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by Ken Ingham

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Book Review

Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the human spirit.
By Senator Al Gore, Houghton Mifflin Co,1992

This is a perhaps the most comprehensive statement about the environment that has ever been made by a major politician. Al Gore claims that nature is crumpling as the result of a collision with the hard surface of human civilization. He calls for an all out effort to end the dangerous confrontation. It is a bold personal appeal in which all aspects of the problem are addressed and potential solutions are proposed.

In the introduction, Gore shares several events in his life that fostered his concern about the environment. These include his father's efforts to stop erosion on the family farm, his mother's strong reaction to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, his introduction to the green house effect by a college professor and his experience with Agent Orange during and after the war in Viet Nam. As congressman, senator and presidential candidate he came in contact with many experts and was able to travel and witness first hand some of the ways in which poor decisions on the part of government and industry adversely affect the environment. He devoted long hours to studying the nuclear arms race and through this began to think in broader terms about the course of civilization and what role he might play in determining that course. Frustration over his failure to make the global environment a central issue during a run at the presidency in 1987 brought him to the view that the ecological crisis is the outward manifestation of an inner crisis of "spirit". A personal tragedy in which his son almost died after being struck by an automobile gave him a new sense of urgency about the things he values most. The thought of leaving his children with a degraded earth became one of the primary motives for writing this book.

The book is organized into three parts. The first comprises eight chapters which review the major global threats including global warming, ozone depletion, air and water pollution, deforestation, depletion of top soil, waste disposal and loss of biodiversity. This is accomplished through numerous testimonials of how he came to his opinions, always accompanied by rather authoritative and amply documented explanations that help clarify underlying technical issues for the non-expert. It soon becomes apparent that this book is the result of a lot of research and study. The goal of part I is to dispel any notion that environmental problems are not sufficiently serious to require immediate action.

Part II contains five chapters in which the cultural political economic and even religious reasons for our predicament are explored. Gore compares our current lack of political resolve in the face of impending ecological disaster to the failure of the west to recognize Hitler's true intentions after Kristallnacht in the 1930's. Now that cold war tensions have eased it is time to push even harder for the spread of democracy which Gore sees as an essential prerequisite for saving the environment. He repeatedly makes it clear that he wants the US to take the lead in this matter and criticizes the Bush administration for failing to do so.

He discusses some of the ways in which classical economics fails to account for the true costs of productivity. For example, wear and tear on chain saws and bulldozers is an accepted cost of doing business but wear and tear on the forests is ignored. He quotes Herman Daly to make the point that "we are treating the earth as if it were a business in liquidation".

Gore takes issue with those deep ecologists who proclaim that humans are pathogens on the planet, spreading and metastasizing like a global cancer. To him this view is morally unacceptable because it implies that the only solution is the elimination of the race. He fails to adequately address the idea that curtailmen of the race might be a worthy goal. Rather, he attributes our predicament to our insistence on perceiving ourselves as somehow separate from nature and immune to its problems. The Cartesian cleavage between mind and body, man and nature, is the main cause of our over- consumption and has put civilization in a state of denial. Drug addiction and the dysfunctional family are presented as elaborate metaphors of our way of relating to the earth; only when we stop denying the destructive nature of our pattern of living can we begin to heal our disharmony with nature. He stops short of recommending a twelve step program but see below for the five step version.

Part II ends with a chapter entitled Environmentalism of the Spirit, devoted to religious and philosophical attitudes toward nature. Gore, a Baptist, contends that critics who attack religion for inspiring an arrogant and reckless attitude toward nature simply haven’t read the relevant texts carefully. He asserts that there is a crucial difference between the biblical concept of dominion and the concept of domination and claims that the same passage that grants “dominion” also requires people to “care for” the earth even as they “work” it [his quotation marks]. Although one could argue the specifics, few would disagree with his overall contention that one can not “glorify the creator while heaping contempt on the creation”. God’s instructions to Noah before the flood are cleverly translated into something that sounds like an eleventh commandment: Thou shalt preserve diversity! He broadens the scope by quoting Mohammed as saying “The world is green and beautiful and God has appointed you his stewards over it”. Hindu and Buddhist writings that strongly imply a reverence for nature are also quoted. And yes Lorne Peterson, Native American attitudes are also considered, highlighted by quotes from Chief Seattle such as “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to earth. All things are connected . . . . . whatever man does to the web [of life - not the internet!] he does to himself”. Then he brings us up to the present by quoting de Chardin and James Lovelock, almost in the same breath, and concludes with a portrayal of his own view of God through the somewhat obtuse metaphor of a hologram.

The third and final part of the book presents a detailed proposal for a Global environmental Marshall Plan, the scope and complexity of which, if Gore gets his way, would dwarf the original Marshall plan for the revival of Europe after WWII. It would be organized around five strategic goals: (1) stabilize world population through a three point program to increase literacy, reduce infant mortality and promote birth control methods; (2) develop appropriate technologies through a Strategic Environment Initiative that addresses problems of agriculture, forestry, energy, building technology, waste reduction and recycling; (3) establish new global economic rules that foster sustainability (numerous examples are provided); (4) negotiate new international agreements that are sensitive to the differences between developed and undeveloped nations; (5) educate the world’s citizens to promote a new way of thinking about humanity’s relationship with the earth. Each of the five goals is considered in depth with specific examples and detailed recommendations about how to proceed.

The real possibility that Al Gore could become the next president of the USA adds special impact to everything that is written here. If you would like a little relief from your environmental angst, imagine yourself a tourist on the Washington Mall a hundred years from now reading the following words, the way you now read the words of Jefferson, Lincoln or Roosevelt, engraved on the wall of a monument:

“I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing  principle for civilization . . embarking on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action . . every means to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system”.

While his opponents will undoubtedly again try to paint him as alarmist or misrepresent the above words as an incitement to monkey wrenching, this would only nurture his obvious desire to make the environmental crisis a central theme in the next campaign. Any potential opponent who wishes to avoid embarrassment during a debate on the environment had better start doing his or her homework now - Al Gore has a big head start!

This review was written in 1997, an assignment for a class in Conservation Philosophy at the Audubon Naturalist Society under Kent Minichiello. This was before the Clinton/Lewinski fiasco at a time when it was still possible to become ecstatic about our nations potential. In 2000, Gore won the popular vote but lost the election, in part because, in my opinion, he failed to emphasize the values expressed in his own book. Apparently he and/or his advisors didn’t think it would be good politics. Shame on them.