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Strategies for a Resourceful World

Environmental expert shares ideas on saving global resources and improving quality of life. INTERVIEW: JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1989



WASHINGTON

`IT'S changing faster than anything I've ever seen change.'' Jessica Tuchman Mathews isn't talking about her office at the World Resources Institute (WRI), awash with loose folders during what she describes as a redesign of her filing system. She's talking about a much larger redesign: the wholesale shift in the public's attitude toward global environmental issues.

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``When we started this institute in 1982,'' says Dr. Mathews, who is vice-president of the highly regarded 85-member environmental research and policy organization, ``there was no public concern about this global agenda. None of the other environmental groups had it.''

Now, apologizing for resorting to clich'es, she uses phrases like ``a sea change'' and ``a turning point'' to describe the last two years. The change, she feels, has come in part from the increasingly worldwide flow of information. In part, too, it has come from last summer's heat and the discussions it prompted of the global-warming trend.

But much of it, she says, has to do with broader shifts on the international landscape. The winding down of the cold war, the plans for a united Europe in 1992, the change of the United States from a creditor to a debtor nation, the steady democratization of Latin America - these and other developments, she recognizes, have ``nothing to do with the environment.'' But the effect, she adds, is ``almost like throwing all the cards up in the air. We have the context for redesigning the whole system. So it's not as though you had to deal with the environment in the framework of a rigidly defined, familiar system: Everything is different.''

The result, she says, is that ``this next 10 years could be a time of crucial innovations - maybe even on a scale like that between 1945 and 1955, when our whole system got created.''

If such changes do come, it will be none too soon for Mathews. In an article in the spring issue of Foreign Affairs, which is being widely cited in environmental circles, she states the case tersely in her lead sentence.

``The 1990s will demand a redefinition of what constitutes national security,'' she writes. National security in the future, she reasons, will shift from defending against other nations to defending against environmental degradation.

Expanding on that point in a recent interview, she notes that ``there are some fairly fundamental changes needed in the international system.'' That post-World War II system, she explains, was ``basically set up to contain and manage conflict.'' Today's need is for ``a system that fosters cooperation.''

In the early years of the environmental movement, she says, successes often came through confrontation between activists and large corporations. Now, with the movement maturing and the issues becoming more global, the need is for cooperation - not only among contending groups within each nation, but among nations as well. And that will require significant changes in attitude, especially for Americans.

In the relations between government and the private sector, she says, ``we only seem to be able to think in terms of conflict. We think that's the natural order.''

Instead, environmental groups need to work to ``influence'' corporations to become environmentally aware. ``You've got to suck them in,'' she says. ``And the only way to get that change is to engage them, almost against their will, in cooperative (efforts).''

How to do that? ``To me the powerful arguments are the self-interest ones,'' she says. To be sure, she notes, there is a broader moral framework for the discussion - an ``ethical sense'' of ``not leaving the planet substantially more impoverished and less able to support human life at a reasonable quality'' than it is today.