By Donella Meadows
–June 8, 1995–
I have before me four reviews of Gregg Easterbrook’s trendy book about the environment (A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism). All the reviews are written by scientists whom I know and respect, and all of them are scathing. The reviewers are more than negative; they’re frustrated, because it isn’t possible to list in a small space everything that is wrong with Easterbrook’s book.
There are his “facts,” for example. When you know environmental science and you start reading Easterbrook, you run across a mistake, and you say to yourself, “oops, he got that wrong. I’d better tell him, so he can clean it up.” Then you find another mistake, and another, and you begin to think, “this guy is a sloppy reporter.”
You read on, the errors compound, and finally you catch on. Easterbrook isn’t trying to get the story right. He’s forcing evidence through his own twisted bias, and in the process he’s turning out mincemeat.
Three scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) took on the exhausting task of writing down every error they could find in just four chapters of Easterbrook’s 745-page book. They produced a small book themselves, hundreds and hundreds of mistakes and misinterpretations. Here are just a few:
Easterbrook: “From 1940 through the 1970s global temperatures declined, hitting bottom during the frigid winter of 1977, coldest in a century in North America.”
EDF: “Global temperature did not decline significantly between 1940 and the 1970s; it wavered up and down by small amounts…. Global temperature did not ‘hit bottom’ during the winter of 1977, but averaged above normal…. The average temperature for North America was also above normal that winter.”
Easterbrook: “Scientific support for the notion of a drastic rise in sea level has waned rapidly…. The highest observed actual sea-level rise in this century is a mere one inch.”
EDF: “The global average sea level has risen four to eight inches over the past century…. This is large enough to have eroded over 40 feet of a typical barrier beach on the East Coast of the United States.”
Easterbrook: “In the austral spring of 1990 … the doubled radiation [of ultraviolet light, because of the ozone hole] worked out to only about the natural increase a person would experience by traveling south from Chicago to New Orleans.”
EDF: “Few natural ecosystems routinely travel from Chicago to New Orleans, even for Mardi Gras. Clearly a sustained doubling of the [ultraviolet radiation] at the same location, at the same point in the season, is by any calculation a radical change in the environment.”
Easterbrook mixes up temperature measured in Fahrenheit with temperature measured in Celsius. He confuses regional data with global data. He misquotes scientific reports. (He says, for instance, that the National Academy of Sciences “backed away from the high end of its 1979 global warming forecast,” when in fact the Academy raised that high-end forecast.) Worst of all, Easterbrook ignores all evidence — and there is plenty — that contradicts his point.
And what is his point?
It is that U.S. environmental laws have been enormously successful, but that the people who have devoted their lives to fighting for those laws are hysterical doomsayers. The enviros “pine for bad news.” They have a “primal urge to decree a crisis.” They are “increasingly on the wrong side of the present, risking their credibility by proclaiming emergencies that do not exist.”
To which I have four replies.
1. It’s the job of environmentalists to look for problems with the environment. When the radar says there’s a storm coming, we don’t call it a doomster and tell it to shut up unless it can be more positive. There is real, continuing environmental bad news. Easy problems with affordable technical solutions, like sewage in rivers, have been dealt with, in rich countries anyway. But some of the biggest problems — extinction, desertification, greenhouse gases — are getting worse. No one who watches the data and cares about the future can be an unqualified optimist.
2. The scariest language I have heard has come from the media, not environmentalists. I’ve watched many times as scientists give a measured briefing about the ozone hole or acid rain or whatever. The story gets exaggerated in the reporters’ notes, more so in the writing, a screaming headline is put on top, and the scientists get blamed for doomsaying. I’ve even seen reporters try to coax or bully a scientist into saying something dramatic for the nightly news
3. What environmentalists say to you depends on what you says to environmentalists. When I’m in the presence of Gregg Easterbrook, his sappy optimism makes me want to rub his nose in the facts. In his presence I am a pessimist. When I’m in the presence of the real doomsters of my trade (there are a few), I’m optimistic, just to balance the conversation.
4. Reading “bad” into the news depends on where your interests lie. Ending the fossil fuel economy will be disastrous to owners of oil wells and coal mines, but not to the rest of us. A solar-based economy will be cheaper, safer and cleaner. It’s not bad news that we have to go that way.
We should celebrate every environmental success and learn from it. That doesn’t mean taking a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude, based on distorted information. The environment supports all life, including our own. The people who monitor it, look ahead and give us warnings are vital to us, even if we don’t always like what they have to say.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995