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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth Odyssey Q&A: Mark Hertsgaard

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with journalist Mark Hertsgaard, who took a six-year journey around the world to write his latest book, on our environmental future.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Europe, Russia, Africa, India, China. Just a few of the stops on the environmental pilgrimage of journalist Mark Hertsgaard, a voyage of over 6 years beginning in 1991. He chronicles his trek in his latest book, called Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. When I spoke to him recently, Mark Hertsgaard told me his travels led him to understand that the world's 2 environmental superpowers are the United States and China. And it was during his time in China, he says, that he discovered a fundamental lesson about our planet's fate.

HERTSGAARD: The number one environmental problem in the world today is not global warming. It's not ozone depletion. It's not any of the laundry list. It is poverty. And the reason is that people who are poor, which comprises about two thirds to three quarters of all the humans on this planet, will very reasonably put up with a great deal of aesthetic and environmental unpleasantness simply to have a little bit better standard of living. And China is the great, great example of that. You know, it's only in the last 20 years that the Chinese people have been warm in winter. For the first time in their history, precisely because they're burning coal. And because they're burning coal, 2 million of them are dying every year from air pollution. Nevertheless, they are living longer lives, they are warmer, And that's a tradeoff that I think we in the United States simply aren't aware of, because we live such comfortable lives. We take it for granted. So this is why we really have to change our conversation about the environmental crisis, And realize that you cannot hope to address it unless you are also addressing the problems of poverty and unemployment that are so much more part of the daily reality for the vast majority of humans on this planet.

CURWOOD: It's interesting that when you're talking about China's enormous environmental problems, you have a line in there saying that for its politicians, doing the right thing environmentally could be political suicide. I recall Al Gore saying pretty much the same thing to me, that what's required environmentally is not politically feasible.

HERTSGAARD: In the case of China that is absolutely right. One of the most terrifying findings during my trip there is that the institution in China that is most concerned about the environment is the government, the Communist Party, as it were. And that's terrifying, because in some ways they're the least trustworthy people in that entire country. Yet they clearly understand that they've got to do something about the environment. Why? Because environmental damages are literally canceling out all of their economic growth, through the costs of air pollution, hospital visits, the lost work days. Just this summer the terrible, terrible flooding in China, which left 56 million people homeless -- 56 million people, that's about the population of California, the entire West Coast of the United States -- they're homeless, the economic damage is $5 billion at a minimum. You know, the government knows that they cannot keep the economic system, economic growth going if they continue to have those kinds of environmental problems. On the other hand, in the short term, if they shut down the dirty factories, if they order that the deforestation stop that's causing these floods, if they do all these other things, they're going to throw so many people out of work that they're going to risk social upheaval and revolt. And indeed, we're already seeing that in China. You don't hear about it much here in the United States, but there's a lot of people in the street there because they've been thrown out of work. And nobody likes or respects the Communist Party any more. The only thing keeping the party in power is that it's keeping the economic miracle going. So they're really caught between a rock and a hard place in China.

CURWOOD: Now, you traveled also to the former Soviet Union. And in particular, you found yourself in a place that some people call the most polluted spot on the planet. What did you find there?

HERTSGAARD: You're referring there to the Mayak Complex, which was the actual secret nuclear city where they actually put together the nuclear components.

CURWOOD: Indeed.

HERTSGAARD: Yes. As I say, it was very, very troubling. The first catastrophe that happened at Mayak was -- well, I should say they were all related to nuclear waste. How do you get rid of the waste products that you create when you're building nuclear bombs? And the Russians were behind the United States right after World War II. They were in a rush to catch up with the US, And they did something that today to us sounds inconceivable. They took that nuclear waste and they poured it directly into the river, into the Taicha River. And as a result, many of the people downstream got doses of radioactivity that were anywhere from 28 to 57 times greater than the people did at Chernobyl. Then again, in 1957, after they'd stopped pouring the waste in the river, they tried to build a containment vessel. The vessel blew up, creating far more radioactive damage, killing all the vegetation in a 20-kilometer radius area. When I went back there and traveled around with people who are now fighting to try and get some health care from the government, it was astonishing to travel in these beautiful sun-drenched meadows that looked completely fine, And yet you put the radiometer, the dosimeter down by the water, And you'd see it just climb up. From 25, which is the normal background level, it would climb up to 200. Then the next day we went a little farther down the river, And it was up to 400, And 600, And 800, if you held it over a piece of cow dung. And nevertheless, those people in those villages had never been evacuated. They've never been given any kind of health care by the government. It's really a disgraceful, disgraceful kind of treatment. These people were in effect nuclear guinea pigs.

CURWOOD: Well, now, here's an interesting conundrum. You assert in your book that environmentalism has been ascendant in this century, but it won't be ascendant in the next if it doesn't deliver economic well-being. But how do you do that? I mean, to have this economic focus on the environment you need cash.


CURWOOD: And the richest parts of the world would seem to have, you know, perhaps the least motivation to make the change.

HERTSGAARD: It's true that the richest part of the world, parts of the world, do have to belly up to the bar as it were and jump start this with infusions of cash. But I would take issue with the idea that they don't have an interest in this. One of the most interesting political challenges in all of this is going to be to bridge this gap between rich and poor. But one advantage that we have going into this is that the environmental crisis strikes the rich and the poor alike. Very much like the nuclear weapons crisis in the 1980s. There's no saving yourself from nuclear war, just as there is no insulating yourself from global warming or from air pollution. The rich suffer from those things just as much. Maybe not as directly, maybe not as immediately or as acutely. But you're not going to be able to hide yourself away in some little bubble in the year 2010 and think that global warming is not going to be troublesome for you. In fact, I'd say the rich folks out there on Cape Cod and the Hamptons on Long Island had better watch out, because the scientists are saying that most of the beaches on the east coast are going to be gone by the year 2020. So I think the rich do have an incentive here. And indeed, they need the poor's help to solve these problems. Being specific, the United States and the West cannot hope to tame the global warming problem without getting China's cooperation, And that's going to take some kind of deal to be cut on economic programs.

CURWOOD: You know, you raise the analogy of rich and poor alike being threatened by the nuclear problem. But in the nuclear problem the rich weren't likely to blame the poor for this. In environmental degradation, rich are prone to blame the poor as part of the problem here. I mean, in fact in your own book there, you talk about coming back to California, And you chat with a friend, And he says to you, "Well Mark, it's not really our fault. Why don't those impoverished folks stop having so many kids?"

HERTSGAARD: Yeah, I'm really glad you raised that point, because it is very, very common here, in the United States especially, to blame the poor. To blame the victims of all this. And it's just shameful as well, on factual grounds, because again, if you look at -- the guy who said that, actually, had 2 kids of his own, And if you look at the difference in consumption patterns, the average American baby imposes 13 times more environmental burden on this planet than a baby does in Brazil, which is where I had just come from. That means that my friend in San Francisco had the equivalent of 26 children, environmentally speaking, compared to the family who piloted me up the Amazon River who had 9 children. But because they were consuming at such a low level, they imposed far less burden on this planet. And this is something that Americans have got to face up to. It is part of the reason that people in the rest of the world resent us, even at the same time as they oftentimes envy our riches. The idea that we, with our cars and our luxurious lifestyle, are going to blame them, boy does that make their blood boil.

CURWOOD: Okay, Mark, what are we up against here? You say in your book that 99% of all species that we've seen on the planet have gone extinct.

HERTSGAARD: That's true.

CURWOOD: Ninety-nine percent of the species that have been on the planet have gone extinct. What's your prognosis for the human race? Can we move quickly enough to keep us from following those other 99% into the darkness?

HERTSGAARD: Personally, Steve, I have to draw a distinction between optimism and hope, And this is something that was brought to bear with me very directly in my interview with Vaclav Havel in Prague. I cannot be terribly optimistic about our chances. When one looks at the trends and one looks at the facts, these are very powerful trends. It's going to be very difficult to turn them around. And above all, right now, our political institutions, our economic institutions, and in large part average people, are not making those changes. So that's why I'd have to be pessimistic as a sort of a factual basis. But I still have great hope, And hope is a different calculation. Hope is what makes people like Vaclav Havel continue to oppose totalitarian rule throughout the deepest, darkest years of the Cold War, when it looked like nothing was ever going to change there. Havel stood his ground, was sent to prison and kept in solitary confinement for years, because he believed in what he was doing and he had hope that it would eventually manifest itself in a change. And you know, we would have said much the same in 1984, if you asked people, are we going to survive the nuclear crisis? You know, there are a lot of very smart people giving us 50/50 odds. And yet, who could have known that Mikhail Gorbachev would have come along onto the stage of history and utterly changed that situation? And now, although we're far from out of the nuclear woods, we have taken a significant step back from nuclear catastrophe. So I remain very hopeful, but I can't say that I'm optimistic.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard's latest book is called Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. Thanks, Mark, for taking this time with us today.

HERTSGAARD: Thanks for having me.



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