WHENEVER a politician writes a book, watch out for the hidden hand of a ghost writer. Or a sermonette designed to scare or pacify the voters rather than inspire or fully inform them. Or a cleverly timed election agenda. Usually all three.
Happily, you will find none of these in Sen. Al Gore's remarkable book on the global environment. "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit" is fact-filled and well-written, providing a sobering view of problems such as climate change and the loss of species as well as an outline for solutions that is both thoughtful and practical. And just as important (probably more so), woven throughout is a strong thread of values and ethics.
About the problem Gore does not mince words: "This crisis is extremely grave.... Our ecological system is crumpling as it suffers a powerful collision with the hard surfaces of a civilization speeding toward it out of control."
The first part of the book lays out the historical and scientific context for global environmental impact on air, water, and soils dating back thousands of years. From this perspective, we see how modern mankind now has both the means and the motive to effect enormous change on the earth. The means are the rapid advances in technology since the end of World War II. And the motive is a world population that will have quadrupled in one lifetime over the same period, presenting a growing desire for material
goods and comfort at the expense of natural resources.
As civilization has become more complex and people more able to manipulate and dominate nature, Gore writes, individuals have become psychologically and spiritually disconnected from the natural world. "Precisely because we feel no connection to the physical world," he writes, "we trivialize the consequences of our actions." Again, he explains the historical, philosophical, and religious context of this separation and trivialization that has led to a "dysfunctional civilization."
Gore brings to this work important experience in several areas. As a United States congressman and now senator from Tennessee, he has played a key role on many issues affecting the environment. He chairs the senate subcommittee on science, technology, and space, and has traveled around the world to see firsthand the problems he describes. He also spent six years as a newspaper reporter in his home state, developing writing and investigative skills.
Gore also has studied at divinity school and is a practicing Christian who is not hesitant to talk about God and man's spirituality. The idea of "dominion" in the Bible, he writes, "does not mean that the earth belongs to humankind; on the contrary, whatever is done to the earth must be done with an awareness that it belongs to God." The essence of the problem, in his view, is "the separation of science and religion ... the separation of useful technological know-how and the moral judgments to guide its
The answer is to take "bold and unequivocal action," and Gore's plan would involve hard choices for the individual and political struggle for nations. But just as totalitarianism is collapsing in much of the world to be replaced by more democratic political institutions, he believes, so too can the selfishness and inertia that have caused ecological imbalance collapse.
Gore's solution is a "Global Marshall Plan" patterned after the rebuilding of Europe following World War II. This includes five "strategic goals," including stabilization of world population, development of environmentally appropriate technologies, adopting an economic system that takes into account environmental impact, negotiating a new set of international agreements (including incentives and penalties) to achieve the first three goals, and organizing a worldwide education effort to produce a consensu s on protecting the global environment.
He does not presume that the United States will have to bear more than its fair share of the cost to be borne by developed nations, but he does see a unique leadership role for the US (lacking at present). To those who say the problem is too big, too complex, Gore says the answers will be found once a change in attitude is achieved - as was the case with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the speed of which astounded most experts.
"Earth in the Balance" is an important book - the best of many I have read summarizing the state of the world environment today. As nations prepare for the United Nations "Earth Summit" in Brazil next June, it should be read by policymakers and the public for whom they work.