Capitalism and the health of the planet essay

Earthy Odyssey: A Review

If anyone would know about the state of our environment, it would be Mark Hertsgaard. As a respected journalist, he’s traveled the world for over six years getting a first-hand view of the environmental destruction of our world and people’s attitudes toward it. Earth Odyssey offers weighted insight into complex issues such as humanity’s addiction to the automobile, the spread of nuclear technology, and the unavoidable tension between unbounded capitalism and the health of the planet. Mark Hertsgaard’s contention is that global environmental problems should be given a higher profile and I agree. But first, he says, it must begin with us.

In his few first pages, Hertsgaard, says it that human beings appear to be at war with their environment. In fact, he wonders is we’ll even survive this century before us. For some, it is merely a struggle for survival which drives them to dismantle their natural surroundings. But for must of us, the struggle is want vs. need. How much do we need compared to what we want. Hertsgaard is troubled by the human race’s “..strange complacency that…we are somehow above biological control” (p.7), pointing out that “biologists have estimated that 99% of all species in the history of the planet have ended in extinction.” (p.7)

Hertsgaard makes some staggering statements about the environmental dilemmas we face today. In large part, he blames developing nations such as China for their part in the degradation of our environment. “Most Chinese accepted…that economic growth required environmental damage, and they were quite ready to pay that price” (p.180) in their quest to join the “global middle class and all that entail(s) — cars, air conditioners, closets full of clothes, jet travel.” (p.6)

The author also devotes a significant amount of time to the issue of poverty in our world. According to Hertsgaard, poverty is a major culprit in environmental degradation and we therefore cannot attempt to solve environmental problems without first addressing the issue of our poor populations. With this declaration, it forces us to ask ourselves some very important questions, like can we help the poor be less poor without hurting our environment?

But Hertsgaard also brings up other ways we are destroying our environment, that beyond our own selves. According to Hertsgaard, “the automobile may well be the ultimate symbol of the modern environmental crisis” (p.90) The world’s fleet of cars contributes ” between 20 and 25% of current greenhouse gas emissions; only electric power plants, with 25%, and deforestation, with 25%, are as damaging.” (p.94) And then there’s health effects: “A study released by Harvard University researchers in 1995 found that 30,000 Americans die every year from respiratory illnesses related to car exhaust, while another 12,000 people die prematurely because of such exhaust” (p.95) Clearly, this is a point in his argument he feels especially strong about. And more importantly, it’s one we as a population can control.

He also blames technology for our own demise. “No other generation has enjoyed the sheer ease and freedom from want that late twentieth-century industrialized humans do.” (p.77) Hertsgaard’s points out that “these blessings have been achieved through an unprecedented degradation of the natural systems upon which future generations must depend.” (p.77) In other words, we are being selfish, our need for immediate gratification is spoiling the future of generations to come.

Of particular concern to Hertsgaard are the potential impacts of nuclear technology. Hertsgaard’s journey through Russia took him to an industrial complex north of Chelyabinsk in western Siberia that was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear weapons production facility for nearly 50 years. Three nuclear disaster’s occurred at Mayak during this time “whose damages were comparable to, and probably worse than, the reactor meltdown in 1986 that made Chernobyl a household name around the world.” (p.125) These accounts of these events and their outcome were horrible to both the environment and its inhabitants.

Hertsgaard blames yet another source for the withering of our environment — capitalism. According to him, capitalism “predicated on continual growth, and traditionally growth has meant ecological destruction and decline.” “The profit motive is what makes capitalism go, but it is so basic to the working of the system that it tends to override other social goals. It leads the factory owner to care more about minimsing operating costs than minimising pollutant outflow.” (p.273) “Capitalism accelerates resource depletion and waste production and undercuts nations’ efforts to environmental and social standards.” (p.278)

The remedies to these problems are quite simple: each country needs to accept responsibility for their contribution to environmental degradation so that a global solution can be achieved. However, the author acknowledges that poor countries may have a harder time being loyal to this solution. “Just as population makes it harder for a given nation to climb out of poverty, so does poverty make it harder to limit population growth. Poor and hungry people have so many children precisely because they are poor and hungry people.” (p.199) People have to take responsibility for people.

Earth Odyssey is a book that opens the eyes of us all and asks that we take a good look at the lives we live now and the future we want to create. I agree with the author’s judgments and solutions; I agree with his impression of our environment. First hand experience beats all. Looking something straight in the eye always give a better idea of just what state things are in. Our environment needs help and Hertsgaard has gone out to see how we can all do our part in saving it.

Hertsgaard recommends solutions for us all including cutting back on our everyday consumption, promoting environmentally sound industry, and shifting the surplus wealth from the rich, where it languishes, to the poor, by whom he believes it will be spent. For my family, I know these solutions will be a gradual change as we learn how to live better and more aware of our environment. It means that we will need to think about our consumption and our need of things, things we don’t necessarily need to live. We will need to think about the poor and how our lives, while still being better, could be a lot simpler and less damaging to the environment.

He offers enthusiastic support for the Global Green Deal. (p.330-32, 334). Mark Hertsgaard reminds the population that we can’t be negligent and lazy when it comes to the preservation of our environment. “The fate of the earth is likely to be decided in our generation. It doesn’t mean the earth is going to die in our time, but the earth does have a cancerous condition. By the time the symptoms are so acute that they are giving us real pain, it will be too late.” (p.266)


Hertsgaard, Mark. Earth Odyssey: Around the Earth in Search of our Environmental Future. Broadway Books, 1999.

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