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Where We Stand

A new book touting “good news” about the environment is calamitously misguided.

Where We Stand
By Seymour Garte
Amacom Books, 290 pages, $24.95

Imagine that you launched a prolonged war based on bad faith, flawed information and faulty thinking. Then, some years later, with things going badly, you employ a new strategy, and soon only 1,000 civilians are dying each month, instead of 2,000, and fewer of your own troops are being killed or maimed. Would you feel reassured that your initial military rationales were sound?

I doubt that Seymour Garte thinks that way about war. But that’s roughly his approach in Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet, his calamitously misguided book on the environment.

Let me be clear: Garte, an experienced research scientist and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, seems like a decent guy. He doesn’t deny that environmental problems exist, or argue that the free market should be left alone fix them. He comes across as good-humored and eminently reasonable. But his stated purpose, in this time of environmental despair, is to report environmental progress, and in his search he both promotes a misleading perspective and validates our culture’s most destructive assumptions.

Garte’s “surprise” is to shock us with good news. Some of it is historical — heroic efforts to address such civilizational byproducts as urban cholera, unbreathable air and deforested countrysides — and much is ongoing, including endangered-species preservation.

Of course, we shouldn’t take such achievements for granted. But Garte’s definition of success often seems desperately hopeful. In his view, for instance, the toxic problems caused by tobacco, lead, asbestos and sulfur-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants go in the “win” column because, several decades after we introduced them, and after untold cases of cancer and unquantifiable damage to the environment, we began to mitigate their depredations. He touts “the successfully and totally underreported efforts made by government and industry to reverse the health dangers of toxic chemicals in the environment” as though government and industry had played no role in the poisoning — or, indeed, as if the poisoning weren’t still going on. (Garte takes a similar tack on AIDS, accounting it a good-news story partly because, thanks to public-health efforts in Africa, the rate of infection there has plateaued — making the death toll “less terrible than what most experts had expected in the early 1990s.”)

Ultimately, Garte’s approach creates a kind of cognitive dissonance: We’re asked to celebrate qualified victories against hand-picked antagonists while bigger, more intractable foes remain at large. Indeed, Garte relegates “the bad news” on each of his topics to a page or two at chapter’s end. Surveying “Ecology and Biodiversity,” for instance, he spends less time detailing the “truly horrific worldwide scenarios” that could result from the destruction of the Amazon rain forest than he does promoting the “very good news for the future of our planet” heralded by the modest successes of the international Forestry Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainable practices. And while there’s little arguing his frequently stressed point that freer industrialized nations have better environmental records than politically repressive ones, the unmitigated environmental disasters of the Soviet Union — dead rivers, soot-engulfed towns lighting streetlamps at noon — have hardly been unknown in democracies. Nor has freedom kept North Americans from becoming the biggest energy hogs on the planet, and chief culprits in human-caused climate change and other ills.

It isn’t just that Garte admittedly avoids detailed discussions of both China — which he notes is “a gigantic consumer of resources and potential emitter of vast amounts of pollution of all kinds” — and the Bush administration, which has taken huge backward steps on environmental protection. It’s also because Garte can say of climate change, in passing, “on the whole we can expect it to be disastrous” even as, elsewhere, he approvingly notes — repeatedly — our success in stuffing landfills more slowly thanks to recycling.

“Most things are getting better,” Garte observes at one point. But his formulation of a few pages earlier is more accurate: “[N]ot everything is getting worse.” The problem is partly one of narrow perspective. Garte notes, for instance, that U.S. environmental laws have decreased toxic water emissions — but he’s talking about such “point sources” as factories, even though the biggest clean-water problem today is runoff from such hard-to-regulate non-point sources as farms, roads, lawns, and parking lots.

As the solution to our environmental problems, Garte consistently touts scientific inquiry and new technology. There are two problems with this approach. One is that, despite his reverence for science, Garte just as consistently fails to acknowledge one of nature’s most basic principles: Everything is connected. You can’t change one thing without changing everything else.

“[I]t doesn’t pay to only partially understand new problems that arise in our world,” writes Garte, scolding environmentalists who haven’t done their science homework. But repeatedly, he understands problems only partially himself. In a chapter titled “Global Welfare and the Human Population,” Garte celebrates the so-called Green Revolution technology that disproved mid-20th-century predictions of mass starvation by increasing crop yields. But there’s not a word about the enviromental devastation caused by the burgeoning use of chemical fertilizers (which poison aquatic ecosystems) or irrigation (which drains water tables in overtaxed areas). And he approvingly notes the boon to human protein consumption of rising worldwide meat production — without linking it to the bulldozing of rainforests (often for feedlots) that he frets about a chapter earlier.

On it goes. “[I]n many parts of the United States,” Garte notes, “wild deer, possum and raccoon populations are booming” — suggesting that this portends healthy ecosystems, rather than wildlife displaced by subdivisions, and living off shubbery and garbage. Increasing ethanol use is “a positive sign” — never mind that industrial corn-farming is environmentally ruinous, or that ethanol requires as much energy to make as the finished product provides. To Garte, the biggest “bad news” for the march of civilization is war — about whose links to competition for natural resources he seems unaware.

The second problem is Garte’s almost Panglossian regard for technology. Modern technology and its mate, consumer society, are dangerous because the powers they offer are immediate and obvious, while the incredible destruction they cause — overfished oceans; landscapes ravaged for coal — is typically so long-term and geographically distant as to be invisible. But for Garte, technology leads in only one direction: progress. Even when some invention we think safe proves toxic — Garte himself cites many examples — his solution is always more technology, not rethinking the premises that got us in trouble in the first place. “We have been doing pretty well,” Garte summarizes in his preface, “and therefore we should continue doing what we did to get to where we now stand.”

Garte lauds environmentalists for their watchfulness — and then upbraids them for their pessimism, which seems a pretty fine line to draw. But while Garte positions himself as a humble but insistent truth-teller to an anxious public as well as to extremists — free-market ideologues and anti-technology back-to-nature types alike — he’s merely playing into deeper prejudices on the part of his readers.

“We can have a modern, efficient, industrial society and clean air too,” writes Garte. He neglects to add “partly by shipping half of our industrial base to China and Mexico.” Or: “if by ‘efficient’ you mean carving golf courses out of the desert, driving more miles in cars getting the same mileage they did 30 years ago, and building gigantic houses in fields and forests and deserts. And throwing out enough food to feed a small city — then, yup, we’re efficient.”

But while Garte spends a lot of time here refuting right-wing claims that environmental regulation is both unnecessary and anti-growth, there’s scarcely a word about the West’s vast appetite for energy. Instead, he favors solutions that won’t “forc[e] huge modifications to our way of life.”

It’s the kind of thinking that leads Garte to celebrate half-measures like recycling — which is good at keeping crap out of landfills, but in reality provides minimal net savings of resources once you count the energy it takes to collect and process it. Garte never even notes that recycling is the strategy of last resort on the conservation hierarchy that starts with “reduce” and “reuse.”

What if actually addressing climate change, deforestation and dying oceans did require “huge modifications to our way of life”? Instead, we’re to plow ahead with a consumer economy whose only imperatives are faster and more, and hope that the scientists will fix everything.

“Of course, most of the evils conquered by man were also invented by man, but that is to be expected,” Garte blithely states in the book’s final paragraph.Yet never does he question the thinking that led to those evils. Never does he consider “environmental health” except in terms of human well-being, even though short-term human “gains” can lead to long-term destruction that harms everyone.

If it’s a paradox to say that only man can save man from man, here’s another: To save the planet (even for their own purposes), perhaps humans must first ask what the planet requires, rather than what we desire. If we can’t see that the imperative to consume that’s poisoned the planet is worth less than the planet itself, maybe we don’t care as much for it as we say. Doesn’t the consciousness that lets us destroy things with our creativity also require something more of us than “to continue doing what we did”?

Can we change? We could. But a book like Garte’s makes it seem less likely we will.

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