Are these events really receding into distant memory? It seems impossible to those of us who lived through them, but I think it’s true. Some college students I quizzed recently had only a dim recollection of hearing about Chernobyl, and Bhopal elicited a complete blank. I didn’t bother asking about London and its choking fogs.

And so Robert Hernan provides a deep service by reminding us how out of kilter things can go. In an age where we’re once again ideologically committed to “loosening the reins” on private enterprise, it’s sobering to remember what has happened in the past. And in an age when new technologies are barely tested before they’re put into widespread use--genetically engineered crops, for instance--it’s even more sobering to contemplate a seemingly iron-clad rule: every new machine or system seems to fail catastrophically at least once.

In the years to come, the line that Hernan draws in his introduction between natural and environmental disasters will blur--if global warming raises the sea level and then amps up the hurricane, is the wave that inundates Miami “environmental”? It’s not an act of God, that’s for sure. Still, in some way it will be an act of collective folly--not the individual and corporate greed that so often seems to stand behind these tragic tales. And it won’t respond in quite the same way to the individual heroism that Hernan documents so movingly in these pages.

What will remain the same, however, is human vulnerability. W. Eugene Smith’s pictures of the victims of Minamata Disease capture that vulnerability at its deepest, and so do the stories of the firemen at Chernobyl, or the many others chronicled herein. That vulnerability endangers us, of course--but it is closely related to the love, the shared concern, that might save us yet. I was speaking not long ago on a panel with Lois Gibbs, the hero of Love Canal, and I found myself thinking how magnificent it was that she had rallied not only to her own cause and that of her neighbors, but then on to the victims of a thousand other tragedies. In the end, her witness and the witness of many like her is more telling than the greed and recklessness of the powerful that created the need for their work (not a lot more telling, but just a hair.)

May this book give heart and courage to many more such great souls, for there are assuredly many more such fights to come.

Bill McKibben

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