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Earth to Newt

A Gingrich revolution on behalf of the environment.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By G. TRACY MEHAN III
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A Contract with the Earth

by Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple

Foreword by Edward O. Wilson

Johns Hopkins, 256 pp., $20

Have you heard the one about the politician and the zookeeper? Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, and Terry L. Maple, former president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, currently with the Palm Beach Zoo, have written a manifesto aimed at restoring the earth through cooperation, entrepreneurship, technology, and partnerships between and among governments, business corporations, and private philanthropy.


A Contract with the Earth opens with an appreciative foreword by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, followed by a passionate preface by the speaker himself. Gingrich states that he and Maple share an environmental philosophy which is derived "from an enduring respect for wildlife in all its splendid diversity. We are personally diminished by the loss of each and every species or essential habitat that cannot resist extinction." He is concerned that "our failure to resolve serious environmental challenges will compromise the lives of our children and our grandchildren."

Gingrich's love for wildlife, like that of Theodore Roosevelt and the former conservative senator from New York James L. Buckley (brother of William F.), is personal and deeply rooted. The speaker is a staunch defender of the Endangered Species Act, "an excellent example of the value of civility, consultation, and collaboration," and he believes that recent changes in the implementation of the law "have produced good results, a function of shared values and democratic ideals." Gingrich and Maple argue that the Endangered Species Act may be "America's best environmental success story"--a claim which will certainly get them a few emails from conservative bloggers.

Compare Gingrich's defense of the Act to James Buckley's in his recent memoir, Gleanings from an Unplanned Life:

As for the protection of critical ecosystems and the species that depend on them, one would think that conservatives in particular would understand Edmund Burke's caution that "temporary possessors and life-rentors [sic] should not think it among their rights to . . . commit waste on the inheritance [and] leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation." As I reminded National Review readers in a 1978 defense of the Endangered Species Act, a Wood Thrush's haunting song may have no monetary value, but it enriches countless lives.

Gingrich insists that "adversarial politics has prevented a strategic consensus from driving our nation's environmental vision." The environmental issue, he says, "transcends politics." The speaker eschews stereotypes: "It is quite possible to be a green conservative; indeed, a conservative philosophy is highly compatible with the mainstream, or entrepreneurial, environmentalism that Terry and I advocate."

Gingrich and Maple claim that something should be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "but our government has not yet demonstrated the necessary leadership to create a workable alternative to Kyoto. Our country needs to get back to the table." They also embrace a "compelling environmental vision" in which industrial societies wean themselves from their dependence on fossil fuels: "Strong leadership is the antidote to our reliance on fossil fuels; it is time to seize this indisputably big idea--a turning point for wiser, sustainable use of our natural resources," they write. "Like a good stock portfolio, it is becoming increasingly clear that a diversified energy portfolio is a timely idea." And national security necessitates this migration away from fossil fuels.


A Contract with the Earth is strong in outlining the tremendous proliferation of government/business environmental partnerships and the expansion of strategic, collaborative philanthropy on behalf of conservation.

The Wildlife Conservation Society of New York, for example, has established an endowment of $500 million to fund more than a hundred field conservation projects on four continents, and support conservation operations within its five zoos and aquaria. While Gingrich and Maple praise the Nature Conservancy--the most visible, and largest, private land trust in the world-they might have also noted that private land trusts in the United States now protect 37 million acres, an area equal to 16-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone National Park, as determined by the Land Trust Alliance in its recent census. Gingrich and Maple see a new kind of entrepreneurship arising that will generate new products, services, and technologies to save energy, restore the land, and clean up pollution. Corporations such as Wal-Mart can transform an entire supply chain by demanding environmentally friendly products for their customers. Costa Rica has developed a huge ecotourism industry, thereby creating incentives and the means for continued protection of its rain forests.

To call the authors optimists would be an understatement. Not for them the darker musings of, say, Wendell Berry; they aim to overcome political strife, transform difficult trade-offs into win-win situations, and save the planet.

G. Tracy Mehan III is a principal in the Cadmus Group, an environmental consulting firm, and served in the EPA under George W. Bush.