by Whit Gibbons

October 21, 2007

President Teddy Roosevelt, vice-president Al Gore, and former congressman Newt Gingrich have something in common besides holding public office--all have written on the importance of the environment and conservation.

Gore wrote "Earth in the Balance" and this year won a Nobel Peace Prize (2007) for capturing public attention about global climate change through his political actions and his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." Although Roosevelt's Peace Prize (1906) was for events related to international arbitration, he wrote extensively to promote conservation and land ethics. As the "Conservation President," he started the U.S. Forest Service and protected wildlife and natural habitats through the national park system and wildlife refuges.

Gingrich has not received a Nobel Prize yet, or even been president or vice-president, but the just released book, "A Contract with the Earth," by Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple (2007, Johns Hopkins University Press) could be influential in guiding the public on a powerful environmental path. Terry Maple is best known by the public for his fund-raising skills as the president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta from 1984-2003. However, he is also an accomplished scientist, animal behaviorist, and conservation biologist, as attested to by two of his previous books, Orangutan Behavior (1980) and Gorilla Behavior (1982).

I found it a healthy sign that someone like Gingrich who is clearly defined as a "conservative" politician would even bring up the idea that conservation and the environment are important, vitally important, to all of us in today's world. I have become somewhat weary of the political rhetoric from presidential candidates of both parties in which the word "environment" is seldom if ever mentioned.

Together Gingrich and Maple make a good team in declaring the importance of and need for "bipartisan environmentalism." Among the themes that are consistent throughout the book is that "entrepreneurial environmentalism" is the ultimate key to success in global conservation through the "merging of private and public interests . . . to serve the common good." The authors note that for this approach to be effective, we must abandon the perception that free enterprise is in direct conflict with environmentalism. Extremists on both sides will of course take issue with the idea that greedy capitalists and fanatical environmentalists might ever come to terms, but fortunately there is a lot of middle ground between the extremes.

The positions of Gingrich and Maple are taken with an attitude that the United States must become the world leaders in environmental protection, including minimizing waste through recycling, reducing dependency on fossil fuels, restoring the environmental health of the world's forests, wetlands, and marine environments, and putting the brakes on loss of biodiversity and endangered wildlife. They support new technologies, but only "clean technologies." They also call for greater encouragement of scientific and technical literacy. Anyone who feels threatened by the concept of having more scientists and engineers around who have a mission of environmental protection should reconsider why they are so insecure, or even paranoid (my words, not theirs).

The book is well organized, most chapters ending with "talking points" that sum up the authors' position and offer some meaningful quotes. One I have always agreed with is that "Respect for the natural world is a mainstream value of all Americans, but the attitude must be nurtured in our children and affirmed throughout our society." Any environmental outreach program that focuses on school children meets that goal. The final talking point in the last chapter reinforces the point: "Our growing estrangement from nature is a dangerous trend, especially in view of its potential to damage the psyche of our children." I certainly agree.

In the Preface, written by Gingrich, he states a truth that "environmental stewardship is everyone's responsibility, including Congress's." A later quote in the book would also be difficult to disagree with and is certainly worth paying attention to: "It is tragic that the American government, both Congress and the president, has thus far failed to exert sufficient and effective leadership on the environment. We anticipate a return to assertive American leadership."

Roosevelt has already laid claim to the "Conservation President," but the "Environmental President" has a more modern ring. Is Newt Gingrich thinking that far ahead?

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