Vice-President Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance is a careful examination of the relationship between US politics and the environment. It addresses major issues like global deforestation and the responsibility of industry, as well as laying out a plan for the improvement of the human economic relationship to the environment (the Global Marshall Plan). However, in the years since the book was written, the information economy and new technology has boomed, creating new elements in the interaction between man and the environment in the US. Market liberalism has emerged as a new economic trend in this boom economy that could prove harmful to long-term environmental goals. Below is a brief essay describing market liberalism and its potential effects on the environment, as well as why government has a responsibility to interfere with market-liberal practices. It would be most appropriate for a new edition of Earth in the Balance to place this essay directly after chapter 10, “Eco-nomics: Truth or Consequences”, at p. 197.
During his twenty-four year career in public office, Al Gore has made an intensive study of environmental issues. The impressive results are displayed in his book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, a comprehensive assessment of planetary destruction, overpopulation, soil erosion, and pollution, and how they will threaten life as we know it on earth if the proper measures aren’t taken to safeguard the environment.
Gore presents even familiar materials in fresh and compelling fashion, drawing from the work of such diverse thinkers as the critic Walter Benjamin, the climate historian Hubert H. Lamb and the physicists Per Bak and Kan Chen.
Now that the cold war is over, Gore argues, the primary threat to the well-being of humanity is the ecological damage caused by humans to the global environment. In this context, he analyzes the world’s industrial and financial situation as it relates to the environment, and proposes what he calls a Global Marshall Plan for the environment.
Gore’s recommendations are far-reaching and specific—for example, he suggests redefining GNP to account for the ecological costs of growth, and designing tree-planting programs to insure that seedlings are nursed through their first year of growth.
In regard to how he addresses the larger issues involved, the author exhibits little of the standard short-term approach habit of his profession and seems very aware of the political obstacles posed by such an integrated approach. Interestingly, he identifies the root of our problems as spiritual. If civilization is to survive in the coming years, he maintains, it must make the rescue of the environment its primary organizing principle.
When Earth in the Balance first came out in 1992 it caused quite a stir, not only due to the prominence of the author but to his courageous determination to take a stand on such a controversial issue. On its own merits, the book convincingly makes the case that a crisis of epidemic proportions is nearly upon us and that if the world doesn’t agree soon to design and support some kind of global plan to protect the environment, terrible ecological consequences will be in store for this planet.
Al Gore’s book warns that many of these effects will be harsh, such as the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of the ozone layer, the slash-and-burn destruction of rainforests, and the onset of global warming. None of this is new, of course, nor was it new in 1992. But concerned environmentalists will be greatly encouraged to read such a stirring call to action written by such a prominent politician.
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit is arranged into three sections. The first section describes the plagues; the second looks at how we got ourselves into this mess; and the final chapters present potential ways out. Gore gets his points across in a serviceable way, though he could have benefited from a firmer editor’s hand.
At times the analogies are arcane and the pacing is odd. Still, at the end the reader understands what’s been said, which is what counts. Gore believes that if we apply some old-fashioned American ingenuity, the effective combination of American democracy and free-market capitalism can help stabilize world population growth, spread social justice, increase education, create appropriate environmental safeguards, and negotiate meaningful international agreements to bring the world back from the brink of ecological disaster.
For example, Gore points out that a worldwide shift away from fossil fuels towards clean energy sources would create economic opportunities for companies to design, build, and maintain solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells, and other ecofriendly innovations.
Refreshingly, Gore doesn’t mince words in his book when he describes how hard it will be to protect the earth’s environment. Powerful interests stand in the way of reforms. Real, short-term economic hardships may occur due to more effective environmental laws. And real hope for incorporating solutions depends to a great extent upon public concern for the environment, and subsequent public support for environmental policies.
Unfortunately, all too often, environmental challenges are presented in such a way that the more one learns, the more hopeless it all seems. In Earth in the Balance, Gore does not shrink from the magnitude and painfulness of the conflicts we will soon inherit, but he also offers encouragement, and promises the possibility of resolution. A passionate yet clearheaded exposition of a worldwide crisis is the starting point of this courageous book. Retracing his own journey to greater awareness of today’s multiple threats to the environment, Gore in turn leads his readers toward a greater understanding of humanity and toward thinking beyond currently perceived limitations.
With often admirable insight, he examines how dysfunctional civilization, political realities, and religious traditions have influenced the current global ecological situation. This breadth of perspective should speak to a wide diversity of readers, while the final section of the book, outlining a plan of action, may well capture the imaginations of practical as well as idealistic readers. The book may seem overwhelming to some, but its three-part, fifteen chapter structure, which allows readers to browse at will, without having to read it from beginning to end, should make it accessible to most people.
It is obvious that Gore has studied the subject. And the case he makes for environmental reform in this elegant book is persuasive. His overall idea of linking environmental concerns to economic choices is both interesting in itself and goes counter to current American policy, which fairly ignores the environment as an economic matter. Gore states plainly that for people to appreciate fully the dangers of the environmental situation, they need finally to establish a spiritual state of mind.
The spiritual, of course, is generally avoided by politicians. Usually those who say spiritual are selling bigotry, or themselves, or both. It is refreshing to hear a politician discuss these matters in a mood of sympathy, tolerance, and intellectual curiosity for a change. This book seems to be not so much the work of somebody who is running for something, but a reasoned plea for moral responsibility.
While the book has been generally well-received, positive reaction has not been universal by any means. Some critics who don’t think Gore has his facts right, or who don’t agree with his broader assessment of the issue or with his proposals for resolving it, criticize the book for what they call artfully fusing New Age psychobabble with radical environmentalism into the quintessence of political correctness.
Others assert that Gore naively peddles every doomsday prediction made by apocalyptic environmentalists, such as overpopulation, topsoil erosion, scarcity of fresh water, deforestation, thinning ozone, and, of course, global warming, without having enough command of the complex facts involved to even reach a truly informed decision, much less take such a prominent public position.
These people believe that Gore’s position is extremist for culminating in a demand that we change the very foundation of our civilization. While environmental problems do exist, they dismiss any thought that the end of the world is at hand. With his book, Earth in the Balance, they claim that Gore has joined the ranks of the end-of-the-secondmillennium low-budget prophets, and that he is not really qualified to write legislation or influence government policy on environmental issues. Find more papers at PhDify.com
Many of them feel that Gore is exaggerating the danger when he writes of “an ecological Kristallnacht,” and declares that, “the ferocity of industrial civilization’s assault on the earth is breathtaking, and the horrific consequences are occurring so quickly as to defy our capacity to recognize them.”
They assert that these words cannot be blindly accepted, and that Gore’s premises must be challenged and carefully subjected to rational analysis and scientific scrutiny before his conclusions can be accepted. They cite Gore’s repeated pronouncements of impending ecological doom as reasons to make one wonder if things are really so bad.
Furthermore, they point out that Gore devotes large sections of his book to the issue of global warming, and at one point, argues that only two percent of scientists disagree with him about catastrophic warming as a result of the greenhouse effect. They contend that this is questionable, and point to a February 1992 survey of climatologists, conducted by Greenpeace, which found that the largest group of respondents, forty-seven percent of those polled, expressed serious reservations about the threat of global warming.
Based upon this, they argue that there is no consensus in the scientific community as to whether rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to significant global temperature changes. Nor is there any conclusive evidence proving that ozone depletion, another looming menace Gore identifies, represents a significant threat to human wellbeing.
The various scenarios for ozone depletion predict a range of thinning from five to twenty percent. If this occurred, it would result in an increase in ultra-violet radiation similar to what one would encounter by moving one-hundred and twenty miles closer to the equator, where UV exposure tends to be greater. Such a development, while significant, would not force parents to tell their children that “they must begin to think of the sky as a threatening part of their environment,” as Gore suggests.
In any event, chloroflouro-carbons, the villainous chemicals indicated in the ozone scare, are being phased out, as per the requirements of the 1990 Montreal Protocol. The scientific consensus is that, after about the year 2000, the ozone layer will slowly start to gain in thickness and protective ability. Even Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric scientist with the perpetually alarmist Environmental Defense Fund, admits that the current and projected levels of ozone depletion do not appear to represent a catastrophe.
In conclusion, Al Gore’s 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, presents a strong argument that safeguarding the environment should be a source of serious concern to this generation and all of those yet to come. It is eloquent, timely, and has been generally well-received by the public. But it does seem to fall short in its assessment that global catastrophe is imminent.
Some of the facts Gore cites are not as well established as he would have them be, some of his assessments of current practices are flawed, and some of his solutions are not very practical. Yet, overall, the book is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to learn about the potential dangers of ecological damage.
- Gore, Al. (1993). Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. New York: Plume.