Clinton and Environmentalists: A Costly Parting of the Ways

A serious commitment by the president, of the sort that distinguishes froth from substance, has been absent.

SOMETIMES in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a political movement and a political party to sever the bonds that have made them one. Such a time has arrived for environmentalists and the Democratic Party. More specifically, it has arrived for one very large and important segment of environmental culture and the Clinton-Gore administration.

The period since this administration came to power has been an environmental disaster. Rarely if ever has a new government promised so much for one of its core constituencies and delivered so little.

From the middle years of the Bush administration to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1990 through the 1992 presidential campaign, ``the environment'' was among the most important concerns of Americans. But after 18 months of Clinton-Gore, what is the state of environmental interest?

Media coverage of the issue has muted to a level not seen since the early Reagan years. From the perspective of advancing environmental thinking beyond a sentimental nativism or a traditional Brahmin reverence for the land, making it a populist issue that links greening with economic well-being, it is, in many respects, as if the last quarter-century of environmental political evolution had never happened.

Nationally and globally, as the White House has failed to emphasize, educate, and inspire in this realm, the membership and solvency of environmental organizations have suffered. Periodicals in this field are going under. Books on the subject have disappeared from bestseller lists. Integrating environmental themes into school curricula has slackened. A green aesthetic in the arts has almost totally vanished.

All these failures, plus a broader failure to substitute American environmental leadership for global military leadership in a post-cold-war world and to create an intellectual and ideological green counterweight to ethnic fragmentation, has infuriated left-leaning American culture. This has led to the creation of a Green Party that will field candidates in New Mexico, California, Hawaii, and Alaska this fall. Right-leaning environmental business culture is where the Clinton-Gore team faces an even more serious political challenge.

Seemingly endless waffling about how much and even whether to regulate in order to achieve environmental goals has been a huge factor negatively affecting the $130 billion domestic environmental services and pollution control industry. Last year (the first full year of the Clinton presidency) was the worst in two decades for this industry. Profits plummeted almost 13 percent among the industry's 70 largest corporate elements. Collective employment among these ``majors'' fell for the first time ever.

Even more infuriating for many environmental businesspeople is this administration's failure to adequately promote US export of environmental services and pollution control equipment. The foreign market for these ``green goods'' now represents $170 billion in sales annually, with the fastest growth occurring in Asia, whose countries spent $50 billion in this market during 1993.

While a stream of initiatives, incentives, and programs aimed at promoting such sales emanates from the Commerce Department bureaucracy, a serious commitment by the chief executive, of the sort that distinguishes frothy wonkery from genuine political substance, has been totally absent.

The White House did not emphasize the importance of this trade during NAFTA debates and failed to fight for special advantages for the US green industry during negotiations for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Not once, at any of the half-dozen G-7 meetings Mr. Clinton attended, had he forcefully asserted a determination to win this market for US companies.

Alas for this administration, while left-leaning environmentalists will almost certainly come back into the fold by the next national election (though possibly sticking with a Green Party in some local contests), the situation with the nation's large and growing environmental business culture could be quite different. These people may have a very appealing Republican alternative by 1996.

The mechanism to bring this critical element of the environmental movement into the Republican column could well be that party's vice-presidential nominee. Both Christine Todd Whitman and William Weld, Republican governors of New Jersey and Massachusetts, respectively, are developing excellent credentials as environmental business governors - chief executives who are revitalizing their states' economies by promoting the interests of local environmental industries. They are doing at a state level what the administration in Washington has failed to do on a national and international stage.

How poignant it would be during the next vice-presidential debates if the American people found the socially conscious, ethics-heavy environmentalism of Mr. Gore and the Clinton administration sadly dated and wanting compared to the pro-environmental business environmentalism of a Republican challenger. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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