Hanover, N.H. — Much of Russell Peterson's career has been built on the proposition that citizen activism counts. Mr. Peterson, president emeritus of the National Audubon Society and one of the deans of the American environmental movement, remembers his early efforts of 20 years ago to organize people to back a coastal zone protection bill in Delaware. ``Every big interest fought us,'' he says. ``It was a knockdown, drag-out battle, and without citizen support we couldn't have had a chance.''
That was a battle he pursued into the political arena: He was elected governor of Delaware in 1969 and served until 1973. The coastal-zone law passed, but there have been repeated efforts to ``undo'' it, he says. Each time, he adds with a grim smile, citizens ``have rallied to block them.''
In such matters ``you can never win permanently,'' observes this square-jawed, sparkly-eyed man. ``Eternal vigilance'' is the need, he intones.
Currently, Peterson is a visiting professor of environmental studies here at Dartmouth College. The course he's teaching is titled ``Prospects for the Global Environment.'' It deals with the international issues -- nuclear war, population growth, energy use -- which have become his major concerns in recent years.
Peterson has helped weld together such groups as the Global Tomorrow Coalition and the Better World Society, groups designed to apply grass-roots activism to the world scene.
He has some notable allies in this effort -- broadcasting magnate Ted Turner, for instance, who is chairman of the Better World Society and has thrown his financial might behind it. But Peterson is quick to admit that it's much more difficult to generate public support for drives to curtail nuclear weaponry than for efforts to clean up local water supplies.
The Global Tomorrow Coalition ``peaked at 14,000 members,'' he says. Most people are simply ``not willing to put out $25 a year to join a group dealing with global issues.''
Peterson calls this ``a myopia that bothers all of us.'' The purpose of his class at Dartmouth, as well as his work in forming citizens' organizations with global objectives, is to combat short-sightedness. The leaders of industry ``focus on making a buck this year,'' he says. And politicians? ``Their time horizon changes as election day approaches.''
But decisionmakers have to listen to the voters who put them in office, this crusader for a mobilized citizenry asserts. That's where grass-roots activism comes in -- whether for safer toxic-waste disposal or disarmament. ``I like to say people are the real leaders -- they organize, and they can turn around the Congress.''
When it comes to domestic environmental issues, Peterson sees lobbying machinery, educational programs, and legal protections firmly in place. He mentions the ``tens of thousands of graduates trained [in] environmental science and law,'' the ``well-established'' nature of the environmental impact statement process, and the quickness with which groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon can marshal local activists.
He also sees an increasing recognition among US business leaders that ``you can't have a healthy economy without a healthy environment.''
The big push now, he says, must be to ``get people more informed about global issues'' because these represent ``by far the greatest impact on the environment.''
``We're making headway, but it's frustratingly slow,'' says Peterson. The involvement of a man like Turner is a definite bright spot, he says. The Atlanta-based broadcaster has lent his airwaves to programming about the aftermath of nuclear war. He also underwrote the series ``Audubon World.''
But how to get the average person interested -- that's the environmentalist's overriding concern. Is there a way, he wonders, to use the mass media to dramatize global concerns in the same way, perhaps, that Norman Lear used ``All in the Family'' to get at racism and bigotry in America?
He has no immediate answer, but you can be sure he'll keep thinking about it. Meanwhile, 1986 will bring a series of meetings sponsored by Global Tomorrow entitled Globescope, to be held around the country. Their purpose, Peterson says, will be to help people in various regions face up to global issues and then, he hopes, get in touch with their senators and write letters to editors.
The meetings' theme, says this true believer in grass-roots democracy, will be an epigram of Ren'e Dubos: ``Think globally; act locally.''