CURRENT AFFAIRS | ENVIRONMENT
A CONTRACT WITH THE EARTH
By Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple
Johns Hopkins Univ. 222 pp. $20
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a man of contracts. His 1994 Contract with America, a list of 10 poll-tested political pledges, helped him and his fellow Republicans reclaim the House majority for the first time in 40 years. His 2005 book Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America addressed issues ranging from terrorism to education by emphasizing faith and patriotism. And now, he and Palm Beach Zoo president Terry L. Maple are offering Americans a new, 10-point Contract with the Earth.
The fact that a Republican politician and a zoo executive have co-authored a book extolling the virtues of "mainstream environmentalism," warning of dangerous climate change and hailing the Endangered Species Act as a "success story" underscores how much the green debate has shifted. Just a few years ago many Republicans dismissed global warming as a figment of liberals' imagination; now President Bush blames human activities for the rising temperatures, melting glaciers and more acidic seas that scientists have documented around the globe.
A Contract with the Earth is an earnest call to deal with worldwide environmental problems, from disappearing species to ever-expanding roadside landfills. Its central proposals include: "demand objectivity" in science, "educate and inspire" citizens to foster a greater appreciation of nature and "encourage green enterprise." This is no revolutionary manifesto. It's Gingrich as Smokey the Bear, rather than as the provocateur he used to play on the national stage.
Gingrich and Maple acknowledge that addressing the current state of the planet will not be easy. "We learned quickly that green is good," they write, "but we've been slow to learn that green is also hard." Yet they gloss over some of the toughest questions facing international policymakers today, and they compare the environmental records of Bush and former President Bill Clinton in a way that strains credulity.
Calling the country's leadership on the environment "timid and restrained," they write that during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, "there were platitudes and a few praiseworthy achievements, but neither president succeeded in significantly advancing environmental policy." The book praises Bush twice for declaring the Northwest Hawaiian Islands a national monument (Gingrich personally pushed to protect that marine biodiversity hotspot), while saying nothing about the policies of the current administration that have so infuriated environmentalists, such as its efforts to reinterpret longstanding laws to give logging, mining and petroleum companies greater access to public lands and resources. Clinton's many national monument designations -- along with his efforts to keep national forests free of roads, revive international climate talks and tighten national air pollution standards -- go unmentioned.
On the central question of global warming, Gingrich and Maple are closer to Bush than to most of the world's business and political leaders. They argue that climate change poses a serious threat and that the United States should reengage in international negotiations. But they question the wisdom of imposing a mandatory, nationwide cap on carbon emissions on the grounds that Europe's carbon dioxide emissions rose faster than America's between 2000 and 2004. (It's worth noting that since 2000, U.S. emissions have risen at 1.5 times the rate they did in the 1990s, not exactly a stunning model of restraint.) Like Bush, Gingrich and Maple rest their hopes on technological innovation: "The world can be changed faster by the spread of brilliant ideas than by any plodding bureaucracy, and we gladly put our faith in such intellectual and social processes."
In that sense this book is classic Newt, brimming with military metaphors and grand visions of America leading the rest of globe to a brighter future. In environmentalism, as in war, "we must demand a complete and decisive victory," the authors say. "Renewing the earth is surely one of the greatest challenges this generation has confronted, and we understand how important it is to succeed."
To show the value of what they call "business partnerships on behalf of the environment," the authors describe how the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society have made common cause with such corporate entities as Wal-Mart and McDonald's. As a result, much of the book reads like the kind of corporate advertisement that appears on newspaper op-ed pages. Gingrich and Maple contend that the private sector, not government, holds the answers to the globe's biggest problems. The question is whether people in places such as Bangladesh can afford to wait and see if they're right. *
Juliet Eilperin is the Post's national environmental reporter.