A generation has grown up since Americans first awoke to the environmental crisis confronting our country. Great strides have been made in the past 20 years, and since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the federal government has acted vigorously to protect, preserve, and enhance our environment. However, a growing complacency and indifference threaten not only to halt our progress, but to reverse our gains.
Our vigilance is waning. We assume the maze of carefully crafted legislation and regulations will protect our environment from ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The effects on the environment of the increasing population and our personal and industrial activities have at times been disastrous. Some of the damage can be seen in our rivers polluted with industrial waste and sewage, in air polluted with noxious gases, in algae-choked lakes, in the oceans losing their productivity from overfishing, and from pollution by dumped sewage sludge or from oil spills.
This is not to say significant progress has not been made in recent years. Most major industrial facilities have met initial air and water pollution-control requirements. Newer automobiles are equipped with pollution-control devices. The environmental achievements of several state and local governments are impressive. A potentially major victory is transpiring as Congress goes about approving legislation to add 10 million acres of our remaining wild lands to the wilderness system.
However, not enough progress is being made. Too many Americans assume the government has the situation under control. This is dangerous folly. The American public listens to conservationists' warnings with indifference and prosperous complacency. Or worse, far too many of us still believe environmentally sound land- and water-use laws deprive owners of their ''God-given right and heritage'' to do as they will with the land or water they own or control.
It is time for the American public to recognize that government environmental policies developed during the past generation are not enough. There is a limit to how much government can do to protect us from ourselves. The private sector must awaken to its responsibility to protect and to enhance our environment.
In my lifetime I have been involved with a multitude of conservation efforts. Two of them stand out as vivid examples of what can be accomplished when private citizens and corporations put their collective efforts to bear on critical environmental issues.
Only a few years ago, Lake Erie had become a shameful disgrace. Today that has changed. People - ranging from corporate chairmen to Boy Scout troops - pitched in and with the support of local, state, and national government agencies, dramatic improvements were made. In what many experts had written off as an irreversible situation, game fish abound today and swimmers have returned to the beaches.
In another part of the country, in south Florida, the unrelenting efforts of private citizens and businesses have led to the creation of Biscayne National Monument, a 96,000-acre preserve which will protect the endangered Keys and small islands in South Biscayne Bay.
Both of these projects are examples of what private citizens, working with government, can accomplish through determination and dedication. This same force can work at every level of any conservation-related matter and the mechanics are simple.
First, private citizens must become knowledgeable and take an active interest in environmental issues, particularly those affecting their immediate surroundings.
Second, corporate decisionmakers must recognize their responsibility to support positive environmental activities in the same manner support is provided to other worthy appeals. Corporations must assume the lead, not follow government directives, in identifying and correcting environmental problems.
Finally, candidates for public office and incumbent elected officials dedicated to environmental activism must receive public support.
The hour is late. We must immediately come to understand our own well being and health, and the safety - indeed, the existence - of future generations, depend on how we treat our world today.
We know our planet is fragile. The decisions we make now will spell the difference between a polluted, unproductive, and eventually uninhabitable world and a world that can sustain itself and the creatures living on it indefinitely.
Herbert W. Hoover Jr. is the former chairman of the Hoover Company and an internationally recognized conservationist.m