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BOOK REVIEW

A Perceptual Problem: An excerpt from The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment in an Age of Terror

I once asked a class to explain the Gulf of Mexico dead zone (which is roughly the size of New Jersey), the fact that 22 percent of U.S. teenagers are reportedly overweight or obese, and the possible relationships between the two. After an hour, they had filled the blackboard with boxes and arrows that included federal farm subsidies, U.S. tax law, chemical dependency, feedlots and megafarms, the rise of the fast-food industry, declining farm communities, corporate centralization, advertising, a cheap food policy, research agendas at land-grant institutions, urban sprawl, the failure of political institutions, cheap fossil energy, and so forth. Most of the things described by those boxes, however, resulted from decisions that were once thought to be economically rational or at least within the legitimate self-interest of the parties involved. But collectively they are an unfolding continental-scale disaster affecting the health of people and land alike.

The same connect-the-dots kind of exercise could be done to explain urban decay and land sprawl, a defense policy that undermines true security, a de facto energy policy that promotes inefficiency, transportation gridlock, and the failure to provide universal health care. Our individual and collective ­failure to comprehend and act on the connectedness of things is pervasive, systemic, and threatens our health and long-term prosperity. It deserves urgent national attention, but is scarcely noticed. Why is this so?

The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment in an Age of Terror
David W. Orr
Island Press, $20


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