Spaceship earth may be heading for a crash landing

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EARTH ODYSSEY By Mark Hertsgaard Broadway Books 338 pp., $26

Mark Hertsgaard, an American journalist with an impressive list of credits, left the United States in 1991 to travel the world. When he returned a half-dozen years later, he penned a fascinating, distressing report card called "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future."

It is a future that appears bleak.

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From the civil wars and famine of Africa, to the dense pollution of Bangkok, to the radiation-ravaged secret nuclear cities of the former Soviet Union, Hertsgaard describes tragic environmental destruction through the eyes of locals who deal with it every day. This story is really theirs to tell.

For example, there is Zhenbing, who served as Hertsgaard's interpreter and guide across China. A junior faculty member at the university in Beijing, he reluctantly allows the author to see his dormitory.

"Inside Zhenbing's room the smell was also unpleasant, for which he quickly apologized. The walls were grimy and flaking from mildew. When I tried to open the one tiny window, I found it had been broken ... papered over with a sheet of notebook paper.... The place felt shabby and grim and spirit-crushing, but Zhenbing pointed out that it was in fact a privilege."

In Siberia, Hertsgaard was the first Western reporter allowed to visit Chelyabinsk - home of the Mayak nuclear weapons production complex. It's described as the "most polluted spot on Earth," and rightfully so.

Hertsgaard reports that the heart of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program has been the site of three nuclear disasters, all of which were at least on the level of the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986. The difference: They were never made public.

These accidents impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, who suffered through poor healthcare and government negligence. The area is now called the "cancer capital" of the former Soviet Union.

For Westerners, the portion of "Earth Odyssey" that will hit closest to home is "The Irresistible Automobile." The author describes the automobile as the ultimate symbol of the modern environmental crisis: polluting the planet, creating congestion, and taking away time that could be spent elsewhere.

"In 1995, one [Bangkok] family tried to beat the rush out of town before a national holiday by leaving at ten o'clock the night before. But when they reached the expressway, leading to the airport, they found themselves in a traffic jam 60 miles long. It took the family twelve hours to get to the airport."

"The car is a killer," writes Hertsgaard, "but the human animal cannot resist it."

With a keen perception of what surrounds him, and dozens of interviews with locals, business people, environmentalists, and politicians, Hertsgaard tells the story of a planet that, in some aspects, seems beyond hope.

Yet the author does offer a host of solutions, ranging from market-based government regulations to shifting more wealth from the rich to the poor.

"Earth Odyssey" is a good read, a blend of humanity, news, and history forged by a solid storyteller. But it is a good read involving a tremendous amount of bad news.

*Vince Winkel is the news editor of the Monitor's Electronic Edition.

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