Mum's the Word On Environment

IN his State of the Union speech last week, President Clinton virtually ignored environmental issues. Of the 7,402 words it took him about an hour to read, just three paragraphs totaling 117 words had anything at all to do with the environment - and these were mostly in the context of creating new jobs or lumped together with other ``dangers in the world,'' like terrorism and arms proliferation.

In only one sentence did the president say anything about what his administration intends to do in 1994. (``This year we will fight for a revitalized Clean Water Act and a Safe Drinking Water Act and a reformed Superfund program.'')

This kind of downplaying in a speech meant to indicate the major concerns and goals of a president is not what environmentalists had expected. After two administrations in which they were pretty much frozen out, they hoped for more.

They had good grounds for such hope. Candidate Clinton embraced the somewhat apocalyptic vision expressed in Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s book ``Earth in the Balance.'' And he appointed many professional environmentalists from major groups to senior administration positions.

Yet when the League of Conservation Voters recently polled 100 environmental activists, they graded Clinton's first-year record at a mere C plus. And it was this high only because of an A in appointments (including former League of Conservation Voters President Bruce Babbitt as interior secretary). Clinton got a C minus on delivery of results and a D plus on budget for environmental protection.

Such rankings serve a limited purpose. But a survey of the anti-environmentalist ``wise use'' movement or property-rights advocates would give Clinton poor grades as well.

The president's decision to discuss just about everything but the environment is curious, especially since so much of what federal government does relates to treatment of the environment.

International relations? Support for population-control measures and cleanup of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Trade? Shipment abroad of toxic chemicals banned in the United States.

Civil rights? Siting of waste-treatment facilities and chemical-production plants in predominantly nonwhite communities.

National security? Polluted military bases.

Transportation? Policies that encourage private autos over public transport.

Energy? Nuclear-waste disposal.

Health care? Federal regulations on hazardous-waste incineration and pesticides.

Broad public-opinion polls indicate no lack of concern about the environment. A recent Arthur D. Little survey showed that 74 percent of Americans believe high priority should be placed on environmental cleanup, and 65 percent say the government isn't spending enough.

From the neighborhood to the national level, more people are directly affected by environmental issues than are without health insurance, or on welfare, or victimized by violent crime - despite the ``crisis'' talk in these other areas. In many cases, as Clinton mentioned (if only in passing) income and job security are at stake as well as health and safety.

Yet there seems to be a kind of public and political weariness -

even boredom - with the issue.

Spare us another endangered bug or weed we've never heard of and don't really care about, many people seem to feel. We know more needs to be done to support economic development, family planning, and women's rights in the third world in order to reduce population pressures, and we know our materialistic lifestyle depletes resources and causes pollution all out of proportion with our numbers - but we want a break from the guilt trip.

Part of the reason is that the most-critical environmental is-sues - population, for example - have long-range impact. It's easy to put them off, or its easy to think that one more gas-guzzler or bag of trash in the landfill won't make that much difference.

Administrations also get weary and bored with issues, especially those that are complicated and not particularly dramatic.

Presidents also feel they have to set priorities, pick out a few issues, and put their major political efforts there. It was obvious from Clinton's speech that - for 1994 at least - the environment is not one of them.

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