Ten years later, environmental concern part of US life style
Estes Park, Colo. — Like many of its original supporters in their faded blue jeans and long hair, the US environmental movement, a decade old today, has matured and to a great extent merged into the mainstream of modern life.
In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, the nation's environmental leaders gathered at a Colorado YMCA camp nestled among the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, "a community of the faithful, to reflect on the past, present, and future of the environmental movement" as William Reilly, president of the sponsoring Conservation Foundation, put it.
Beneath their safari jackets, wool sweaters and skirts, down vests, and jeans , the group was remarkably uniform: white, middle-aged, an equal balance of men and women, articulate, serious, and deeply concerned about the future of the movement they had fought for and fostered.
"We begin the new decade feeling a bit defensive, a bit wary," Mr. Reilly summarized, reporting an apprehension that stems from recent and foreseeable changes in the US social and political environment. One of the foremost environmental politicians, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D) of Maine, has summarized the movement's challenges for the 1980s:
"First, the national environmental consensus is not assured. Every environmental gain must be rejustified. Every new proposal must be backed by the most persuasive and understandable arguments. . . .
"Second, environmentalists must become more relevant to the lives of more Americans. In the 1980s it will not be enough to save a wilderness for a few hundred canoeists with the time and money to enjoy it.
"It will not be acceptable to ban a poison if there is no other way to control urban rat populations. It will not be enough to talk about "alternatives" to oil without deciding which alternatives are acceptable, available, and affordable."
Although environmentalists bristle at being called obstructionists, Denis Hayes, the coordinator of Earth Day who now directs the Solar Energy Research Institute, admits that in the past the movement's major efforts have been aimed at stopping things. "There are not many of these easy victories left," he observes, adding, "Now we have to build."
As author and lecturer Paul Shepard has pointed out, from its beginning the environmental movement has had the feel of a resistance movement. The fact that its roots stretch back an era that also spawned the civil-rights, antiwar, and consumerist movements -- as well as hostility as the "establishment" reacted to its concerns -- explains the distrust with which many environmentalists view today's custodians of science, technology, industry, and government.
"Unfortunately this [polarization] keeps many environmentalists from realizing or acknowledging the major changes that have taken place in industry's perception of environmental issues. Of course, there are still some 'black hats ,' but there are also a large number of concerns that are willing to do what is necessary to protect the environment," says Susan Carpenter, an anthropologist turned environmental mediator.
Says former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall, "We're in an era where environmentalism must move to a more intellectual level. Science, law, experience, maturity, eloquence -- these factors have replaced taking issues to the street."
But muting the movement's street tactics may prove difficult. Many environmentalists are attached to them and consider those who sit at the same table with business leaders as traitors to the cause. Thus, Lawrence Moss, a past president of the Sierra Club, was severely criticized by a number of his fellows for participating in the National Coal Policy Project, a pioneering study in which environmentalists, businessmen, and government officials were trying to formulate mutually acceptable guidelines for coal development.
"Every movement is, to a certain degree, the captive of its own extremists," acknowledges Mr. Reilly. At the same time, he reports that environmentalists and businessmen are resolving their differences directly in a growing number of cases but that these are done quietly because publicity would jeopardize their success. "Many businessmen don't want their colleagues to know that they are consorting with the enemy, either," he points out wrily.
This strengthening spirit of cooperation on the part of key environmentalists has a number of causes. One is the fact that environmentalists now have what Miss Carpenter calls "entitlement." Their position as a political power is established so they can deal with industry from a position of strength rather than weakness. Another factor is disillusionment with the effectiveness of the legislative-regulatory approach.
"Because of the necessity to win votes, the laws that were passed are a pale shadow of our hopes," Mr. Hayes recalls with tangible nostalgia. Even when satisfactory legislation was passed, the environmentalists found that regulatory agencies would, often as not, interpret and implement them in an unsatisfactory manner.
Nonetheless, environmentalists are worried about a public and political backlash spearheaded by business interests opposed to them, despite public-opinion polls which continue to report substantial public support for environmental objectives. Anti-environmental pressures on government seemed easily capsulized in President Carter's about-face: After two years of initiatives that environmentalists considered praiseworthy, he broke faith last year with his proposal for a massive synthetic-fuel program and an energy mobilization board with power to override environmental laws on major energy developments.
This concern was reinforced by Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm, who told the environmentalists that "a post-Proposition 13 legislator is an entirely different animal from a post-Earth Day legislator." He warned them that any new initiatives must come from outside the political system, where even environmentally aware politicians have their hands tied by a political process that, by its very nature, "deals with urgencies, not essentials."
Even should such a backlash fail to materialize, the current economic conditions present severe challenges to the movement's vitality. Public donations to major environmental organizations are down and costs are up. Volunteers, particularly women who have served as the "shock troops," are harder to find because they have forced by economic conditions to seek jobs.
Awareness of these problems, balanced against a perception of the extreme urgency of the environmental crisis, caused an undercurrent of pessimism to surface periodically here.
Many environmentalists dourly have forecast the imminent collapse of Western society for more than a decade. Thus far, however, the dreaded cataclysm has hovered only on the horizon. So far there have been only a series of smaller incidents: the chemical waste tragedy at Love Canal, a bloodless incident at Three Mile Island, the famine in the sahel region of Africa.
Increasingly, environmentalists are being driven to weigh the social and economic costs of pollution control against its benefits, just as they have forced industry to weigh the adverse environmental effects of their actions against the potential profits. They must weigh, for example, the use of coal -- the disruptive effect of a strip mine, the intensification of acid rain, and the sludge from polution-control technology -- against the reality of a uranium mine with its mildly radioactive tailings; they must consider a nuclear reactor and its environmentally benign routine operations along with the unweighable risk of major catastrophe and the unsolved problem of the disposal of a lethal radioactive waste.
This reality is acknowledged by forward-looking environmental leaders, but many of the rank and file are single-issue people.
For these elements, Mr. Reilly's call for a time of "coalition building" may not hold much meaning.
The test for the environmental movement in the coming years, Governor Lamm concluded, is to prove that it "can build windmills, not just tilt at them.
"We must be both dreamers and realists, a combination of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza . . . because we are at the beginning of a wrenching transition into a world as new as the world which Columbus discovered."