Earth Odyssey
by Mark Hertsgaard
Broadway Books,
1998, 352 pages

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Will humans survive the environmental degradation we’ve loosed on the world, or will we drive ourselves to extinction alongside countless other species? Mark Hertsgaard sets forth to explore this question in his wide-ranging book Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future, and while he does not arrive at a vision of humanity on the brink of extinction, he presents a sobering portrait of problems present and impending.

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During a six-year worldwide investigation into our shared environmental predicament, Hertsgaard determined that the gravest environmental problem facing humanity is poverty. As he relates his encounters with individuals from Sudan to China to Brazil, he shows how desperately the impoverished people of developing nations deserve a better life, and, at the same time, how inconceivable it is, under current models of development, that the world’s poor will be able to significantly improve their lot without wreaking havoc on global life-support systems. His depiction of a steadily developing China, with nearly a quarter of the world’s population, is particularly fascinating and jarring.

Hertsgaard writes with compassion and insight, putting a human face on environmental ills that in recent years seem to have grown stale with repetition. At times, his book comes across as a jumble of tales about far-flung locales, ordered neither chronologically nor geographically nor topically, but in the end, Hertsgaard manages to convey a cohesive message — that of an Earth in dire need of attention and a global society in dire need of top-to-bottom change.

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Other reviewers have taken well to Earth Odyssey, giving it notable praise in the New York Times Book Review and Time, among other publications. It is poised to become one of the most memorable environmental books of 1999.

New York Times Book Review, Keith Schneider:
“Hertsgaard’s focus is the human dimension to global ecological decline, and in Earth Odyssey, he displays an authentic talent for storytelling. By taking care to explain the technical, by including just enough of himself and by giving full breath to select characters, he has transformed a daunting subject into a stirring contribution to the growing literature on the global environment. … Where Earth Odyssey falters is its recommendations. Hertsgaard’s survey of the potential fixes … is so bogged down in statistics and theory that it’s like breathing through a dishrag.”

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Time, John Skow:
“[Hertsgaard’s] clear-eyed report, Earth Odyssey, backed by careful scholarship, is one of the best environmental books in recent years. It may help save readers the trouble of living through ecological decline and fall, if enough of them figure out how and where to apply its bitter lessons.”

Publishers Weekly:
“An ambitious report on the global environmental crisis. … This eloquent wake-up call deserves a wide readership.”