BOOK REVIEW / Selfish bio-adventures of a green haggler: The greening of Machiavelli - Tony Renton: Earthscan, pounds 14.95

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THE environment - the new, bawling infant among human concerns - is likely to be one of the few issues on which future generations will judge us. It will take its place alongside war and peace, trade and industry, justice and governance as historians map out their books. Will they be kind?

It will be hard for future generations to appreciate how little able we are to judge what needs to be done, and where. Our leaders must make nearly impossible judgements on matters of huge scientific uncertainty. They come under conflicting political pressures from a public which excoriates inaction almost as much as it would punish the intrusion of costly or frustrating legislation.

From early on, it was clear that the environment was an international issue, since pollution usually ignores national boundaries, and - very important - unilateral environmental regulation could play havoc with progress toward free and fair trade. And then there was, and remains, the third world, presenting the dilemma of needing dramatic economic growth just when 'ecological growth' seemed so important to the already rich nations of the world.

The poor countries think their sovereign right to do what they like - whether in making money or pollution - is important, and can only be traded for large dollops of aid. The rich world thinks the Third World ought to be grateful for what little help

it gets. Classical Machiavellianism - the operation of self-interest - seems to leave everyone pursuing a 'business-as-usual' approach in most of the areas of concern.

But one can take a more cheerful view. Tony Brenton notes that from its birth - in Stockholm in 1972 - the UN environment conference process has always been big- time. Stockholm was the biggest UN conference that had ever been held, and the Earth Summit in Rio 20 years later attracted more national leaders than any meeting before it. The international conferences that ended world wars were small by comparison.

Early on, the infant suffered from afflatus: perhaps the beans and beards brigade got in the way. Politicians want to look like statesmen, and the environment gave some of them, perhaps especially Mrs Thatcher and M Mitterrand, just the stage they craved. But there was something more: these were ideas whose time had come, and they arrived in mental soil that had been prepared by 500 years of discussion about man and nature.

As a Foreign Office diplomat, the author has a proper taste for the ironies and machinery of international negotiations. An experienced green haggler, he seems to have gone native enough to bring passion to what might have been an amused and detached observation of the follies of the world.

Instead, he has produced a fair-minded account of the rows over acid rain, population control, the ozone layer, rainforest, bio-diversity and - the big one - global warming. He implies that it is more gratifying that some quite important progress was made than dismaying that more was not done.

He is not quite bold enough - quite inspirational enough - to take the risk of trying to work out why some interesting politicians took the environment seriously. Some of Tony Brenton's best points are in parentheses, which show just how tangled the issues are, and sometimes leave the impression that a less politically correct book is lurking within. Such deficiencies reveal how environment politics and diplomacy are uniquely modern and challenging. It is good to see this account of how one of the oldest professions tried to deal with them.