleaner and resource-efficient, iii)Change – rejection of “correct” reality of nature and acceptance that every environment is changing, realization that every environmental errors is reversible save extinction, iv)People – people are superior over plants and animals in the natural order of things; regardless whether humanity was created or evolved, the human role in nature cannot be bad; v)Nature – nature is not ending, nor is human damage “unprecedented”; nature is resilient, old but not slow and nature’s adjustment to human presence might soon be complete. Eco-realist manifesto ends, with a question “Where do we [humans] fit in?” – and immediately gives an answer – Nature needs humans. End of the Manifesto actually shows its key weakness, namely anthropocentrism, which overshadows all other points of the new, optimistic views.

The anthropocentric view continues, with an incredible optimism, towards the end of the book, which, surprisingly evolves from discussion of environmental problems into a vision for the future where humans evolve into the intelligent drivers, supervisors, organizers (whichever the term, it assumes an active role) in the evolution of life (ALL, not only human, life), natural processes (i.e. rhythms of day and night) and galactic expansion. Easterbrook suddenly adopts a strong trans-humanist perspective, foreseeing an evolution of consciousness (first united with machines and nature, and then even completely freed of substance), towards an almost divine model of existence. He finishes in an ultimately positive, optimistic and beautiful vision of “created, material Eden”, where all suffering ends, and where meaning of life is realized (whether achieved if the actual meaning exists or created if it doesn’t – unifying theism and atheism).

Overall, the author adopts an unlikely optimistic view, not only of the future, but of the present (note – 1990s) – as the Manifesto affirms, many of the environmental problems have been solved, technological progress solving many issues as we speak and future is inevitably becoming brighter. Easterbrook insists, throughout the book (even if he doesn’t implement it consistently) on the holistic view – early on, he introduces the notion of thinking like nature, as a necessary condition of understanding fully how environmental processes work and what human role is or can be. In the mentioned optimistic tone, Easterbrook illustrates the resilience of life as one of the key elements of the holistic view, and goes into details of all the trials life, since its inception, has been through on Earth. Most of the book (majority of the second part), is however, a what seems to be, a detailed overview of every single aspect of environmental degradation, and exploration of what the “enviros” have done, what could have been done better and what went wrong. Much of the analysis is focused on the inefficiency of the environmental movement, but much of it also celebrates (or almost so) the success, such as the end of ozone depletion, passage of the Clean Air act, or end of acid rains. He also explores the lacking of the political system (citing the fact that most environmental legislation came to be episodically, spurred by random developments (usually disasters) rather than part of a systematic plan), inefficiencies of EPA, unbridled animosity of the industry lobbies, and some important learnings like “never trust Detroit” (regarding the capabilities to meet the requirements for fuel efficiency).

One important area Easterbrook continually insists on (and believes has been continuously overlooked both by the environmental movement and the global politics) is the environmental disaster of the Third World. He contrasts the attention given (and subsequent action taken) to river pollution of China (which apparently is larger than the total waste water emissions of the First World), prevalence of respiratory diseases in India and Africa from particulate air pollution (mostly from cow dung/wood as fuel), and millions of deaths from water-borne diseases with what he considers almost solved issues such as forest protection in the northern hemisphere, almost inexistent non-treated waste water, and global warming, insisting that the former are more pressing, immediate and have a far wider reaching effect on environment than the latter. In line with the “holistic” thinking, Easterbrook states that there cannot be a responsible relationship with the environment without solving the development problems, as issues of developing world can only have a negative effect (such as deforestation, disease spread, increased carbon emissions), on the environment. Before questioning the validity of Easterbrook’s logic and vision, it is worth noting that “A moment on Earth” is tuned to provide motivation and optimism to anyone with concerns of the environment, and with it’s vision of unifying nature, machines and humans, which ultimately leads to an “evolution” (directed and constructed as it might be) towards a bright new Eden-like future.

Given that environmental thought in the past 12 years seems to have avoided many of the limitations Easterbrook claims have been plaguing it by 1990s, “A moment on the Earth” must have had an incredible positive effect in reforming the thought and action of the movement.

Even if the positive environmental thought of “eco-realism” is the red thread throughout the book, is gains most of its “positivity” from contrasting with the “conventional” thought. Easterbrook keeps the reader wondering who were the environmentalist of those days (leaving it aside that it’s been only 20 years ago), and whether they were malicious, ignorant or suffered some cognitive impairments. Cases he presents (like “unnecessary” scares about pesticides, industrial waste sites, species extinction, global warming, air pollution; basically everything that was touched by environmentalists) paint the image of people who refuse to accept reality that nature itself does more harm to habitats than human (as illustrated i.e. in glaciations), that artificial toxins are not nearly as toxic or widespread as natural ones (i.e. that “huge amounts of dioxins have been released around soldiers during Agent Orange defoliations of Vietnam, and the worst-case readings…..is that the chemical has caused a few hundred deaths so far….. or that exposure to PCBs, chemicals proclaimed even by inefficient EPA as “group B2 carcinogen” – dangerous even as single molecule, has not upheld the predictions of hypercarcinogenity in rodent tests). Not only have environmentalists of the age been involved in such projects (you can almost see the word “frivolous” leaking between the lines), they have also been irrational in requesting that some Superfund sites be thoroughly cleaned at huge costs, even if there were no people around.

Yes, Easterbrook dismisses fully and completely in more than one place the potential danger to non-human environment of human actions – toxic waste being only one – supporting it by anecdotal evidence (i.e. marine life thriving off the coast of Massachusetts where the city sewer sludge has been unloaded, or citing extremophiles). The evidence goes so far, as to suggest that given that life has anyway endured so much from “murderous” nature, it will effortlessly adapt to whatever humans throw at it. All of a sudden, the notions of long time scales he previously introduces, holistic view etc, seem to disappear. Holistic view is almost consistently avoided and many facts evaluated in incredible isolation – effect of acid rains (even as the effects of other airborne pollutants is mentioned in the same passage) questioned, species extinction is almost always put right next to “unexplained natural cycles of species expansions and disappearance” (thus overfishing, even as explained in numerical terms: 100 million tones is the natural limit which has been consistently exceeded since 1980s, is toned down with “the size of fish-schools showed rapid rebound during low fishing in time of  WWI and WWII’ – there’s no mention of still inexistent Labrador cod).

The book dully goes on to explore alternative views of many environmental issues, which can only be considered positive, until a reader figures out that alternatives conflict with each other – as in the case of pesticide Alar, which is proclaimed “not-as-toxic-as-those-crazy-enviros-would-like-you-to-think” (an overall statement that is generously slapped on almost every single chemical mentioned in the book) only to state “I’d rather my children eat unshiny fruit in exchange for even a tiny reduction in risk” (what presumably those crazy enviros also thought when they campaigned for Alar ban). Easterbrook states, not once, that environmentalism is deeply incorporated in the American political system, that president Clinton chose to appease “enviros” over unionized labor, that enviros actually won every political battle they fought, yet that “enviros” refuse to accept and publish their successes, refuse to accept the good outcomes of their efforts and are “genetically programmed for gloom” (pp. 176-177), seriously undermining either his book or the readers belief that modern environmental movement is lead by rational, sane people.

The “clash” of “evidence” continues, in what only can be described as intentional manner especially in the case of global warming (which seems to be the favorite bashing victim): Easterbrook dully credits non-linear evolution, the possibility, almost certainty, that “rapid natural action-reaction seems increasingly apparent in biological as well as physical aspect of the environment. Evolution does not necessarily occur in gradualist fashion, but may happen in bursts of punctuated equilibria” (pp.76). He then notes that human produced CO2 can represent only 0.04% of the total annual greenhouse effect (pp23, 553 & others), and as such cannot possibly be responsible for any warming (even if it proves to exist – something usually dismissed throughout the text), completely ignoring the potential of the “non-linear evolution”. It’s worth mentioning that there’s never an exploration of whether humans can survive the effects of non-linear evolution of any kind, only a mention that this can be the mechanism that will make nature “more adaptable” to humans.

Probably the two strongest issues of the text, that are almost certain to incite a reaction in any reader are (for the lack of better terms) “humanization of nature” and “reliance on intelligent design”. Neither is explicitly stated, however, both are almost consistently present, the former notably in the beginning of the book the latter towards the end. The book opens almost immediately with a character called “Nature”, that as it goes further, matures into a fully developed “dramatis persona” – “Nature” first “learns” how to work with people and machines, then is “murderous to life”, followed by “time is nature’s mean to self-realization, from the manufacture of firmament to the organization of life within. And time is nature’s measure of greatness” (pp. 48). After it obtains the need to “self-realization”, “Nature” continues to acquire values (pp. 139 lists all of “natural values” – of which only one is objective and doesn’t include a perspective or interpretation of a human, and specifically a religious one). We then find out that “nature” is actually “self-destructive”, and continue to discover if it has “a soul” (pp 105), and whether it believes in God (pp136). Occasionally it will also be “wasteful” (Easterbrook quotes Rene Dubos here, pp 142), but in general “nature” thinks human population is good. Oh, it also “will eventually extinguish all human life” as “loss of individual species means nothing to it” (pp. 552). The forays into defining and employing this “nature” interplay with rational, very dispassionate discourse on the actual causes of i.e. human overpopulation, third world environmental and development problems, critique of politics and law, etc; a writers feat that has an incredible potential to distract, confuse and make reader question the validity of any objective fact employed by the author.

The second issue is the use of “design” through the text. Easterbrook employs this one rather subtly – presumably to avoid any accusations of creationism – but it inevitably surfaces, first timidly (pp 129), in discussion how the modern ecological movement has actually supplanted the “benevolent natural-law” by “social Darwinism”, thus removing deism and optimistic notions of nature (which right now turns to be warm and welcoming as opposed to previously homi/sui-cidal one). Maybe it is not so surprising to see exploration in whether actually “deism” can create a more realistic relationship with nature, but it is quite disappointing to see that evolutionary theory is considered to produce wasteful panic-driving environmentalism. Only a few pages further (pp 136), the subtlety disappears completely – here we can find out that “God and nature both decline to expire” (and all readers probably share the feeling that the word “nature” is only randomly inserted). Not only that God (apparently “nature” has one), will survive, but as the knowledge of the world increases (and people recognize eco-realism as the true approach) it “will swing the pendulum back toward the sentiment of natural law and deism”.

The final part of the book departs completely from the previous focus on the present – it actually fully employs the possibility that “nature needs us”. Easterbrook’s logic is that given that nature is flawed (pp 669-670): “:i) it cannot act by design, ii)can accumulate info only by genes, iii) is limited on its reliance on sun (which is wasteful), iv)limited by chance basis of DNA change, v)life requires planets”, humans fit perfectly in “nature’s hope” to “acquire new set of abilities” – humans will further the evolution and create “new nature”. Without detailing what the “new nature” will look like (a fully engineered earthly Eden to begin with), we see a recurrence of “evolution by intelligent design” theme here. Easterbrook is actually lead by ideas (even if toned down) of Teilhard de Chardin – evolution guided towards the singularity, point Omega, unity of all life – in itself a noble, even if debatable idea. He is also keen to point out that the moral evolution of humans is a pre-requisite for success of such an undertaking, thus leaving us to ponder on human responsibility towards nature.

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