Bird’s Eye View of Americans
The Satya Interview with Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist and
author, whose books include
Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental
(1999) and On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency
(1988). His work has appeared in many publications, including The
New Yorker, The Nation, Harper’s, Time,
The Guardian, Le Monde and The New York Times.
He is a regular contributor to National Public Radio and now hosts “Spotlight” on
For his new book, The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates
and Infuriates the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), Hertsgaard
spent six months traveling around the world learning how foreigners
view America and why. Catherine Clyne caught up with
Hertsgaard to talk about his book and his view of the state of the world
What did you set out to do with The Eagle’s Shadow?
My idea for The Eagle’s Shadow came out of Earth
Odyssey actually. When I traveled around the world for it in the
early ‘90s, I was in 19 different countries, interviewing people
from all different walks of life. Invariably, I found that while they
would answer my questions about the environment cheerfully enough, what
really interested them was Americans. As soon as they found out I was
from the U.S., that’s what they wanted to talk about. They had
questions and comments and complaints, but above all, enormous curiosity,
and I realized—not for the first time, I’d been a reporter
overseas for a long time—that the outside world is intensely
interested in the U.S. And contrarywise, most Americans, certainly
were barely aware that the rest of the world existed; and that disparity
struck me as one that would be very important to explore and ventilate.
What kind of responses have you received to the book so far?
It’s been very interesting how different the response has been
overseas compared to here in the U.S. Last September I was in Europe
and it was like being a rock star, in terms of the amount of media attention
the book got. I was on all the big national television and radio shows,
and in the major papers and so forth. There’s been enormous enthusiasm,
overseas, whether in Europe or Japan, and now it’s coming out
in Brazil. Not that everyone agreed with me, obviously, but even where
there was disagreement, the book was engaged seriously.
Then I come back to the U.S., and it’s been strikingly different.
All the big East Coast newspapers were surprisingly vicious. The New
York Times did not just one review but two attacks, one in the daily
and one in the Sunday paper. And the Boston Globe, the Washington Post—they
were just very negative about the book, saying it was anti-American,
that it was all cliches, that it didn’t tell us anything new,
that it was too much of Hertsgaard’s opinions and not enough foreign
reporting. Meanwhile, except for Bill Moyers’ “Now”
(and about four minutes on CNN), I haven’t been invited on any
national TV or radio.
What do you make of that?
I don’t want to read too much into this, but with my previous
books I’d done all the major shows—“Good Morning America,”
“Nightline,” Larry King, and “Crossfire.” It’s
not that the bookers of the shows are not aware of this book; there
has been a decision not to do it, and it’s very curious because
this topic has been very much in the news. I’ve really been shut
out of the mainstream media and media discussion. It’s hard to
know how much of it is the message of the book, or how much of it is
that our media in general is not very interested in ideas or any kind
of in-depth analysis.
I’m the last person to give an objective rendering of whether
the book’s any good or not, but the fact that many Europeans
seem to find value in it at least tells you something.
Since Earth Odyssey was published, in terms of our
environmental future, what major changes have you seen, positive and
Let’s start with global warming. I was very heartened the other
day to see that Tony Blair has come out with a proposal to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions by 60 percent over the next 50 years. That goes far beyond
the Kyoto Protocol that Bush has rejected. That Kyoto is now enforced
without the U.S. is a very hopeful sign. That train has in a way left
the station; the Europeans and the rest of the world are beginning
move towards a kind of post-fossil fuels economy.
This indicates that even inside very mainstream governments, there
is recognition that climate change is real. Bush is trying to drag
feet on this, in deference to his oil industry buddies, but I don’t
think that events are going to let that continue.
On the population front, I think we’ve also made good progress.
Again, despite the Bush administration’s recalcitrance, in particular,
there’s been a recognition that if you really want to deal with
the issue of population, it’s really about empowering women. There’s
a lot about globalization that many in the activist world don’t
like, but there are also things that are good, including the globalization
of human rights—sometimes out of very sorrowful circumstances,
but that is becoming increasingly untenable as globalization proceeds.
In today’s world, with girls growing up and seeing television
shows where girls and women do not have to be veiled and do not have
to stay home their entire lives, that creates a revolutionary change
The problem is progress is not coming anywhere near fast enough. We
have got to recognize that fixing the economy and the environment should
go hand in hand. But it requires a dramatic shift away from today’s
models, where big corporations make all the production and investment
decisions. It’s very hard to get them to shift towards green energy,
or different forms of irrigation and transportation systems, or different
forms of housing and commercial construction. Finally, there’s
the question of consumption: we have a capitalist economy built on ever-increasing
production and consumption, and it’s an environmental deadend.
And I just see a never-ending increase in consumption in America...
I think it’s very difficult to get people to realize that consumption
is really the big issue in terms of the environment; it remains very
difficult to change people’s behavior. In The Eagle’s
Shadow, I talk about how one of the big effects of the U.S. around
the world is environmental, and we don’t even know it. Through
globalization and MTV and all that, we’re sending a message that
the American standard of living and consumption patterns are what you
should want, and people naturally enough do want them. The problem is
that if everyone—all six billion people—on the planet consumed
the way the U.S. does, with today’s technologies, we would need
three extra planets to absorb all the pollution and to provide all the
natural resources. Clearly we don’t have that, so something’s
got to give.
We’ve got 45 percent of the human family living on $2 a day or
less, and those people very understandably want to have a better life.
The challenge for us is how do we find a way to accommodate their ascent
out of poverty, but in a way that doesn’t wreck the life support
systems that make our existence here possible? The only way I see is
with something that will channel our economic activity and development
in a way that repairs the environmental damage rather than worsens
Is that the idea behind the Global Green Deal?
The Global Green Deal starts from the recognition that you cannot be
serious in talking about the environment if you don’t talk about
poverty. So we’ve got to find a way to allow for economic development
in a way that is environmentally sustainable—and I mean genuinely
sustainable, not Exxon/Mobil’s appropriation of sustainability
rhetoric. That sounds sort of like putting a square peg in a round hole,
but, in fact, there’s been enough research that shows these two
things can go together. The Global Green Deal would be a government-led,
market-based program to essentially environmentally retrofit our entire
Let’s take the example of cars. Probably the biggest symbol of
the American environmental crisis, cars are responsible for about one
quarter of all our greenhouse gas emissions. Americans say they would
like to buy green cars, but there aren’t very many in the marketplace.
The U.S. government buys about 56,000 vehicles every year for the post
office, the Defense Department, etc. That’s a lot of business.
Under a Global Green Deal, the government would use its own purchasing
power to jump-start the market. Washington would tell Detroit, “We’re
going to continue to buy all those vehicles from you, but from now on,
they’ll be green.” It will help bring down the per-unit
cost of those cars.
We know this kind of model works because it’s exactly why all
of us have computers on our desks today. In the 1960s and ‘70s,
the federal government subsidized the computer industry to help them
build computers for the government. We went from a computer that would
fill an entire gymnasium, to now, where I carry around that same computing
ability on a palm pilot. We don’t have to spend more money, we
just have to spend our money more wisely.
One final thought is that we have to change here at home first. We
go green and the rest of the world will go green. If we don’t, nobody
else is going to be willing to. I think back to the environment minister
of the Czech Republic I interviewed. He was complaining about how little
Gore and Clinton had done on climate change after talking such a big
game, and he said “you Americans are watched more than you realize,
and when you don’t do something, [like resist climate change],
it gives everyone else the excuse not to do it as well.”
So, how do you change America’s consumption patterns?
Most Americans care about their weekly paycheck and really do have
to count their pennies. They want to see the environment protected
they’re worried about the economic costs. The environmental movement
has not done a very good job of reaching out to help people realize
that there is a big difference between your standard of living and your
level of consumption. They are not the same. Instead, the argument gets
couched as: “We have to stop consumption, we want you to have
less, and let’s all wear hairshirts and deprive ourselves.”
I used to live abroad and the way people learned about the
U.S. was by watching glitzy TV shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” which
portray an unreal, hyper-consumptive lifestyle.
The U.S. is the epicenter of the “buy, buy, buy,” make-yourself-feel-good-by-consuming
mentality. That’s what we’re spreading overseas. I say in
my book that the modern American empire doesn’t colonize territories
so much as it colonizes minds. We do that through the television screen,
which is I think the most influential invention (at least non-military)
of the last 50 years.
In my parents’ generation, the world learned about America through
the movie screen. In my generation it’s television; and now it’s
through music videos, the Internet, computer games and such. The U.S.
and our economic institutions are colonizing minds—especially
those of young people, teenagers—getting them to embrace those
kinds of values and ensuring ever-rising consumption patterns overseas.
But it’s sending an environmentally and socially destructive
message, because you are implanting a vision of human happiness based
one that if everyone adopts is going to lead to planetary death.
Speaking of colonizing minds… as a journalist, what’s
your opinion of the American media’s portrayal of the dynamics
that led to 911, and how do they rate in the complex foreign view of
the U.S. that you outline in your book?
The whole mythology that there’s a liberal media in the U.S.,
it just baffles me that anyone can even take that seriously any longer,
when the media is owned by a handful of the largest corporations in
history, institutions that could not have less of an interest in upsetting
the economic status quo and no real interest in an informed public.
Basically, their concern is making profit, and their perception is
the way you make profit is to entertain rather than inform.
As a result, I think that coverage has been pretty poor, and what is
striking to me is how much that runs counter to what average Americans
want. After 911, ordinary Americans desperately wanted to understand
how this could have happened. Look at the way they emptied libraries
and bookstores of volumes about Islam and foreign policy and the Middle
East and all that stuff. Very briefly even the media was beginning
remember that the news was supposed to be about something and actually
started to cover foreign news. But that quickly dropped as people lined
up to stand in attention to the government. There’s the other
part of the problem.
There’s the ownership side of this, then there’s the ideological
side. For the most part, the American media—especially the Washington
press corp—tend to report the news—especially foreign affairs—from
the viewpoint of Washington. A president will only get as much critical
coverage as the opposition party is willing to state, because the journalist
notion of what’s neutral and fair is to say, “our job is
to report what the administration says and then balance it by asking
the opposition party for their critique.” That’s not unimportant,
we need to know what Washington thinks, but the problem arises when
there is no real opposition party and no real vibrant political debate
within the two parties.
It’s not that it’s consciously suppressed or manipulated,
it’s a more subtle process than that, but what it results in
is a very impoverished and narrow political discussion, and the media
the means by which we now have that public discussion in America.
What three alternative sources of information would you recommend
to Americans so they can be more informed?
One thing I would say is read the foreign press. If English is your
only language, get on the Internet and read the British newspapers,
The Guardian and The Independent, and check out the
BBC website. These are all professional, high-caliber news organizations.
You’ll see a very different view of the world.
Second, check out Alternet (www.alternet.org),
which is sort of like an Associated Press wire service for progressive,
alternative points of view. They’ll have everything from The
Nation magazine and Harper’s, to groups like MoveOn.Org
and Not In Our Name, to Pacific News Service.
Third, I would invite people to watch WorldLink TV, a non-profit satellite
network that brings news and music programming from around the world
to the U.S. I host a show on WorldLink called “Spotlight,”
where we show investigative documentaries that you just don’t
get on American television.
That is one advantage we have now that we didn’t have, say, ten
years ago when I was writing my book on Reagan and the media. Now,
of the Internet, you are one click away from high-caliber news and
information, and no longer subject to the monopoly of American corporate
What gives you hope for the future?
Well, I don’t see any alternative to hope. This is a lesson I
learned most directly from Vaclav Havel when I interviewed him for Earth
Odyssey. Havel wrote a great essay called “Living in Truth,”
where he says the discussion political activists so often get into is:
“Oh it’s no use, the bad guys are in control, what can we
do? It’s hopeless.” He said that’s really a dead end
and decided not to go there, because that leads to discussions of “If
I act, will it do any good?” and people who think about that end
up doing nothing. The point is to do what is morally required in a situation,
whether it’s standing up to the Soviet dictatorship as Havel did,
or opposing war, or standing up for workers’ rights in South Africa
or human rights in Burma or whatever the situation is. Havel’s
argument is, you do what is right and let the consequences take care
of themselves because none of us can ever know what will lead to political
change and what will not, and if we debate that too much, we end up
being passive. And here’s a guy—if anyone has an excuse
to say it doesn’t really matter what I do, it’s Havel because
he lived under a totalitarian dictatorship. Especially when he first
went to jail in the early ‘80s for insisting on basic human rights,
it didn’t look like the Soviet Union was going to fall anytime
soon. And yet, by the end of the decade, a mere six years later, Havel
was in the presidential office.
You can make the same kind of argument about Nelson Mandela, who spent
27 years in prison. The vast majority of that time it looked like apartheid
was never going to fall in South Africa. Likewise, in the former Soviet
Union—who would have thought in 1985 that a guy named Gorbachev
would come to power in that rotten system, and yet he did.
I guess what gives me hope is the realization that on the one hand,
history is full of surprises, and on the other hand, history does not
happen by itself. History happens because thousands and thousands of
usually anonymous people, whose names are never known to history, were
acting in their own individual ways, collectively, to create changes.
Because we live in the present, we can’t see how changes are going
to play out; but over time they do. There’s that great line of
Martin Luther King, who said, “The arc of history is long, but
it bends towards justice.” That’s what gives me hope. I
think that the arc of history is long but eventually if we all do our
task, it does bend toward justice.
to learn more about Mark Hertsgaard and his work. For more on WorldLink
TV, see www.worldlinktv.org.