Changing the Balance

Earth in the Balance
Albert Gore, Jr
Houghton-Mifflin, 1992

Six or seven men beat on a huge drum. A Portland audience unbundled, settling into pews. The rhythm went on and on. One of the drummers chanted--sang?--in a weird falsetto.

Eventually the Hopi "Elder" Thomas Banyacya shuffled onto the podium. His audience was tense and attentive. Later in December he would carry this warning to the United Nations--the prophecy he heard long ago from his elders.

Banyacya said that disturbances around the world--hurricanes, droughts, famines--are signs. They mean that we must change our ways or Mother Earth will finish us off. If we don't stop polluting, stop killing species, then worldwide devastation will result. It's almost too late already, he said. We must repent, change, mend our lives now.

I was moved. Yet I couldn't help noticing that Banyacya's message was, in form, exactly that of traveling preachers who used to visit my childhood Baptist church for summertime revivals. It seemed that audiences would always turn out for spectacular visions of the end of the world: how the lurid sins of modern life would bring on catastrophe, the Beast, and terrible worldwide suffering. At the close, everyone would be asked to repent in preparation for the Second Coming.

But after a few days back at work or school, most of us felt like we had already backslid, Beast with Ten Horns or no.

Like those revivals, Banyacya's meeting was moving but ultimately frustrating. What can I do before such a cosmic challenge? Nothing short of overturning my entire life: metanoia, conversion. Sell the car. Dump the computer. Find a more authentic way to live.

Of course, I didn't. Banyacya's drumbeat faded. I don't speak any Hopi and I look pretty silly in beads. I'm writing this review on an IBM knock-off.

Politics as an Intelligent Pursuit

The problem with the language of prophecy is that it is so absolute that it may actually frustrate change, rather than enable it. A total moral or practical overhaul is an overwhelming challenge. Most of us wouldn't know were to begin. So we don't.

Earth in the Balance is the kind of book that refuses to speak the language of apocalypse. Though it paints a detailed and horrifying picture of environmental degradation--global warming, ozone depletion, loss of half the planet's species, catastrophic climate change--it declines to speak in moral absolutes.

Instead its author, then-Senator and now Vice President Al Gore, offers a surprisingly personal story mixed with a highly political approach to problems. The personal comes in passages of self-revelation, in the account of a son's near-death, and in a willingness to consider spiritual and psychological dimensions (to which I will return).

The political comes in the form of a steady and determined engagement with fashioning a democratic response to global environmental threats. This is politics in the very best sense: if by politics we mean the art of the possible. Gore's message is that, though the global situation is truly appalling and profoundly threatening, change is possible.

One of the chief pleasures of this book is that it shows a truly skilled political intelligence at work. That is--an intelligence dedicated not merely to analysis but to effective action in the real world. An understanding that in a world where many ideals compete, specific goals must be achieved in relation to other values and goals.

To make change possible, Gore speaks the language of moderation even when discussing catastrophic threats. Though the book offers an encyclopedic review of ecological problems, two examples will suffice.

Population is an issue that environmentalists love to flog. (I've beaten this drum myself.) Everybody knows that global population is rocketing, and that only in prosperous middle-class societies does it level off. Yet Earth in the Balance recounts a success story in "the Kerala province of southwestern India, where the population growth has stabilized at zero even though per capita incomes are still extremely low." How?

First, they have achieved an extremely high rate of literacy, especially among women. Second, through good health care and adequate nutrition, they have lowered their infant mortality rate dramatically. And third, they have made birth control readily and freely available.

Birth rates there are more like Sweden's than Bombay's because, in Julius Nyerere's words, "The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive."

The whole world cannot be beaten or cajoled into having fewer babies. And it will not be lifted from poverty any time soon. There the usual thinking stops in despair. But Gore defines a humane program of education, health and literacy--with no mention of abortion--that could really work, if people could be mobilized behind it. Gore's political intelligence looks for ways to make things happen. And finds them, with surprising insight.

Similarly, in discussing nuclear power Earth in the Balance avoids the ranting denunciation that comes so easily to environmentalist lips (including mine). Perhaps because Gore speaks from the perspective of someone who can actually do something about it, he takes a practical, non-extreme position. First he acknowledges the environmentalist's usual point--"The present generation of nuclear technology, light water-pressurized reactors, seems now rather obviously at a technological dead end." But then he builds a response that can enlist support across the usual political battle lines: he calls not merely for banning nuclear power, but for developing genuinely safe forms of it.

The research and development of alternative approaches should focus on discovering, first, how to build a passively safe design (whose safety does not depend upon the constant attention of bleary-eyed technicians). . . and second, whether there is a scientifically and politically acceptable means for disposing of--in fact, isolating--nuclear waste.

In addition, "research and development should continue vigorously," he says, toward an admittedly distant goal of fusion power. In the short term, the emphasis will have to be "conservation and efficiency."

Population that does not grow exponentially but becomes wiser and more self-empowered; a nuclear power industry that is not summarily closed down but is redirected toward safer technologies--these exemplify Gore's campaign watchword of "sustainable development." It is a significant contribution to our political discourse.

Of course, sustainable development owes much to twenty years of "green" thought and activism. No small part of Gore's contribution is in articulating it for a new and much broader audience.

Since the original "ecology" outburst of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ecological political position has been against growth. "Unlimited growth" was the philosophy of the cancer cell, went the argument. An economic system that always sought more and more was an insanity that could not be sustained in a world of real limits. We must give up our destructive pursuit of endless growth and, somehow, imitate an ecosystem in perpetual balance.

This radical attack on basic consumer economics was met by an equally thorough conservative reaction. Growth at any cost was the platform of the 1980 Republican campaign, and the ensuing decade pursued economic growth and development of resources with ferocious anti-environmental vigor.

In combining these opposites, the slogan "sustainable development" points toward a genuine third option. Gore recognizes that change, growth, development cannot cease. Humans are too restless and demanding for that. Yet sustainability is a necessity--or we will bequeath our children only the collapse of a prolonged industrial binge.

So growth must be rechanneled into nondestructive forms. Growth in cleverness, growth in information, getting smarter instead of bigger. This is growth in quality, a dimension that has no known limit. A forest or a coal seam is a finite thing. Economic growth that extracts as much as possible and uses it up as fast as possible clearly is doomed. But the discovery of ways to make a pound of coal burn longer, or a load of timber build three instead of two houses--such development can go on endlessly.

When candidate Gore called for building new information technologies and for pioneering techniques of nonpolluting manufacturing and conservation, he was pointing toward this different kind of growth. His book touches on it often. In the field of agriculture for example, he points out that massive pesticide application is a typically old-fashioned approach--brute force. It can be replaced, with no loss of yield and with actual savings, if the farmer will but pay closer attention: use integrated pest management, spot-application of chemicals where needed, crop rotation, and the like. The environmental writer Wendell Berry has made this point before. There is a kind of laziness about the way we have been doing business, the laziness of imaginary abundance. "Life can be easy"--why pay attention when a bulldozer, a chemical, a load of fertilizer, will make all right?

But when half the topsoil in the state of Iowa has washed away; when croplands are turning to salt from overwatering and overfertilization; when new pests immune to old chemicals force an accelerating and expensive yearly arms race in pesticides; when scarce resources are being sent up smokestacks...this laziness will have to be replaced with energy and attentiveness.

But when half the topsoil in the state of Iowa has washed away; when croplands are turning to salt from overwatering and overfertilizing; when new pests immune to old chemicals force an accelerating and expensive yearly arms race in pesticides; when scarce resources are being sent up smokestacks and out drainpipes instead of being used--then obviously this laziness will have to be replaced with energy and attentiveness, a determination to respect or even cherish the "resources" being used, a decision to work with nature, not against it.

Ultimately this is growth of mind and spirit. The inner frontier is cleverness, understanding, information--the search for more intimate connection with what we use, what we do, and finally what we are. I have called it a kind of "third infinity"--infinity not in time and not in material space, which have limits, but in the inner dimension of complexity, relation, and fitness.

Growth in this dimension can go on forever.

But can people be mobilized to adopt sustainable-growth values before it is too late? Earth in the Balance calls for dramatic changes in logging, agriculture, manufacturing, consumerism, population. . . the list is endless and seemingly hopeless. Each and every change will be resisted by ordinary inertia and fought to the death by whoever makes money from the status quo. Can such large change be attempted before disaster is actually upon us?

Part of Al Gore's sense of the morality of politics lies in his insistence that politicians must lead. Some of the most trenchant analysis of this book is in the chapter-long discussion of politics, the media, and the disturbing ease with which politicians abdicate their leadership responsibilities. New technologies like mass media and overnight polling:

allow politicians to seek the instant gratification of votes and high approval ratings but to ignore the true meaning of what we are doing....the hard choices... are excluded wherever possible. They are hidden, neglected, postponed, and ignored.

Expanding national debt, declining education, and neglect of the global environment are forms of this same irresponsibility. "The future whispers while the present shouts," so both the leaders and the led find it easiest to shift the burden onto the ultimate defenseless victim--the next generation.

The alternative is for politicians to actually develop public opinion, aggressively "expanding the range of what is politically imaginable." The problems, he says, will eventually force change upon us. If we act now, we can make those changes constructive ones.

Gore is enough of an optimist to believe that people are actually ready to be led, that they know the difference between snake oil and real medicine. No doubt the mood of the early nineties shows here--our sense that we live the morning-after of Reagan's "morning in America" binge of spending, deregulation, leveraged destruction of industry, and ecological havoc. Gore reports:

I have found that voters are willing to go much further to meet the crisis than most politicians assume is possible--but they are waiting for leadership. Indeed, I am convinced they are hungry to hear hard truths and are nearly ready to make the all-out effort necessary for an effective response.

Since Gore wrote those words, the tough-talking candidacy of Ross Perot has dramatically illustrated their truth. And now that Gore is in office, of course, he should be held to this higher standard: will he use his power to mobilize public support for dramatic change?

Green Psychology
and Earth Abuse

Ultimately, the changes Gore advocates must rise from within, from the mind and spirit. What will be required is not only political courage from leaders but "moral alertness" from both the leaders and the led. However:

We have been so seduced by industrial civilization's promise to make our lives comfortable that we allow the synthetic routines of modern life to soothe us in an inauthentic world of our own making.

Moral alertness is impossible in this woozy anesthesia of consumer goods and artificial stimulation. Peeling back the layers of the consumer society, Earth in the Balance uses a metaphor of mental health to understand this phenomenon both socially and individually.

Industrial/consumer society, Gore says, operates like a dysfunctional family. It has enshrined a set of crazy "rules" that are never questioned--belief in the total separation of humans from nature; dependency on civilization; intense focus on external rewards of money, status, and constant stimulation. The pain caused by such a life is not acknowledged. Yet "ironically, it is our very separation from the physical world that creates much of this pain." But the response we learn from our dysfunctional society is both self-defeating and self-perpetuating:

As...we internalize the pain of our lost sense of connection to the natural world, we consume the earth and its resources as a way to distract ourselves from the pain, and we search insatiably for artificial substitutes to replace the experience of communion with the world that has been taken from us.

Gore sees our "aggressive expansion into what remains of the wildness of the earth" as a familiar psychological tactic--projecting inner pain onto an outward victim.

And the victim is always the weakest one. In a family, it is usually the child who is abused. In a global dysfunctional consumer society, victims are nature itself, defenseless in the short term (though of course in the long run it will pass the final judgment) and especially wild nature, the part that is seemingly most "other" to humans. ("Seemingly" because, in fact, wildness is always right there, within the body and mind. Perhaps fear of this wildness-within is part of the motivation to seek out and kill the scapegoat of wild places.)

Gore also returns over and over to the other victim: the most defenseless of all--the future. The campaign dubbed this idea with the murky name "generational fairness." But it is a powerful accusation. Who will deal with the toxic wastes we pool and pile and belch into the air? Who will contend with a world stripped of forest and soil? Industry answers--Who cares! Dump away. "Like a parent violating the personal boundaries of a vulnerable child, we violate the temporal boundaries of our rightful place in the chain of human generations." This is no fanciful metaphor. It is literally our children who will live with our mess, for uncountable generations.

The amazing thing is that we don't care and don't notice. Denial of the obvious, the distinguishing mark of dysfunction. Business as usual no matter what.

This is a devastating analysis. Yet, consistent with his political optimism, Gore takes it in a direction that makes change possible. Though society has become destructive and unhealthy, humankind itself is not a "disease" or a cancer, he insists. Rather, it suffers with a set of destructive ideas and self-defeating relationships. And these can be changed.

When dealing with our bodies, he says, we instinctively understand that our own well-being is a higher consideration than mere scientific or medical knowledge. "The idea of health is a more fundamental reference for medical knowledge than the idea of objective knowledge." Thus, an experiment that might be possible--that might even be desirable from the standpoint of pure knowledge--is not permitted at the expense of an individual's health. We do not experiment on patients."

If so, the change will be matched by a reformation of our emotions and spirits, individually, person by person. The heart of the chapter titled "Dysfunctional Civilization" gives a central importance to topic surely never discussed on Capitol Hill: the significance of genuine feeling.

Feelings represent the essential link between mind and body or, to put it another way, the link between our intellect and the physical world. Because modern civilization assumes a profound separation between the two, we have found it necessary to create an elaborate set of cultural rules designed to encourage the fullest expression of thought while simultaneously stifling the expression of feelings and emotions.

This is the often-noted separation of fact from value, the way Western civilization since Newton and Descartes has split the world into science, a neutral realm of pure knowledge--and spirit, an arbitrary and ephemeral sideshow. In our culture, only science is granted validity. And thus, any technology and any knowledge are regarded as inherently worth pursuing. There is no moral framework within which to question it.

In such a system, the inner life of emotion, intuition, personal revelation, and the like is submerged and forgotten. But it is still there. Gore uses the metaphor of addiction to understand this process. An addict, we have come to understand, uses alcohol or drugs (or whatever) in order to avoid facing inner fear and pain. "Addiction is distraction."

And consumer culture is little more than mass distraction--the endless thirst for bread and circuses, for "new" electronic gizmos, for ever more spectacularly empty movies, for vicarious pseudo-experience that, because it does not really satisfy, only stimulates the addictive desire for more.

I believe that our civilization is, in effect, addicted to the consumption of the earth itself. This addictive relationship distracts us from the pain of what we have lost: a direct experience of our connection to the vividness, vibrancy, and aliveness of the rest of the natural world. The froth and frenzy of industrial civilization mask our deep loneliness for that communion with the world that can lift our spirits and fill our senses with the richness and immediacy of life itself.

Gore is in effect pointing towards a "green psychology." Theodore Roszak's recent book The Voice of the Earth arrives at a similar conclusion: that self-discovery, inner wealth, the diversity of feelings and emotions, are the means by which the Earth itself will be saved. The part of you and me that loves a forest is the voice of the Earth. We have been deaf to this voice--trained to stop our ears, ignore our feelings. But we can begin listening at virtually any time. Anyone can stop, turn off the television, and open the doors of perception. Real life is there waiting to flood in.

Our mental health mirrors the health of the natural world. If it is true that we must heal nature, then it is equally true that nature will heal us.

Like virtually every environmental writer I know of, both Roszak and Gore rely on a deep metaphor: what is technically called the "organismic analogy" and is popularly known as "Gaia." This is the global super-organism, the planet and all its life regarded as one being. Mother Earth, in short. If the Earth is alive, then her health must be our concern.

This analogy, both ancient and modern, can lead to creative new ways of seeing the relation of technology to environment. In a recent book entitled Wild Knowledge, sociologist Will Wright turns to the practice of medicine as a model for how we might practice technology.

When dealing with our bodies, he says, we instinctively understand that our own well-being is a higher consideration than mere scientific or medical knowledge. "The idea of health is a more fundamental reference for medical knowledge than the idea of objective knowledge." Thus, an experiment that might be possible--that might even be desirable from the standpoint of pure knowledge--is not permitted at the expense of an individual's health. We do not experiment on patients. Knowledge is subordinate to health.

If the natural world is "alive"--if ecosystems and indeed the planetary network of ecosystems can be seen as in good or ill "health"--then the application Wright makes seems almost obvious. (The good ideas always are.)

We must begin to recognize that our natural environment is not absolute and immune, and that we must begin to conceptualize it as fragile, consciously, in the same way we have always understood our bodies to be fragile, intuitively.

Just as the moral idea of "health" limits and directs medical practice, so the idea of "environmental health" could enable us to make choices in technology, science, and commerce. It would give us the larger moral framework we have lacked. Gore calls for just this framework to remedy "the separation of useful technological know-how and the moral judgments to guide its use"--the lack of which leads to worldwide destruction of rain forests, floods of pollution, and all the rest of the familiar litany.

Let me underline it--the power of this approach is that we have already been using it, in one limited sector of science and technology (medicine). To expand our notion of "health" to the rest of the living world is not such a huge step.

Nature's measure of health is sustainability. That is--long-term survival. Natural selection tests individuals as well as species with this blunt question: are you capable of surviving? And it tests the larger units the same way, shaping ecosystems and even the global network of ecosystems ("Gaia") with the single choice: live or die. Whatever is worthy--through competitive or cooperative means--lasts into the future. Because we know that no species survives in isolation, our own survival is enmeshed with the health of the water, the air, and all the thousands of species and interactions which maintain the whole.

Wright's medical analogy provides a powerful tool for achieving Gore's sustainable development. Sustainability/health is a moral framework that could make sense of the many choices that will have to be made. This "making sense" will need to come from someplace deep, from our hearts. This is why Gore takes his long excursion into psychology and spirituality. When we feel in our gut that the life of the world is our life, then (and perhaps only then) will the ecological ethic of health have sufficient power to govern science, guide technology, and redirect our industrial practices. We can only regain this connection by starting within.

It makes a surprising package. Feelings, personal psychological integrity, the sense of being connected to nature, and the new-old intuition of nature's wholeness--these add up to a politics of profound challenge. Gore hopes to help Americans overcome old oppositions like left/right, jobs/environment, public/private--and move into genuinely new perceptions and solutions. A slogan of the Greens party applies: Neither left nor right but forward.

The "Global Marshall Plan"

Al Gore is a practicing Baptist, so I assume he could make a brimstone sermon if he wanted to--could berate us for our shortcomings, appeal to guilt and fear and the apocalypse-around-the-corner, and try to convert us all in a moment. But as I have said, he tries something different and, in a sense, more adult: he lays out a detailed plan of action.

He hopes that a clear view of the problem--which Earth in the Balance provides in details global, atmospheric, and ecological--will lead to a readiness to take his plan seriously, ambitious though it is. He hopes for a long-term commitment to change, not a brief conversion.

He calls it a "Global Marshall Plan," by analogy to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War Two. He also calls part of it "SEI," for Strategic Environmental Initiative, by analogy to President Reagan's SDI. Just as the nation rallied to fight Nazism, contain communism, and build a prosperous democratic Europe, so Gore believes that Americans can be brought to commit themselves to the global environmental challenge.

The integrating goal of the Global Marshall Plan is "the establishment, especially in the developing world--of the social and political conditions most conducive to the emergence of sustainable societies." Under this umbrella come the "strategic goals":

[1] Stabilizing world population.
[2] Rapid creation and development of environmentally appropriate technologies.
[3] Comprehensive and ubiquitous change in the economic "rules of the road" by which we measure the impact of our decisions on the environment.
[4] Negotiation and approval of a new generation of international agreements [of] regulatory frameworks, specific prohibitions, enforcement mechanisms, cooperative planning, [etc.].
[5] Establishment of a cooperative plan for education the world's citizens about our global environment.

The author devotes about sixty-five pages to elucidating this plan. For each part, he lays out what the "U.S. Role" would be, and in many cases the smaller steps needed to achieve the strategic goal. Under the "appropriate technology" heading, for instance, he lists nine steps (the SEI) which would hasten the replacement of old, polluting, and inefficient industries by newer ones consistent with sustainability. Measures range from tax incentives and legal changes, to worldwide export controls preventing the shift of harmful technologies to less-developed countries.

Overall cost? He does not say. But he does point out that the money the U.S. spent in the early 1950s on the original Marshall Plan would amount to 100 billion dollars per year today. Is this expenditure possible right now? Obviously not. Gore's aim, however, is to make it possible--to preach and plead until the public is willing to take notice and act.

It is surely amazing that a politician would so commit himself--and equally amazing that he would subsequently be elected on a presidential ticket. I can't tell if it's all a weird fluke, or if something remarkable is about to happen.

As a poet and lover of wild places, I admit a natural attraction to the language of moral challenge. The death of a species is a loss of unusual finality, an evil of rare clarity. It is natural to express such a loss, such an evil, in morally absolute terms. And in specific ways, environmentalists could accuse Earth in the Balance of over-caution. We must change NOW, they say. "No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth!" (the slogan on the "Earth First!" masthead).

Al Gore is a practicing Baptist, so I assume he could make a brimstone sermon if he wanted to--could berate us for our shortcomings, appeal to guilt and fear and the apocalypse-around-the-corner, and try to convert us all in a moment. But...he tries something different and, in a sense, more adult: he lays out a detailed plan of action. He hopes that a clear view of the problem--which Earth in the Balance provides in details global, atmospheric, and ecological--will lead to a willingness to take his plan seriously, ambitious though it is. He hopes for a long-term commitment to change, not a brief conversion.

Al Gore does not downplay the seriousness of the global situation. He agrees that the very survival of human life may be at stake, and that planetary despoliation is a heartbreak whose cost cannot be counted.

But he also understands that political solutions will evolve--there will be no overnight revolution. So he accepts the necessity for incremental change, he speaks as inclusively as possible, he seeks common ground instead of using the prophetic absolutism usual to environmental tracts.

The measured acts of partial good that accumulate finally in real change are the territory of politics. Politics is not some nasty thing that bad people do, but rather is the very substance of responsible engagement with the world. We are a social species. Our group acts are an inescapable part of our identity.

We should keep an eye on the new administration. We should watch closely the upcoming Northwest "Timber Summit," which Gore will oversee. We should demand that this outspoken, articulate, and committed Vice President live up to his own challenge.

We will find ourselves asking basic questions about the search for political solutions. Whatever the Timber Summiteers do, it will be a compromise between "pure" environmentalism and jobs-at-any-cost industrialism. Each of us in the Northwest, and in the country as a whole, will have to decide whether the compromise is a just one.

Every adult has had to struggle personally with the necessity to act in an imperfect world. Just how compromised can a person get, before he or she is wholly lost? No answer to that--it is an ultimate question, a subject for moral humility, fear and trembling, because it can't be known. One must simply blunder forward, depending on unknown grace to speak in the moment of trial, to bring one's foot back from the one-step-too-far that turns a compromise into a sellout.

Al Gore has positioned his book very precisely on the frontier between things as they are and things as they might be. His message is familiar enough to arouse ordinary folks, yet forward enough to lead them into action. His drumbeat is one we can follow. It resonates with the heart.

-David Oates

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Last Modified: 02 July 1995 by Darrel Plant
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