Environment: A Moment on the Goofs

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1995

Environment: A Moment on the Goofs

Rome is burning. So why are greens throwing water at a book?
By Keith Schneider (with Margaret Kriz)

Gregg Easterbrook looked happy enough, but for somebody who once wrote an article entitled "Everything You Know About the Environment Is Wrong," the irony must have stung.

The setting was the Old Ebbitt Grill, a power-lunch nexus a chip shot from the White House. The agenda was a debate over A Moment on the Earth, Easterbrook's unflinchingly provocative book on the gains, pains, and muffs of American environmentalism. On hand howling at the ceiling were several environmentalists--most notably Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund. As he and others have done since Moment hit like an asteroid last spring, Krupp charged that the book was full of mistakes that scuttle its credibility. Undeniably, Easterbrook had committed some fumbles--like incorrectly reporting that EDF was paid by McDonald's for helping redesign its packaging--so prior to the May 3 event, he preemptively tallied the mistakes himself. He says he found about a dozen.

"A few sentences out of 26,000 is a shortcoming for which I deserve to be criticized," Easterbrook said, "but hardly a reason to divert debate from the book's major themes."

Countered Krupp: "I'm reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon that shows a file cabinet with four drawers. True facts. False facts. New facts. Old facts. I just wish Gregg had stuck to the true facts."

What's this all about? On one level, just what it looks like. A contributing editor of Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, Easterbrook produced a big book with a take-no-prisoners theme that couldn't be ignored. He contends that while environmental protection represents one of the century's "great triumphs of political liberalism," today's greens are over-hyping problems such as global warming and species depletion, thereby playing into the hands of opponents who call them Chicken Littles. Not new criticisms, perhaps, but noteworthy coming from a liberal. And when enviros looked, they gagged. High Country News called the book "mainly gibberish." For his relatively rosy views on ozone depletion, Ozone Action dubbed Easterbrook "Heidi Fleiss with a pen."

On another level, the flap begs a larger question: With Rome burning, do environmental groups really have time, as EDF did, to deploy staff scientists and lawyers to fact-check a policy tome? Well, yes, but for the wrong reasons. Greens have virtually no influence in Congress right now, and significantly, on the day of the Old Ebbitt Grill debate, congressional Republicans were busy turning their November landslide into a blitzkrieg on environmental protection. Heading into the summer, worse was to come, with the prospect of unprecedented assaults on the Endangered Species Act.

Which is why environmentalists might also do well to ask what they could learn from Easterbrook. Errors aside, it contains formidable work on acid rain, toxics, and--yes--even endangered species, and it points to real problems in the movement: not tending to the grassroots, hyping as "deadly" some crises that really aren't, and feebly connecting laudable goals with the lives of ordinary people. At the debate, one journalist asked: Didn't EDF have more important things to do than bop Easterbrook?

Not really. "We don't brook overstatement or exaggeration," Krupp said. "We've had a long reputation for getting the facts right and correcting others when they don't."

Good point, and it brings to mind an unflinchingly provocative 1990 book, Dead Heat, which begins with a chapter called "The End." It conjures up a dystopian year 2050, when global warming has set off a cataclysmic string of worldwide ecological catastrophes. It also shows that Easterbrook isn't the only writer capable of flouting the overstatement taboo, and that he has interesting company: Dead Heat was coauthored by Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist with EDF.

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