Earth in the Balance
By Al Gore
Houghton Mifflin,
416 pages, 2000

How many environmentalists have actually read Earth in the Balance? Very few, I’m willing to wager.

The truth is that until recently, I myself felt qualified to pontificate on Al Gore’s environmental beliefs and, yes, occasionally question whether he’d lived up to them, even though I hadn’t read more than a few excerpts from the book. Well, that age of innocence is over.

Gore reissued his book with a new introduction on Earth Day 2000, and I have since fulfilled my duties as an environmental writer. I’m here to say that the book isn’t half bad.

First off, what’s most inspiring about Earth in the Balance is who wrote it. It’s a big deal, after all, that a sitting senator was willing to pen, “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.” And there’s more where that came from. In his 1992 book, Gore wrote:

 

I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously. … [N]ow, every time I pause to consider whether I have gone too far out on a limb, I look at the new facts [on the environment crisis] that continue to pour in from around the world and conclude that I have not gone far enough. … [T]he time has long since come to take more political risks — and endure more political criticism — by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting hard for their enactments.

 

Zowie! Them’s fightin’ words. And the buzz on the street is that Gore actually wrote them himself — no ghostwriter needed he — another stellar feat for a politico. (Of course, that was then. These days environmentalists seem to be characters in search of an author, and the lesson for wannabe presidents may be: Stick with profiling others’ acts of courage, not one’s own.)

When the book came out, however, it caused quite a stir — and for good reason. It convincingly makes the case that a crisis of epidemic proportions is nearly upon us and that if the world doesn’t get its act together and agree to some kind of “Global Marshall Plan” to protect the environment, we’re all screwed. Myriad plagues are upon us, but the worst include the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of the ozone layer, the slash-and-burn destruction of rainforests, and Public Enemy No. 1, global warming. None of this is new, of course, nor was it new in 1992. But it’s good stuff for the most part, and you get a giddy feeling reading words like these as written by a prominent politician.

Gore talking the talk.

The book is arranged into three sections: The first describes the plagues; the second looks at how we got ourselves into this mess; and the final chapters present ways out. Gore approaches the subject at hand like an earnest college student, and the book is more intellectually wide-ranging than one might expect. For example, as Gore tells it, the root of many of our problems lies with Plato and his philosophical progeny like Descartes, backers of the notion that the mind and body are split and that we are separate from dirty li’l Earth, not a part of it. A related issue is that Western thought has “emphasized a distinctly male way of relating to the world and has organized itself around philosophical structures that devalue the distinctly female approach to life,” which is said to place more value on the natural world. Frameworks such as these have led us to exclude environmental considerations from most of our political and economic decisions and pushed us toward a global society that is increasingly “addicted to the consumption of the earth itself.”

Gore gets his points across in a serviceable way, but the book could have benefited from a firmer editor’s hand. At times, the analogies are arcane and the pacing is odd — kind of like a Gore speech that climaxes at weird points and then sinks just as the audience is about to clap. Still, at the end, you understand what he’s saying.

Gore believes that if we apply some American ingenuity, the twin engines of democracy and capitalism can be retrofitted to help us stabilize world population growth, spread social justice, boost education levels, create environmentally appropriate technologies, and negotiate international agreements to bring us back from the brink. For example, a worldwide shift to clean, renewable energy sources would create huge economic opportunities for companies large and small to design, build, and maintain solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells, and other eco-friendly innovations.

Gore doesn’t mince words when describing just how hard it will be to get out of our current jam. Real hope is contingent on a swelling up of concern among the public — and fast.

A year into his vice presidency, in an interview with the writer Bill McKibben, Gore paraphrased a key passage in his book: “The minimum that is scientifically necessary far exceeds the maximum that is politically feasible.” Ah, a political out. Here, then, is the question for Gore: What has he done since his book was first published to advance the political feasibility of decisive environmental action?