Book Review

Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, (1992, Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press). Written by: Al Gore
Reviewed by: Tina Tam, December 2008

Published just a few years after his son’s horrific accident, this book encompasses, as the author himself puts it, Gore’s search for truths. In the environmental context, he is searching for the connection between the humankind and the planet we inhabit.  He is also searching for answers to how we can unite to resolve the global ecological crisis.

The book is packed with scientific and other technical information, which makes it a rich but occasionally overwhelming read. Not surprisingly, it is also filled with political comments, especially remarks of disappointments on the approach taken by the contemporary Bush administration. Among the numerous political observations is an illustration from a brochure presented by President George H. W. Bush’s staff to delegates at the president’s 1990 White House Conference on the global environment. In the drawing, titled “Balance,” is a balanced scale with the Earth on one side and six bars of gold on the other. A woman in a coat holding a chart is examining the scale. Many of the readers can likely appreciate the contrast in meaning between the illustration and the title of the book.

The book is helpfully divided in three logically sections: Balance at Risk, the Search for Balance, and Striking the Balance. Balance at Risk presents a vivid overview of the danger our planet is facing. In eight chapters, Gore discusses the threats of global warming, the history of the effects of climate on civilization, the state and implications of air and water pollution, deforestation, the food and water crises, and waste issues. In 2008, much of that information has been accepted by the general audience, thanks at least partially to Gore’s later works, especially The Inconvenient Truth. However, in 1992, this book could serve as a very impactful introduction and summary. One of the most thought-provoking chapters is Climate and Civilization: A Short History, in which he cites interesting examples to demonstrate the relevance of climate changes. For instance, he describes the food scarcity and the resulting social unrest in Europe in 1816 and associates the suffering with the global atmospheric changes that were resulted from a large series of eruptions of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815.

However, most of these pages do carry a gloomy tone and also often times seem to attempt to bring out the guilt in the reader. For example, when describing the Irish potato famine, he quotes a sad newspaper report that vividly describes corpses on the streets. In the chapter on waste issues, he speaks of babies being abandoned in a trash compactor to illustrate his point that “the worst form of pollution is wasted lives”. The negative emotions associated with these images are a potential concern because the reader may lose interest and neglect to move onto the later sections, which include a comprehensive and constructive proposal for resolving the crisis. Also, although this section is excellently-written, the complete lack of mention of overfishing and the practices of the livestock industry and their effects on the environment is disappointing. By neglecting to discuss these important issues, Gore, as the authoritative voice, has essentially de-prioritized them for the reader.

The second section, the Search for Balance, includes critiques on the government, politics, and economics, explorations of our relations with technologies and religion, and also issues currently facing the human civilization such as disease and inequality. Using these chapters, Gore puts his readers through an exploration of the problems and, as an extension, opportunities for improvement.

In the second page of the section, on the topic of politics, the author writes frankly, “… I am increasingly struck by how easy it is for every politician – myself included – to get lost in the forms of personality traits designed to please and rhetoric designed to convey a tactical impression… catchy slogans, …, priorities copied from pollsters’ reports…  – … they can distract even the best politician from the real work at hand.”  The honesty and the insightfulness set the tone for the rest of the section, which is therefore a delightful treat for the reader. First, Gore calls for strong leadership and what he calls self-stewardship. Then, he criticizes what he refers to as the dishonesty of the economic framework (because it omits inconvenient truths). In particular, in economics, buildings and equipment are depreciated year to year. However, the economic system does not at all take into the account the value of natural resources such as water and forests. Metrics such as gross national product (GNP), then, does not truly reflect real value or productivity. Gore also laments the short-sightedness of economic measures. An example he cites is the common misconception that a law like the Clean Air Act would result in lower productivity of coal-fired power stations. He claims such a conclusion completely ignores the long-term savings from lower expenditures due to the reduction of pollution. The arguments are logically and convincingly presented.

The chapter on technology is equally well-written and enjoyable. First, Gore expresses that our heavy reliance on technology adds a layer of barrier to our experience of nature, much like looking at a replicated copy of Mona Lisa. The indirect experience stripes away our appreciation and concern for nature. He also points out that much of the computational power of the world’s most advanced machines is used to generate piles and piles of data for research purposes that no human actually looks at. Interestingly, he also touches on gender issues. He attributes the current environmental problems to the Western male-dominated way of viewing the world and valuing actions. For example, new technologies are often used to “magnify abilities” such as fighting wars. It would be fascinating to learn more about his view on these issues.

Toward the end of the technology discussion, he adds an interesting and uplifting note, citing research that suggests that at around middle age, people tend to start focusing more on nurturing possibilities for the future. He implies that perhaps humankind is a maturing teenager who will soon realize to focus her energy on producing technologies for solving our global issues. This sets up the scene for his proposal contained in the last section, Striking the Balance.

The first chapter of Striking the Balance, called A New Common Purpose, describes the critical need for the world to reach consensus and to join efforts on this cause. Unfortunately, the chapter is not as inspiring as its title suggests. Perhaps because the target audience is policy makers, or perhaps because of his tone, this chapter and the book as a whole are thought-provoking but does a mediocre job in inspiring action. Gore does recognize that grassroots efforts (although he does not use that terminology) and mobilization are important, but those topics receive minimal discussions in this book.

Also, the ideas of this chapter are not as coherent as those in the earlier chapters. On the one hand, he questions the current economic framework and also indirectly contributes consumerism to the current crises. On the other hand, he reminds us that the developing world has the right to achieve economic development and developed nations need to respect and recognize that right in their proposed regulations. As a result, the message from this chapter is a confused and confusing one. The author seems to want to suggest solutions that marry environmentally-friendly technologies and poverty alleviation, but unfortunately, he does not effectively develop a comprehensive argument around that topic. Instead, the discussion seems to be restrained and moderated by political correctness. That is disappointing because consumerism and the effects of popular culture are huge factors in this topic, and thus, are great opportunities for change. These topics deserve more attention and it can be considered a missed opportunity to not discuss them in this powerful book.

In the last chapter, Gore lays out a comprehensive proposal, the Global Marshall Plan, based on the post-World War II Marshall Plan for the United States to contribute to the rebuilding of Europe’s war-shattered economies. The plan discusses in details the following five strategic goals and the role of the United States within each of them: 1) stabilizing world population, 2) developing and sharing appropriate technologies, 3) a new global “eco-nomics”, 4) a new generation of treaties and agreements, and 5) a new global environmental consensus.

As shown by the list, the plan relies heavily on the actions of governments. While government regulations and policy changes are very important for the resolution of this crisis, they can be slow and ineffective. Therefore, a revised version of this plan should place more focus on leveraging the power of entrepreneurial as well as collective efforts, and also on influencing popular culture to change individual attitudes and behaviors. The last goal of reaching a new global environmental consensus touches on education and mobilization, but does not go into any detailed discussion.

The plan also relies heavily on technology. As suggested by many philosophers and environmentalists, and even Gore himself, technology and human advancement are arguably culprits of the crisis we are facing. Therefore, caution should be used when we consider placing so much of our hope for the future on technology itself. For example, Gore’s chapter on spirituality and the environment provides a good understanding of the human spirit as related to ecology (to borrow the subtitle of the book). While it is not appropriate to place such elements into a political agenda, Gore’s plan could definitely benefit from leveraging expertise from philosophers, psychologists, preachers, and anthropologists, etc, in addition to politicians, engineers, economists, and scientists , much like what he has done in the rest of this book.

In conclusion, Earth in the Balance is an insightful book filled with valuable information and distinguished by a comprehensive proposal for the global ecological crisis. We also now know that this book provided a strong foundation for his later work, The Inconvenient Truth. In fact, some of the points of critiques discussed here have been later considered by Gore. For example, his mass-market focused movie by the same name was hugely successful in generating individual responses and grassroots movements. Therefore, Earth in the Balance is an important book by many measures.

(1)James Gustave Speth, Environmental failure: a case for a new green politics, 2008 (http://www.guardian.co.uk)

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