BOOKS: Environmental Disasters as Case Studies in “This Borrowed Earth”
Reviewed by Michael Connor
Naysayers on climate change and global warming have a point: no one can predict with certainty what the future holds. And so, despite evidence compiled by some of the best scientists on the planet, they weave conspiracy theories and argue for non-action.
The same pattern frequently emerges in discussions about environmental safety, with the naysayers arguing that immediate risks to health are exaggerated while the cost of protecting against unforeseen calamity is usually too great. Besides, economic development will suffer, they suggest.
But what lessons does history provide? Massive mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s. A dioxin-laced explosion at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy, in the 1976. And an explosion at a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands in 1984.
Those are but a few examples – there are more, right up to the present day. And Robert Emmet Hernan provides a frightening catalog of detail about each of them in his new book, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters around the World. Hernan’s message is simple: “If we forget how and why these disasters happened and what horrible consequences emerged from them, we will not avert future disasters.”
This Borrowed Earth will serve as a valuable textbook for a generation of environmentally-conscious young people who were not yet born when Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez dominated headlines. Unfortunately, they will discover that a disturbing pattern emerges in far too many of these cases: a preference for profit over human safety; a willingness to ignore early warning signs of trouble; lies and cover-up; and, oftentimes, a denial of the suffering caused.
A former environmental attorney for New York State who worked on the infamous Love Canal toxic dump case in Niagara Falls, New York, Hernan concludes that what’s needed to address the issue of global warming is political will. “We need leaders who are capable of imagining the consequences of global climate change, and who can identify those who will suffer in the future,” he writes, “including our children, our grandchildren, and their descendants.”
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