Six questions to test genuine environmental enthusiasm
Henceforth, the second week of October should be remembered as ``Global Leaders' Environmental Reversal Week.'' Or so it would seem from an intriguing and heartening chain of events: On Oct. 12, Brazilian President Jos'e Sarney came down squarely against the further destruction of the Amazonian rain forests. To the amazement of environmentalists, who have long castigated that nation's record of ravaging its jungles, his dramatic reversal came in a televised address calling for steps to ``contain the predatory actions of man.''
On Oct. 13, in his debate with Michael Dukakis, George Bush was challenged on his record on environmental issues. Insisting that he had been ``an outdoorsman and a sportsman'' all his life, he asserted that ``I am an environmentalist.'' Even Mr. Dukakis, who accused Mr. Bush of being part of a Reagan administration ``environmental wrecking crew'' in the early 1980s, acknowledged that the vice-president had been taking a pro-environment line in recent months.
On Oct. 14, speaking to cheering delegates at the Conservative Party convention in Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a strong commitment to the environment - the first time she has done so in a major speech. Noting that the world no longer faces a choice between ``industrial development or a clean environment,'' she insisted that ``to survive we need both.''
So far, so good. But what next? Are these meaningful pronouncements on issues of first-order concern, or sops tossed to voters who want to feel warm and fuzzy about all things green? Are they, in other words, serious or cosmetic? And how can we tell?
Here are six test questions - useful not only for assessing these three specific cases, but also for measuring those who assert their environmental enthusiasm.
1.Is this leader calling for action, or simply for further studies? So much is already known about environmental issues, and so serious are the consequences of inaction, that the ``further research'' gambit is often just a preemptive delaying tactic.
2.Is this leader willing to put funds, rather than simply persuasion, into the battle? Money, clearly, is not the only thing that matters: We can't buy our way back to environmental purity. But in today's political world, commitments and budgets often go hand in hand. Talking the former and avoiding the latter is another recipe for delay.
3.Does this leader recognize the environment as a complex issue, related to other problems in ways that demand tough choices? Or is the issue oversimplified, viewed in isolation and dealt with in a vacuum?
4.Does this leader focus on truly global environmental concerns: the greenhouse effect, the ozone layer, acid rain, destruction of rain forests? Or does the discussion rise no higher than building more parks, cleaning up more beaches, and picking up more litter?
5.Will this leader take initiatives, spearheading environmental concerns even to the point of organizing international actions? Or will he or she simply chair domestic discussions with dutiful but uninspired participation?
These five test questions, unfortunately, require patience: We may have to wait a few months for answers. That fact, however, should not lead us to place undue emphasis on the one thing that can be immediately known: the leader's prior record on the environment.
Why is that not necessarily a good indicator? Largely because things are happening so fast these days. We're accustomed to commenting on this ``pace of change'' - which, for better and for worse, seems to be a fact of life. But we sometimes forget that rapid change can't happen unless minds change. Typically, one of the minds that's most important to change is that of the leader.
Which, of course, leads to the sixth test question:
6.Is this leader reversing positions out of informed conviction, or is this simply a case of campaign conversion? That, finally, is the real test - the one to which all the others point. It's a test of character - the willingness to face up to the world's profound environmental challenge and take action. For that, only history will give a reliable answer.
A Monday column