Why the world is falling apart

Ecology: When writer Mark Hertsgaard dropped into environmental hot spots on the planet, he discovered the culprit most responsible for Earth's ills: Poverty.

April 21, 1999|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

It was in California where Baltimore-born and bred Mark Hertsgaard lost his way.

Life there had gotten claustrophobic and meaningless -- especially hard for a journalist who had built his career on crusading against the goliaths of the world.

The author of "Nuclear Inc." had investigated the big men and the big money that he alleged put us all in danger. He beat up on his own media colleagues for knuckling under to the Reagan administration in his book "On Bended Knee."

They were celebrated books in their day. But the world, he found, was changing. Such big left-wing thoughts were no longer the draw they once were.

Feeling adrift, Hertsgaard found rebirth in a missive from Stockholm, Sweden. It was 1991, and the letter asked him to speak at a conference there on the prevention of nuclear war.

With a free ticket and all his expenses paid, he took a good, long look at his lifestyle and decided to cut the umbilical cord.

"Why don't I just keep going?" he asked himself.

So he did, setting up a seven-year-long journey that ended in yet another crusade -- this time investigating environmental pollution around the world. For his latest book, "Earth Odyssey" (Broadway Books), Hertsgaard hunkered down in 19 countries over six years to see first-hand the environmental devastation in some of the world's poorest nations.

It wasn't some easy labor of love. It was a tough, inconvenient, uncomfortable descent into the lives of people in countries including Sudan, Thailand, Brazil, Africa and Russia, says Hertsgaard.

What he found was that people in the United States need to know that the biggest environmental problem in the world is not the hole in the ozone or global warming. It is poverty. In these underdeveloped countries, he found, making a living takes precedence over everything else, including preserving and keeping a clean Earth. Tackle the issues surrounding poverty, Hertsgaard's book argues, and the Earth will benefit.

Not a simple recipe, he admits. But, as he argues in his book, one we ignore at our peril.

The starting point

Tall and thin with a full head of brown hair that looks a few weeks overdue for a haircut, Hertsgaard sports a tousled, boyish look, though he's 42. From behind a sparse, orderly desk in his office on the fourth floor of Gilman Hall on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches nonfiction writing, he talks about what led him to write the book, and revisits the sights, smells and feelings of the places he visited.

"I have always been interested in the question of whether the human race is going to make it," he says. But he didn't set out to write "Earth Odyssey" to definitively answer that question. Instead, "Earth Odyssey" began as his own personal odyssey.

"This all started as a desire to travel around the world," Hertsgaard says. "I wanted to escape America."

At the time, America was neck-deep in the Persian Gulf War and Hertsgaard was writing about it for New Yorker magazine. Disturbed by a feeling that journalists were once again getting snookered by the government to blindly write positively about the war, Hertsgaard was feeling a sense of deja vu. It was the same sad phenomenon he'd written about during the Reagan administration in "On Bended Knee."

"I was very restless and kind of disappointed with the situation in the United States, politically and personally. I was getting censored a lot and I was forced from [a job at National Public Radio] because I had done a satire that poked fun at the free enterprise system."

Nearly 10 years later, it still gets to him. His face shows a mix of incredulity and agitation. It's the crusader part of him seeping out. Hertsgaard likes to see what he thinks of as injustices righted. So it's galling to have taught a lesson, as he thinks he had in "On Bended Knee," only to have people forget it again.

That feeling of disgust is what fueled his desire to try again to help the world get back into focus. "It's a mission," he says matter-of-factly.

The idea, to look at environmental devastation, began to take shape a couple of weeks before he headed off to Stockholm in May 1991.

"I was wondering, where do I want to go, whom do I want to see?" he said. "I had to stop thinking about all the editors back home and whether it would be commercially acceptable to [the magazine editors] in New York."

Moving from Europe to Africa to Asia, Hertsgaard lived a notch below backpacker-style travel. There were no fancy hotels. If he were lucky, he would stay with a family; if he weren't, he would find himself in a communal gathering place with few amenities.

"My first night in Sudan was very exciting and a little scary," says Hertzgaard. "I was economizing. I took a bus and it dropped me off at a youth hostel in the dark."

There he was, not just the only American, but the only foreigner. The sheets were not clean and neither were the mattresses, all lined up in a small room shared by several people who didn't speak any English or German or Italian, the languages he knew.

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