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Book Review: “Hope on Earth: A Conversation”

September 15, 2014

schneircBy Richard Schneider,

Hope on Earth: A Conversation, by Paul Ehrlich & Michael Charles Tobias, University of Chicago Press, 2014

Eavesdropping has a long and distinguished (or sordid) history not only in social life but in books, plays, and movies, too. Sometimes eavesdropping can lead to the solution of a mystery or the unraveling of a twisted tale. It can lead to love or adventure. Other times it can lead to misunderstandings, miscalculations, and missed opportunities. The eavesdropper never knows for sure about the outcome. Regardless, the overheard conversation leaves a mark. We’ve learned something.

Paul Ehrlich, scientist and author of The Population Bomb, and Michael Tobias, filmmaker and author, hold a conversation in Hope on Earth, a book recently published by the University of Chicago Press. It’s a conversation I eavesdropped on all day yesterday until they said their last word: “In fact, it’s later than you think.” Of course, they expected and wanted me to eavesdrop on their conversation held in the Colorado mountains over two days. Yet, the book seems to record a true conversation that jumps from subject to subject, inexplicably sometimes. The conversation is a bit disorganized, and very informal, but nonetheless compelling and even suspenseful. Everyone should listen in. You can learn something, and maybe begin to organize your own thinking.

What do they discuss? Since Ehrlich and Tobias are conservationists, their discussion is mostly about the pros and cons of being a vegetarian, whether it’s moral to eat meat, overpopulation and overconsumption, and climate change. Along the way they talk about this, that, and the other thing but rarely, if at all, do they indulge in hope, as the title proposes. In fact, the book seems to take a pretty dark view of our future. It’s the conversational format that separates Hope on Earth from other environmental non-fiction. Ehrlich and Tobias go down a lot of roads but never force conclusions. There’s something immediately attractive about listening to two experts who have a lot to say, especially when they leave room for reflection. You’re not trapped in an elevator with them but by the end of the book even that doesn’t sound bad.

The ethics of saving the one or the many is among the first topics they discuss. Do you work tirelessly to save a bird damaged by an oil spill or do you take that same energy and apply it to reducing the likelihood of oil spills? Ehrlich and Tobias never answer this question except to imply that it is up to the individual. It seems to me that the question opens into the tension at the heart of all of the ethical issues they discuss. Is there an environmental ethics that will give us answers about sustainability and how to save the planet? Tobias at one point argues for a form of normative ethics, or “moral realism,” as he calls it, that will lead to “real action.” It is fine to state the principle but another thing to erect that kind of normative ethics because “real action” means that a choice has been made that may and usually will exclude other options. Instead, what I enjoy in the book is that the conversation really seems to embrace what is called virtue ethics.

Here’s an example. One of the threads running through the book is Ehrlich’s continuing embrace of meat and fish versus Tobias’s vegetarianism. Each makes the case at various moments for one or the other approach. Tobias admires Jainism that honors the suffering of plants in an otherwise non-violent approach to life. On the other hand, Ehrlich says, “I generalize the whole thing to say that you are ‘eating’ animals, likely including some human beings, when you have a child, feast on asparagus, or drive a car.” Neither convinces the other to change his approach in accordance with a normative ethics or “real action.” Instead, they appear to agree to disagree, each one following the dictates of his own conscience along a path of virtue ethics. The ethics in the conversation get downright normative mostly when the subject of population comes up. There, Ehrlich, in particular, has strong feelings about norms with respect to abortion, procreation, and population limits.

There is some rich discussion in the book about the possibility for non-humans to think or act ethically. At several moments the conversation takes up an astonishing example where chimps seem to exhibit strong remorse over the killing and partial eating of an infant chimp. One of the chimps actually “took the baby chimp’s body and carried it two miles and left it on Jane Goodall’s doorstep.” At another point in the book Ehrlich points out that “much ethical discussion today is largely irrelevant, such as whether it’s ethical to eat pork, be homosexual, or take an imaginary deity’s name in vain – just the ethics of nonsense.” The conversation in Hope on Earth is strongest when it redirects our ethical attention to issues that matter for the planet, and it does that on nearly every page. It’s openness to different approaches – its reliance on virtue ethics – is refreshing even though it never calls it by that name.

The conversational aspect of the book makes it an attractive read. As with all eavesdropping, however, we can’t predict the outcome of this conversation but we can know that its truths will leave their mark. I have to wonder who chose the title of the book. Hope on Earth seems to fly in the face of the book’s content. Instead, I might have suggested It’s Later than You Think.