Book Review: A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism by Gregg Easterbrook

A Compelling Case for Ecorealism

Viking • 1995 • 745 pages • $27.95

Mr. Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology.

Environmentalists have long enjoyed the political high ground. After all, who could be against clean water? As a result, over the last two decades the environmental movement has swept most everything before it. The result has been draconian legislative enactments, massive regulatory bureaucracies, and inexplicably complex rules.

But as compliance costs have risen, so has political resistance. Common people have grown less willing to see their interests sacrificed willy-nilly for measures with only marginal environmental benefits. Thus, many environmental activists have moved beyond shrill denunciations of opponents to apocalyptic threats. Their refrain has increasingly become: if you don’t do as we say, the world is doomed.

Not so fast, argues Gregg Easterbrook. In his mammoth A Moment on the Earth, he contends that the Western world today is on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has known; perhaps the greatest that the Earth has known. The book has it all, or almost. It is comprehensive, well researched, and well written. Equally important, its author is credible to those sympathetic to the environmental movement, a liberal who has written for such publications as Newsweek and the New Republic.

His liberal credentials account for the book’s main flaw: a failure to fully appreciate the value of freedom and the way free markets operate. This occasionally leads to nonsensical asides, like when Easterbrook blames capitalism for homelessness and drug shootouts.

Easterbrook begins by describing a predatory falcon swooping down upon a hapless pigeon. There is nothing unusual about the eternal struggle between prey and predator, which he terms the dance of ages—except that this particular skirmish is occurring in Manhattan. Although man may view himself as omnipotent, Easterbrook shows man’s impact to be, in fact, quite limited.

Easterbrook backs up his argument with facts. Only two percent of America and eight percent of the world are built-up. Forests are expanding in the United States and Europe. Farmland, no longer needed for agricultural production, is returning to forest or prairie. And most of what man has done could be undone by nature which, Easterbrook notes, rearranges entire continents, a task people cannot imagine, even in the abstract.

A Moment on the Earth goes on to debunk romantic rhapsodies about nature and defend mankind. Humanity’s vogue for culpability regarding its own existence must be exceptionally difficult for nature to fathom, writes Easterbrook, since man’s activities are in strict accord with the behavior patterns of other species, most of which attempt to expand to fill the maximum area available to them. Nor is there anything wrong in transforming nature.

Easterbrook even includes a wonderful chapter titled The Case Against Nature. Nature, he writes, is dangerous, generates pollution, kills humans and animals alike, fosters disease, and is self-destructive. And this is never going to change, absent human intervention, since nature lacks morals, which are artificial systems requiring forethought.

These philosophical musings behind him, Easterbrook moves to the specific issues that dominate environmental debates today. He proceeds issue by issue, largely dismissing warnings of imminent ecological disaster. For instance, he concludes that the problem of acid rain is genuine but exaggerated, subject to correction surprisingly quickly at reasonable cost. Similarly positive are his assessments of a variety of other problems: air pollution (overall air quality has been rising), the spotted owl (it is neither endangered nor a separate species), chemicals (they are far less dangerous than charged), global warming (warnings about the planet heating up appear to be as overstated as those about the imminence of a new Ice Age), energy (supplies are plentiful), and many, many more.

In the main, Easterbrook draws sensible policy conclusions from these facts. But his liberal soul occasionally reasserts itself, to bizarre effect. For instance, he acknowledges that the costs of recent regulatory initiatives, like the 1990 Clean Air Act, exceed their benefits. No matter. Opines Easterbrook: in the main environmental initiatives ought to be considered worth the price unless proven otherwise, with the burden of disproof upon opponents.

Nevertheless, the book is truly a work that deserves wide attention. Its importance comes not only from the fact that it makes a powerful case for environmental optimism, but that it specifically addresses those people who have been most concerned about the future.

Calls for ecorealism are not new, but Easterbrook has issued a particularly compelling one. Paradise may not beckon, but, as he concludes: The arrow of the human prospect points upward.