America and the Crisis of the Global Environment

By James Gustave Speth. Yale Univ. 299 pp. $24


Three Visions for Healing the American Land

By Chip Ward. Island Press. 350 pp. $27

It's difficult to imagine any but the most righteous recyclers and committed Cassandras looking forward with real pleasure to James Gustave Speth's Red Sky at Morning. The sailor's warning in the title and the "crisis" of the subtitle peg Speth right away as the bearer of bad news, the kind certain to require renewed vigilance from an already beleaguered wartime public. And yet if having the esoteric policies that govern the natural resources on which we all depend explained succinctly comes as a relief, then Speth's short volume -- 200 pages without the source notes and "Resources for Citizens" appendices -- can be said to be an odd, if wonkish, pleasure.

Speth is dean of the sustainable development program at Yale's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (and former adviser to Presidents Carter and Clinton). His chief contribution with Red Sky is to frame how the goals of the environmental movement have changed in the last 30 years -- or why, in short, many conscientious Americans might wonder if there is an eco-movement left to speak of. For most of the '60s and '70s, Speth reflects, most environmental activism and legislation acted to stop pollution. From the reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions from smokestacks to the removal of lead from gasoline, however, these efforts succeeded best when the threat was "acute, immediate, and understandable." By contrast, today's global eco-challenges are "more chronic, more remote -- and technically complicated and thus difficult to understand and relate to." Plus "the villainy," Speth correctly observes, "is ambiguous. Global scale environmental problems can't be blamed only on big corporations when our own lifestyle is so clearly implicated."

At one point, Speth charts the paradigm shift as follows:

1970 Domestic Agenda 1980 Global Agendaunderstandable scientifically complex, difficult to understand highly visible effects remote, difficult to perceive

impacts current problem future problem us/here them/there acute problem chronic problem

Daunting as tackling global-scale problems like climate change might seem, Speth notes that the world got off to a good start in the '80s with conventions to combat acid rain and, with the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a ban on chlorofluorocarbons (to protect the ozone layer). Why haven't enviros and governments been able to build on these benchmarks? There are scores of case-by-case factors, Speth explains, but none more crucial than the United States shirking its leadership role in forging new international treaties.

Those looking for Speth to forecast the next big global ecological crisis won't be disappointed. He fingers "fixed," or biologically active, nitrogen, which is found most commonly in fertilizers and fossil fuels; appropriate levels help plants grow, but larger quantities can poison livestock and suffocate aquatic life. And those curious for his response to Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (the hotly debated 2001 book that made a case that "things are getting better"), can turn directly to pages 113-115. Speth concludes that the heretical Dane is a hypocrite, attacking environmental scientists for misinterpreting data, oversimplifying and drawing foregone conclusions while doing the same in his book. "I devoutly wish that I could accept his reassurances . . . ," Speth writes. "Yet to do that, we would have to disregard the best science and the wisest counsel that is available to us."

Like Speth, Salt Lake City librarian Chip Ward, in his new book, Hope's Horizon, refers to naturalist Aldo Leopold's famous quote that "one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." But, over 22 chapters, Ward mostly proves old Leopold wrong. Crisscrossing the United States to meet some of America's best scientists and wisest counselors, Ward finds that caring for the environment can mean breaking bread with some seriously inspired people. Moreover, the "humble visionaries" he introduces underscore a second, equally profound paradigm shift in environmentalism, from a movement composed primarily of protesters and prohibitionists to one increasingly peopled by protagonists with plans to better track migrating wildlife, start forest fires (to reduce fuels that cause more catastrophic fires), reintroduce wolves and bears, and reconnect huge tracts of wilderness -- efforts, in short, to "re-wild" America.

"This is not your father's conservation movement, relying on coffee table books, letter writers, and lobbyists," Ward writes. The new breed of eco-radicals, he says, are not cheesed-off monkey-wrenchers, nor are they "content to influence those at the policymaking table or even to sit at that table themselves. They are, instead, building their own table."

No stranger to activism, Ward has fought tooth and nail to keep his home state of Utah from becoming a de facto dumping ground for America's nuclear waste, a battle he chronicled, with no small amount of grace, in his 1999 memoir Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West. In later sections of Hope's Horizon, he returns to his own backyard, detailing, for example, a chance encounter with a real estate developer he opposed. As with a chapter entitled, "I Used to Stomp on Grasshoppers, but Oysters Made Me Stop" (about his epiphany that ecosystems are interconnected webs of life), some of Ward's firsthand experience proves distracting this time out, not because it's irrelevant but because he's guilty of trying to get it all said. By and large, though, Hope's Horizon is an engrossing, even wonderful, secret history of contemporary environmentalism.

Ward takes us, for instance, to a meeting at North Face founder Doug Tomkins's San Francisco house in November 1991, when biologist Michael Soule invited activists, philosophers, philanthropists and scholars to "plan what America should look like in 2150." The meeting sparked the Wildlands Project, an ambitious scheme to preserve America's biodiversity by establishing a continuous system of reserves over the breadth of the continent.

With Ward, we also meet Rich Ingebretsen, who dreams of breaching the Glen Canyon Dam, draining Lake Powell and restoring America's other grand canyon. In the book's most astonishing passage, Floyd Dominy, the man who led the effort to build the dam (and who has defended it ever since), sketches for Ingebretsen on a napkin how, from an engineering standpoint, the dam could be breached without disaster. Dominy, memorable to many as environmental giant David Brower's formidable arch-enemy, hands Ingebretsen the napkin and puts his pen back in his pocket. "I'm very sorry about Glen Canyon," Dominy tells him. "It was a shame it had to go under." *

Brad Wieners is a correspondent for Outside magazine. He lives in New York.