Mark Hertsgaard is author of the new book "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World." He talks with host Steve Curwood about some of the environmental factors that influence our international reputation.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Coming up, the problem of too many pets. First, joining me from the studios of KQED in San Francisco is Living on Earth contributor Mark Hertsgaard.
Mark traveled the world in the early 1990s to report on the planet’s health. He wrote a book based on his experiences called “Earth Odyssey.” But on his journey he found that the people he met were often more interested in talking about America than about their local environmental problems. So, last year Mark hit the road again to research his new book “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.” Mark, on the environmental front, what’s changed since your last trip around the world?
HERTSGAARD: Well, of course, many of the larger environmental trends had accelerated and, unfortunately for the most part, in a negative direction. Global warming, in particular, was much worse. And I must say even as an environmental reporter, I was shocked at how large the environment loomed in the minds of other people around the world when they thought about the United States.
CURWOOD: In particular, what kinds of things were people saying about the United States in reference to environmental policies?
HERTSGAARD: I left the states in May or so, and you’ll remember in May of 2001 President George W. Bush had just said “Kyoto is dead,” basically, unilaterally rejected American involvement with that treaty. And that was really up and down the spectrum, from heads of state, and then, of course, you heard it from scientists and environmental activists, but even people on the street would talk about, why is it that you Americans are being so stubborn about Kyoto?
And this gets to something else that we’ve been told about outsiders. After September 11th there was this sort of caricature of outsiders’ views that why they hate us, as one Newsweek cover put it, and we were told that they hate us because we’re rich and they’re not and they envy us. And I must say, my reporting does not support that. People, in general, even very poor people, do not hate America because it’s rich. They envy America’s richness in the sense that they would like to be rich themselves, but they don’t resent that we’re rich.
What they do resent is what we do with our money, and, in particular, when we refuse to engage in environmental cleanups and refuse to cut back even slightly for the Kyoto Protocol. That does strike outsiders as selfish.
CURWOOD: I’m really curious about what the average folks, the ordinary folks on the street, said to you about our environmental policies. How important was this to them?
HERTSGAARD: Well, it came up usually fairly naturally, Steve. I remember one young man in Cairo, an engineer, and we were talking in general about how America’s influence had spread around the world. And he was talking about American consumption patterns. He said, you know, I have to laugh sometimes when I see on television the pictures of your supermarkets. You have it looks like hundreds of different kinds of pasta and toothpaste and soap. Surely, five or six kinds is enough. And he segued quite without any prompting from me, he said, you know, you Americans are very individualistic and you consume the same way. You do what’s right for you and you don’t care about anyone else. Now, that’s not the most sophisticated analysis of America’s environmental policies, but it is certainly one that is shared by quite a lot of people.
CURWOOD: As you wandered about, Mark, who really wasn’t all that concerned about U.S. environmental policy?
HERTSGAARD: Immediately I go to China and I think of a coal miner that I interviewed there, a former coal miner, I should say, who had given up life underground after he had seen a colleague have his head smashed in by a runaway coal train. And he went back above ground and he opened up a little restaurant and started to be a budding capitalist. And I came across him and he was thrilled to find someone from America.
And what he was interested in was America’s market economy. You guys in America have had a market economy for a long time. We, in China, have not. I want to learn your secrets. I want to get rich just like you.
And I listened to this and then gently, gradually asked him questions—well, but what about the environmental aspect of all this? You know, China, you guys burn coal, we in America, we do coal and oil, we’re both the biggest producers of greenhouse gases in the world. If we keep going this way there may be trouble for the climate. He could not have cared less about that, Steve, and, in that regard, he is similar to quite a lot of poor people that I’ve talked to around the world where what matters to them is putting food on the table today and making sure that their kids have some kind of future to look forward to. And if that means sacrificing environmental goals, that’s something that, in many cases, they’re quite prepared to do.
CURWOOD: Why is what the United States does environmentally important to those who don’t live here?
HERTSGAARD: Because the United States is the big environmental superpower. Us and China, I would say. And remember, the United States in the modern era, we have been the environmental pioneers, starting back in the 1960s. The laws that were passed under President Nixon to set up the National Environmental Protection Act and the EPA and Clean Water Act and all that, these became the templates, the blueprints for similar laws in many, many countries around the world. So, the rest of the world has a habit of looking to America as the model on environmental policy.
I talked in Prague again on this trip with a gentleman who I had interviewed before, the former environment minister of the Czech Republic. And he pointed out how disappointed he was that Clinton and Gore had made so little progress on the environment. He said, you know, they talk a lot about it but they didn’t do very much. And he says the danger of that is its international ramifications. He said, Americans are watched by the rest of the world much more carefully than you realize, and when you refuse to reform, that gives the excuse to others also not to reform.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is author of the new book “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.” Thanks for speaking with me today, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: My pleasure, Steve.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth