Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Moles. The skin doctor lasered them off with a shrug, but I have to tell you I was spooked. A sunburn is one thing, random skin-cell mutation is another.

A few weeks later, a colleague who’s sailed all his life reported a similar experience. First time in his life, a sunburn turned into a weird rash, followed by strange
hairs popping out of affected parts of his epidermis.

“Humans have been getting sunburned for a million years,” I complained. “Since
when does the sun do this?”

“Where you been?” he replied. “The sun’s not the sun anymore.”

Then, visiting family in Pacific Palisades, I noticed that the little kids at the beach weren’t wearing normal swimsuits, but these miniature surfer-dude sort of wetsuits. It was explained to me that they weren’t to keep the kids warm in the ocean–the all-body covering was to shield more of their skin from the sun. The sun’s not the sun anymore.

Okay, so in my lifetime we’ve entered a phase in the history of the species where kids can’t play outdoors anymore. You don’t need to be a tree-hugger. And don’t get me started about nukes. I used to live not far enough downwind of Three Mile Island, thanks.

Still, no one listens to eco-pussies whining about our imminent destruction anymore. Our environmental problems may not have gone away in the almost 30 years since the first Earth Day, but some have improved markedly and, more to the point, by and large our desire to read yet another book about them has definitely waned. How many of you bought Gore’s Earth in the Balance? How many read it?

That’s the challenge Mark Hertsgaard faces with Earth Odyssey (Broadway, 372 pages, $36.95). Between ’91 and ’97 he traveled around the world–all over Eastern and Western Europe, and Africa, and China and the Amazon and the redwood forests in the Northwest–looking at environmental issues close-up. He came back with a book that sets out a lot of familiar old issues–global warming, ozone depletion, nuclear waste, save the rainforest, zero population growth, reduce auto emissions–and poses the tree-hugger’s jackpot question: Can the human species survive the ecological mess it has created?

Mark, I tell him, buddy, no offense, but it’s not like we haven’t heard this all before.

“The point of this book was exactly to get at that mindset,” he replies. “The fact that we’ve heard all this before I don’t think vitiates the need for such a book, because we’re obviously not doing enough about it yet. It’s like that famous science experiment–if you drop a frog into a boiling pot of water he hops out instantly. But if you warm it up slowly he’ll never leave the pot and just expires. I think the human race, and especially Americans, are very close to that second attitude. It’s now, as you point out, 28 years ago that we had the first Earth Day. Kids are learning about recycling. We think we’ve heard all about this. But we’re not doing enough. We’re not gonna make it under the current trends. Something has to happen. I hope this book will reawaken a new appreciation for the urgency of the moment.”

Well, all right. I like Hertsgaard–he’s a Baltimore boy, which counts, and has appeared in NYPress once or twice. A career journalist who just turned 42, he’s written for the major papers and magazines, from the Times and The Washington Post to Newsweek and The New Yorker and Vanity Fair–and, to his credit, managed to get himself censored at Rolling Stone (for an expose of 60 Minutes) and fired from a regular slot on NPR. “I was doing commentaries [on Morning Edition], and one of my commentaries poked fun at McDonald’s and NBC and the free
enterprise system. This was not allowed, apparently.” His previous books include two investigations of the nuke industry, Til Death Do Us Part (1979) and Nuclear Inc. (’83); On Bended Knee, about how he believed the media kid-gloved the Reagan administration and sold the public down the river (1988); and a Beatles book, A Day in the Life, from 1995.

The idea for a book that was sort of an eco-travelogue came to him in 1991 and was eagerly received by a mentor, William Shawn, the former New Yorker editor who’d been squeezed out by new owner Si Newhouse to make room for Tina Brown. Shawn had edited On Bended Knee for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was also legendary in environmentalist circles for editing Silent Spring and The Fate of the Earth.

“We had what turned out to be our last lunch together at the Algonquin,” Hertsgaard recalls. “I told him my idea… He listened to the whole thing and then said, ‘It’s the most important book anyone could be doing. And you’re the only writer who can do it. And you have to do it. You have to do it.’”

Unfortunately, Shawn passed away in 1992, and though he’d been so encouraging about the book, FSG’s Roger Straus “officially declined it while I was on the road. I was nine months gone or something. They said, ‘We wish you well, but we don’t think this is for us.’” Hertsgaard continued to work on the book on his own dime, and it was picked up eventually by Broadway’s John Sterling, who edited Earth in the Balance.

Among the African countries Hertsgaard visited was Sudan, where in ’92 he spent time with the Dinka, a tribe of farmers made refugees first by civil war in Sudan and then by military strife in neighboring Ethiopia. He saw military killings, starvation and disease–but also the human will to survive still operating against the most savage odds and with the sparest of resources. It’s a lesson.

With my nukes phobia, I was most disturbed by his chapter on an old Soviet nuclear weapons production facility, code-named Mayak (“Lighthouse”), near the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk. Three separate nuclear disasters at Mayak make it a far worse place than Chernobyl, but we never heard about it because the KGB and the CIA colluded on keeping it secret. Chelyabinsk was still officially closed to journalists when Hertsgaard was there in ’91. Locals were kept in the dark as well–doctors told them that their hideously high rates of radiation-related cancers and leukemia were caused by “ABC disease.” (The Soviets tried to cover up the disaster at Chernobyl as well, but it was detected throughout Europe, and Gorbachev, who’d just announced his policy of glasnost a few months before, had to admit something. Hertsgaard writes, “The engineers who investigated the blue-hot remains of the reactor were rewarded for their honesty with lethal doses of radiation that killed them within ten weeks.”)

From 1949 until ’56, Mayak poured nuclear waste directly into the local river. “Tens of thousands of people living downstream received average doses of radiation four times greater than those subsequently received at Chernobyl,” Hertsgaard writes, and a Geiger counter used by the river’s edge still jumped into the get-the-hell-out-of-here zone when he visited 35 years later. A waste dump at the facility exploded in ’57, “severely contaminating air, water, and soil” in the region. Then in 1967 a freak cyclone swept up huge amounts of radioactive dust and rained it down on half a million people. In ’91, there were still areas inside the crumbling Mayak facility so hot “an adult male could die from radiation in less time than it takes to read a morning newspaper.” It’s been called the most contaminated spot on Earth.

Although officials and experts here knew much of what had happened at Mayak, Hertsgaard was the first journalist ever to visit the site and write it up. In that sense he broke the story. “But of course, in the United States I broke it in Mother Jones,” he demurs, “which was like throwing it in a hole and pouring dirt on it. However, in Britain I broke it in the London Independent. And in Japan it was in the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is the biggest newspaper in the world, I believe… I published it in about eight different countries.”

What does what he saw at Chelyabinsk say to him about the status of the current Russian nuclear “industry”–the waste sites, the other aging reactors, the nuclear subs creaking around in the oceans?

“I’d say this is right up there with the India-Pakistan nuclear tests. This is the ticking time bomb on the nuclear front in many different respects. There is all this waste–Mayak is only one of the sites. I just saw a story the other day that up in the Arctic Circle another site is leaking very badly. That’s going to be slowly poisoning us for decades, and if not centuries. And the poor
people I wrote about there are just nuclear conscripts in essence, and they are being completely ignored by this government that has no money.

“Now, the other problem with that government having no money is that, as you know, the scientists are beginning to leave, to go to places like Iran and Iraq. The world just has not focused on this adequately. We are so glad that the immediate nuclear danger has receded that we think everything’s okay. We dodged the nuclear bullet as it were, and we think there’s no problem, and we could not be more wrong.”

In ’96 The Atlantic Monthly sent Hertsgaard to China, home to one-fourth of the world’s population–and to some of the filthiest air, most polluted water and stripped-bare landscapes anywhere. His article, “Our Real China Problem,” ran in the Nov. ’97 issue and was the template for a chapter in the book. Though less spectacularly frightening than a Chelyabinsk or Chernobyl, Hertsgaard says, the industrial pollution in places like China, or the strip-mining, logging and subsistence farming in the Amazon, present what he considers the most real, most pressing stresses to the global environment: poverty.

In China, where people are just now reaching the very bottom rung of the ladder toward a quality of life we’d consider barely tolerable, if the trade-off for a bit of heat, a lightbulb to read by, a clean hole to shit in is a polluted river, a hole in the ozone, then it’s a bargain they’re willing to accept. Impoverished Brazilians told him the same: Fuck off, white man. Billions of people are just beginning to taste a lick of the comfy life Westerners enjoy, and it’s supremely foolhardy to expect them not to go for it–and who cares if that means burning so much coal Beijing is in a constant smog cloud, or cutting down the entire Amazonian rainforest to farm yams?

“The biggest environmental problem in the world today is not global warming, it’s not the ozone, it’s not population–it’s not any of those things, serious as they are,” Hertsgaard says to me. “The biggest environmental problem is poverty. You see that very strongly in China, where people have been utterly poor for so long. Now they’re having a chance to get out of that.
As are people in Africa and the poor of Asia and South America. And there’s only so much environmental space on this planet. So somehow, if those people are going to have a better life, we’ve got to come up with both better technology and a much quicker way of diffusing those technologies around the world. That’s a message that I think hasn’t gotten through to Americans. We think that we’ll take care of our own, and if the Chinese and the Africans are in trouble, well that’s their problem. No. We’re all either going to sink or swim together on this. And I hope that that message comes through very strongly in this book.”

At least in China “there are major institutions focusing on” the problems, he goes on. “You could wonder about whether they’re doing enough, but the World Bank, the United States government, the Japanese government, a lot of people recognize that this is a big problem and we have to do something about it. There are also major business opportunities there. If China were to install–this is somewhat of a hypothetical exercise because this isn’t the way societies work–but if they were to install today, throughout their economy, the energy-efficiency technologies that are available today–off the shelf, no new development, nothing, just the better lightbulbs, more efficient insulation, better coal-burning power plants, etc.–they could reduce their energy consumption by 50 percent.

“Now it just so happens, although you wouldn’t believe it from looking at our country, that the United States is the leader in energy efficiency. So if Clinton and the Congress were smart, they’d be helping China buy a lot of that technology, instead of helping them buy nuclear power plants and idiotic fighter planes and all of that. And they’d be doing American workers and
American businesses a big favor.”

A dyed-in-the-wool liberal, Hertsgaard is big on blaming “capitalism” for much of the world’s environmental mess–never mind that the former and current Communist nations have far worse records–and has little faith in efforts to clean up the world through incentives, like those now being dilatorily discussed in Congress, that would reward environmentally sound industries and the banking and insurance institutions that back them. He’s a government regulations man. So, like many liberals, he feels the Clinton administration has sold out the environmental movement (Clinton in fact has a worse environmental record than Bush or Reagan before him, as Cockburn has often noted in his column). Wonderfully, he once ambushed Gore in a hotel elevator, needling him about the huge gap between what Gore wrote in his book and what the administration has wrought in the real world. Gore hemmed, hawed and escaped as soon as he could.

So if neither the Commies, the former Commies, the developing nations, the industrialists nor the Democrats can be expected to fix things, where does that leave us? Will we in fact sink or swim?

“I make a distinction between optimism and hope,” Hertsgaard replies. “As I look at the trends, most of them are going in the wrong direction. The one exception is population, where we are beginning to see improvement. So, on the scientific and intellectual count, you have to be pessimistic.”

But then, he says, there’s hope. In the final chapter he interviews Vaclav Havel, “and he says, ‘I can’t imagine living without hope…’ It’s not that we don’t know how to fix this, that we don’t know how to get out of this jam. We do. But,” he adds, “the institutional and political obstacles are enormous.”