Environmentalism 10 years after

The message of the tenth anniversary of Earth Day is that environmentalists don't always finish last. The April 22 celebration is intended to remind Americans that environmental progress need not be at the expense of economic progress and that tough-minded citizen activism yields results.

Of course efforts to accent the positive can easily backfire, killing political will before the battle is won. But that doesn't seem to be a problem. Delivered by virtue of its own stamina from the purgatory of "temporary phenomena," environmentalism can live with a mixed record now that its future is assured.

And mixed that record is. The decade that opened with the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) and saw the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments (1970, 1971, 1974, 1977), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Toxic Chemicals Act (1976), and the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) ended with the Love Canal incident and the decision to develop synfuels. The Kepone mishap in Hopewell, Virginia, scarred the decade, and Agent Orange and PCBs endured. The snail darter didn't.

These ups and downs suggest a pattern. For example, most environmental victories were legal victories while most losses were calculated in human health and life. This cuts both ways, protecting us from our own further mischief but hinting that some ecosystems will probably deteriorate more before they improve.

The not quite closed book of the '70s also shows that blue-collar workers and their families bore a disproportionate share of environmental risks and maladies. Employees of Hooker Chemical in Niagara Falls and Allied Chemical Corporation in Hopewell paid a tragically high price for jobs. So did some plastics workers and some GIs. Yet this evidence must be scrutinized twice over. It does not mean that environmentally induced illness is the price we pay for progress. It does mean that more attention needs to be paid to reducing (and, if necessary, equitably distributing) the health risks of economic growth.

From the vantage of the '80s, the '70s tell us much worth knowing. Still, the headlines and "bottom lines" aren't the full story. Environmentalism's hold on the American public has not made news, yet the growth of awareness and support is the environmental story of the decade. According to one recent estimate, one out of every 12 adult Americans now belongs to some kind of pro-environmental organization. And polls show that the majority of every income and age group now backs environmental preservation, even if some loss of personal income is at stake.

Even this "strength in numbers" argument is too simple. What the environmental movement can take credit for extends farther. It has provided a framework for local action and put resource-management policies into political perspective. It has educated large segments of the American public on environmental issues and fostered widespread understanding of how powerful corporations make environmentally related decisions and sway government. It has influenced consumers' buying patterns and forged a critical link between energy analysts and other resource issues. It has also helped ordinary people prepare for low-growth economic eras. And, almost alone among American institutions, it has represented the interests of future generations.

If pride slips its boundaries a little on the 10th Earth Day, it will be with good reason.

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