Leadership and the Environment

By , Ruth Walker is assistant managing editor of the Monitor.

ARE political leaders really leading on environmental questions? George Bush is laying claim to the mantle of Theodore Roosevelt. British conservationists now marvel at the greening of Maggie Thatcher. Green parties are showing up around the world. Even the developing countries protesting they can't afford pollution controls are at least beginning to understand that this is a global issue.

And yet political leadership on this global issue has often come from below the national level: in the United States, from the state, or, more likely, local level.

If there was ever an issue that cried out for Ben Franklin's observation that if we don't hang together, we shall assuredly hang separately, it is the environment.

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It's tough to be a good citizen of the planet. Environmentally sound actions involve putting community interest above personal convenience, putting ``later'' above ``now.'' They also may mean willingness to spend extra to do the job right.

Economists would call pollution problems a case of market failure. The free market will demand that a manufacturer's products be sound and its prices reasonable - but it probably won't reward him for his environmental controls.

We have little personal victories along the way - wrapping up in an extra sweater instead of turning up the heat, or recycling grocery bags. But it's hard to imagine that all these add up to much. It tends to be group action that matters most.

That's why the radical new air-quality plan in southern California is so important. Another heartening recent development is a revival of local recycling programs. Seattle has an active program of recycling trash and other waste. The goal is to divert 60 percent of the city's solid waste into recycling - paper, glass, and aluminum. Much of the rest is yard waste, which can be turned into mulch. The program has caught on in civic-minded Seattle; keeping up with the Joneses now includes getting the recycling bins out just as they do.

Minneapolis adopted a city ordinance last month that would ban most throwaway food packaging from supermarkets and fast-food outlets. And New York City is moving toward a mandatory recycling program.

These good steps are, of course, only a beginning. Former US Sen. Dan Evans, now at Harvard's Kennedy School, has what he calls the ``surfer's theory of politics'': A politician must be careful not to get too far out front of a wave of public sentiment, but also not to be too far behind - it's hard to look like a leader that way.

He sees local recycling efforts as important, but he also calls for more national leadership on the environment, and willingness to proceed with small, manageable steps, rather than waiting for perfect research and perfect solutions.

``We need to establish recycling as an issue - to develop an environmental ethic,'' Senator Evans adds. He also suggests that people who take trash recycling seriously will also demand answers to the more challenging problems of acid rain and the ozone layer.

There is also a connection between environmental carelessness and personal carelessness, or what a psychologist might call ``lack of positive self-concept.''

James Fallows, in an Atlantic piece on the Philippines not long ago, wrote, ``Outsiders feel they have understood something small but significant about Japan's success when they watch a bar man carefully wipe the condensation off a bottle of beer and twirl it on the table until the label faces the customer exactly. I felt I had a glimpse into the failures of the Philippines when I saw prosperous-looking matrons buying cakes and donuts in a bakery, eating them in a department store, and dropping the box and wrappers around them as they shopped.''

An environmental ethic is an outward expression of the integrity within. It should be the privilege of political leadership to bring out the best in people, and to make the most of that integrity.

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