THE political parameters for the environment used to be fairly clear and simple. Clean air, clean water, a pristine bit of the outdoors to relax in and all was right with nature. At least for most people. But as the world moves into the 21st century, the definition of a healthy environment is becoming much more complicated. Sustainable resources. Biological diversity. Degradation far outside the atmosphere. Cross-border pollution. Such things quickly shift the political debate from the state of nature to questions about economic policy - and just as quickly to individual values.
"Certainly, as rational individuals we now understand that the viability of our economic system depends upon our resource base," says former US Sen. Gaylord Nelson, organizer of the original Earth Day and now counselor to The Wilderness Society.
Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson, who recently won his second Pulitzer Prize, calls this "the new environmentalism ... a combination of conservation of resources with sustainable economic development over the longer term."
Are politicians courageous enough to tell voters they may have to adjust "lifestyle" to preserve the planet, or to convince economists that the way they gauge "growth" and define "development" may have to change? Can they do it in a way that convinces people it's in their own best interest ... and especially the interest of their children?
Experts say the picture is mixed.
European Community (EC) countries last year pledged to stabilize carbon-dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, a political decision that will affect jobs and transportation. "This was an extraordinary event and one which certainly two years ago nobody would have foreseen," says Jessica Tuchman Mathews, vice president of the World Resources Institute.
Several countries in Europe have adopted "carbon taxes" to force a reduction in polluting emissions. "Most of them are still nominal, but at least they're starting to move in the right direction," says Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute.
Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are redefining gross national product to include environmental costs. A number of Northern European countries, says Dr. Mathews, "are doing sweeping examinations of how they tax - shifting the tax burden from 'goods' - labor and productivity - to taxing 'bads' - energy use and pollution."
Meanwhile, international lending agencies (whose finances are controlled by governments) increasingly are taking environmental questions into account in the projects they approve.
Whereas the World Bank 10 years ago had just a handful of environmental experts - not enough to even read all the proposals - there now is a large department examining such issues. "More important, people with environmental expertise are in the regional offices," says Mathews.
The United Nations is holding an international conference on the environment and development next year in Brazil where such issues will be confronted directly. The goal, says UN Undersecretary-General Maurice Strong, "is to place the environment squarely at the center of economic decisionmaking, so that we can balance our economic aspirations against our environmental imperatives."
Leaders in the developed world who hold traditional economic views can be expected to resist any talk of putting environment ahead of economic progress. In a speech on global warming, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said there should be "no limits to economic growth."
George Bush made his position clear in his recent energy strategy, which emphasizes oil and gas production and the construction of nuclear facilities over conservation and alternative energy sources. Earlier, he told a conference on climate change that environmental policies "must be consistent with economic growth and free-market principles in all countries."
Likewise, Mr. Bush is pushing for a quick US-Mexico trade agreement that environmentalists say could increase pollution along the border since Mexico has laxer regulations than the US. In order to promote trade, the administration also wants easier pesticide standards for exports than now apply within this country.
"Japan Inc." - Asia's powerhouse network of politicians and business leaders - is rushing to develop "environmentally friendly" industries. But Japan still gets black marks from the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups for killing whales, for clear-cutting the tropical forests of developing countries, for moving its most polluting industries to Malaysia and other poorer countries, and for importing more endangered species than any other country.
In the Pacific Northwest, two situations show the importance of long-range political planning and economic adjustment to protect the environment - and the costs of avoiding those hard decisions.
For years, politicians here resisted efforts to limit logging of old-growth timber, despite evidence that "indicator species" were declining and forests were in trouble. The federal government now has declared the northern spotted owl a threatened species, and lawmakers outside the region are taking more control of this part of the region's economy.
In contrast, agency officials and politicians 10 years ago recognized that hydroelectric dams, agricultural practices, and other economic decisions threatened many species of migrating salmon. While certain fish stocks in the Columbia River Basin have steadily declined, regional and state agencies are much farther ahead in developing a plan to mitigate the losses. Importantly, the public knows and generally accepts the need for changes in industrial and agricultural practices and in power generation.
This coincides with national polls showing not only greater concern for the environment but also a shift in values from material goods to things like the quality of home and family life.
"What can be hoped for is a gradual weakening of the consumerist ethos of affluent societies," writes Worldwatch Institute researcher Alan Durning in the organization's latest "State of the World" report. "Ultimately, personal restraint will do little, though, if not wedded to bold political steps against the forces promoting consumption."
That means hard decisions emphasizing long-term, sustainable development that protects natural resources rather than economic growth for short-term gain, says Harvard's Wilson.