A Fine Whine

My Thoughts Exactly

Hey! First you knock my idea, then you steal it.

Last year I published a book, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, precisely when people were inclined to think my central idea was crazy. The thesis was that the U.S. environment is not declining but improving, and that this demonstrates that federal health and safety regulations really work. But the book appeared just as Newt Gingrich seemed poised to repeal the 20th century and public opinion was retreating to the view that nature is doomed. This year, though, Newt crashed and burned, while liberalism has grown eager for arguments that government provides genuine benefits. Suddenly, my hypothesis is catching on.

In April 1995, environmentalist Jessica Mathews torched A Moment on the Earth on the Washington Post op-ed page. Mathews called me a dope for saying the U.S. environment is recovering. She rejected my contention that ecological initiatives represent “the leading postwar triumph for American government,” and slammed me for using the word “success” to describe environmental regulation. But last month, writing again for the Post, Mathews rhapsodized about the marvelous U.S. ecological recovery. She called reduction of pollution “government’s one resounding success of the last 25 years.” Her repeated use of that word–“success”–was especially galling.

The column was so amazingly familiar I had to check the byline to see if I’d sleep-written it. Could this possibly be the same Jessica Mathews who had debated me on Charlie Rose last year, scowling as she told viewers environmental optimism was an appalling notion? This must be the next frontier in stealing ideas, I thought: Discredit someone, then write the same thing yourself as if you’d thought of it. Then I cheered up a bit. A Moment on the Earth predicts, “Soon we’re all going to be environmental optimists.” Could I actually have been right?

Sure didn’t seem that way a year ago. On publication my book was blistered by enviro lobbies, especially the Environmental Defense Fund, which issued two book-length attacks on my thesis, one weighing in at 110 pages and boiling down to, “How dare you call us successful!” The EDF hoped, for fund-raising reasons, to stamp out optimism before it gained a foothold. With enormous self-restraint, I’ll spare you my own analysis of the EDF’s analysis of me. But, to my mind, I was the victim of standard Washington splatter tactics: Throw enough mud, some will stick. Stick it did, and the buzz turned cold.

Conspiracy theory was rolled out to explain my sinister cheerfulness. TheNation declared that I must be in the pay of the electric-utility industry. (What is holding up those checks?) In the sci.environment section of Usenet, I found a posting from a research assistant “for a professor at Boston University” seeking information on “who is behind” and “who is providing the money” for my work. The notion that writers are supported by readers–my corporate master is called Viking Penguin–apparently was too prosaic.

Then in July 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt held a photo op to defend the Endangered Species Act. The event was staged atop a Manhattan skyscraper where peregrine falcons, birds that have rebounded from the brink of extinction owing to federal protection, now nest. Babbitt hailed this as “a symbol of hope” for the environment. Where’d he get that idea? Well, A Moment on the Earth begins by describing wild falcons nesting on a Manhattan skyscraper as a symbol of hope for the environment. Protocol says Babbitt should have invited me, because authors can lend photo ops extra credence. But the grapevine said Babbitt didn’t want me around because my theory had lightning-rod status among environmentalists.

In the meantime, I was attempting earnestly to persuade Democrats that environmental optimism could be a potent political idea. Perhaps anyone who tries to be his own spin doctor has a fool for a patient, but Viking’s publicists had shifted their attention to another book, the slightly more remunerative The Road Ahead by Bill Gates. (One day of your sales, Bill. It’s all I ask.) I huddled with the Democratic Leadership Council, President Clinton’s centrist policy shop, and with the Senate Democratic Policy Committee (run by Sen. Tom Daschle), urging members to become environmental optimists before Republicans stole the march. Several Democratic senators seemed taken but–or so I was told–were asked to steer clear by the vice president’s office.

Wham! I had hit the Al Gore glass ceiling. The vice president has staked out doomsday as a favored issue, and will brook no optimists. An example: Last October, I arranged for the normally anti-regulatory authors Philip Howard, Tom Peters, and David Osborne to join me in condemning environmental rollback attempts on the Hill. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner asked Mike McCurry to read our statement in the White House press room. My wife, who works for the administration under her maiden name, rolled her eyes, saying, “Gore’s office is never going to let you get away with the credit.” Sure enough, when McCurry read our pitch, my name had mysteriously been dropped from the top of the (alphabetical) signers’ list.

Meanwhile, it turned out my fear that Republicans would expropriate environmental optimism was unfounded. The last thing Republicans wanted to hear is that the EPA is a blessing. I even heard that Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Majority Whip, even banned the reading of A Moment on the Earth in his office. (True? Who knows? But I take comfort in believing it.)

Naively, I had thought environmental optimism would appeal to many political camps. Liberals would be happy that regulatory intervention was protecting an essential aspect of life; conservatives would be happy for proof that nature and industry are not incompatible. Instead, left and right united in a screwball shared interest in rejecting any positive environmental tidings. The left was using alarmism about nature to raise money, while the right was raising money with alarmism about regulations. Now with Newt in hiding, that dynamic has changed. Progressives at last are noticing that the best argument for government activism is that it works. Maybe even Al Gore will soon exalt with a broad smile the vibrant U.S. ecology. Don’t faint when it happens.