Travels on an Ailing Planet

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Travel writing involves an odd social contract: writer, for pay, agrees to view inspirational scenery and have a great time, saving reader the trouble of doing so. But Mark Hertsgaard's contract was odder than most. A few years ago, the journalist, who has written books on the Reagan Administration, nuclear energy and the Beatles, set off on a trip around the world in search of noxious vistas and pollutive sunsets--the environmental wreckage that other travelers take pains to avoid. His clear-eyed report, Earth Odyssey (Broadway Books; 372 pages; $26), 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.

When Hertsgaard travels to western Ethiopia and sees starving Dinka refugees--tall and reedlike--there's not much to say except that life is cruel. They were driven from their home in Sudan by drought and war, and these are ancient, traditional plagues, not modern inventions. It is in Bangkok, strangely enough, that the message of Hertsgaard's journeying begins to strike home. This sprawling river city is like most others--mad about cars, paralyzed by car traffic, its air made unbreathable by cars and its municipal life dying of cars. If this were all, the moral would be simple: avoid Bangkok. Yet cars there, and across Europe and especially in the U.S., are efficient carbon generators. And carbon dioxide is the main ingredient in the greenhouse shield that is warming the globe and adding furious energy to epochal storms and floods.

China also lusts after cars, of course, and manufactures and imports as many as possible. Road building in China swallows scarce farmland, and traffic chokes streets and highways. Coal heats the chilly north, generates electricity and fouls the air. To Hertsgaard, big-shot capitalism seems a scourge--though not to the newly prosperous Chinese he meets, who brag that they get used to bad air. This single nation, the author observes, holds veto power over any environmental reforms the rest of the world may choose to try.

But so does the U.S., whose waffling on global warming Hertsgaard notes with contempt. He concludes his book, as is customary, with a spoonful of optimism. The marvelous energy of capitalism, he suggests, could be put to conserving energy. Insulate more; heat and cool less. Build green fridges and cars that run on nonpolluting fuel cells.

Sure. But environmental degradation, which is what Hertsgaard is asking readers to be worried about, is one of those vaguely irritating phrases that sink to the bottom of public discourse and stay there like sludge. The mind's response, after the 20th hearing, is a weary "Yeah, yeah." Got to get the kids off to school. Got to invest in a hog factory, build on a floodplain, send bigger boats after fewer fish. Write a check to Greenpeace. Buy Exxon Mobil. And be sure to pick up some bottled water.