THE environmental movement in the United States today stands poised to have greater influence than ever before.
It has seen extraordinary growth in membership, budgets, and influence in recent years. From economics to technology to business to energy to transportation to education, environmental thinking now permeates dozens of disciplines and policy areas. And with the launching of the Clinton-Gore administration next week, environmentalists believe they have true friends in the White House for the first time in a dozen years.
"This is the fastest growing political movement in the country and the world," Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr. told the Monitor. "There has been an explosion of activity and concern at the grass-roots level. Many people who previously gave little thought to the environment now recognize it as among their core concerns."
Mr. Gore, who may be characterized as the nation's senior environmentalist - for his work as a lawmaker, as author of the book "Earth in the Balance," and soon as second in command in Washington - notes that there is "much more sophistication ... much more involvement in the political process" by local groups as well as the major national organizations.
In the recent presidential election, Gore says, "all over the country some of our best volunteers and precinct captains were environmentalists.... They were extremely determined, extremely effective, very committed, and very savvy."
In return, environmentalists were strongly represented on President-elect Clinton's transition teams dealing with natural resources, energy, and agriculture. Senior staff members from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation were on these teams.
There are estimated to be as many as 10,000 environmental organizations in the country today. They range from local groups, which may exist for only a few months to battle such things as dump sites, to established institutions with dozens of lawyers, economists, and natural scientists on their full-time staffs.
Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, says the 20 largest groups together can now raise $1 billion a year.
Due largely to what were seen as threats from the Reagan and Bush administrations, such groups over the past few years saw steep increases in contributions. The Environmental Defense Fund's annual revenue, for example, jumped nearly sixfold from $3.4 million to $20.2 million from 1985 to 1992. The National Wildlife Federation (the largest of the so-called "Big 10" environmental groups, with 5.3 million members and supporters) has an annual budget that is larger than that of the United Nations Environment
Such numbers have had increasing electoral impact. The most prominent environmental political action committees (those affiliated with the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters) doubled their combined spending in 1992 to $1 million and expect to double it again in 1994 and then again in 1996.
US-based environmental research organizations - such as the World Resources Institute, Worldwatch Institute, Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute - have grown similarly in number and influence. Such groups provide the intellectual underpinning, as well as political ammunition and influence, for environmental groups and their lawmaking friends.
For example, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, which has 32 full-time staff members, brings in $9,000 a day in sales, subscriptions, and royalties from five publications - including its annual "State of the World" report published in 26 languages. Worldwatch president Lester Brown routinely addresses business groups and government agencies in this country and abroad.
"Al Gore called last week," Mr. Brown said in a recent interview at his organization's posh new offices a few blocks from the White House. "And Bill Clinton reads `State of the World.' "
But the biggest growth in individual environmental activism has come at the local level, much of it tied to land conservation as well as problems involving toxic waste. For example, land trusts that buy land for conservation have been forming at the rate of about one a week, according to Patrick Noonan, president of the Conservation Fund. And the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, based in Falls Church, Va., has provided technical information over the last 10 years to more than 7,000 community
"The environmental movement is pulsating out there in the neighborhoods," says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources (until recently called the Interior Committee). "People are learning about their neighborhoods and the environment. They're expanding both in their knowledge and in their willingness to take actions - and they're having success."
Just how effective has all this activism been? Regarding public awareness, survey after survey shows that most Americans - at least to some degree - consider themselves environmentalists. This is even more true of school-age children, who are frequently exposed to "save the earth" instruction in the classroom and to environmental pitches on kids' TV shows.
"You now have a generation of kids who are substantially more environmentally aware than their parents," says Michael Deland, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a White House office.
There has been an impact on law. Measured by legislation passed and regulations promulgated - and consequent litigation and costs to protecting the environment - the growth of environmentalism has been steady. The United States now spends more than $100 billion a year on pollution control, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and that figure could nearly double over the next decade. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 will eventually cover 174 industrial activities.
Among the accomplishments of the Bush administration, according to Mr. Deland, have been record levels of environmental law enforcement, measured in terms of cases filed, penalties collected, and polluters sent to prison.
"The environment is both the largest and the fastest-growing part of government regulation," said policy analyst Wayne Crews of the private research organization Citizens for a Sound Economy.
But by other measures, the environmental movement has been less successful. Only a tiny fraction of the thousands of plants and animals listed or eligible for listing under the US 1973 Endangered Species Act have been protected to the point where they can be "delisted." Of the nearly 37,592 potentially hazardous waste sites in this country, only 150 have been fully cleaned up under the "Superfund" program. More than 100 US cities now violate federal clean-air standards.
During the past two years, some leaders of mainstream national environmental groups began working with the Bush administration and business leaders to find market mechanisms for controlling pollution and protecting natural resources. This followed the realization that "command and control" regulations alone were not bringing sufficient progress.
"We have been able to engage some of the more thoughtful pro-active leaders in a a very direct way," says CEQ chairman Deland, noting that the heads of the World Wildlife Fund, Resources for the Future, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Conservation Fund now are among the 23 members of the President's Commission on Environmental Quality. The Environmental Defense Fund has a formal agreement with General Motors to develop autos that are less polluting and more fuel efficient.
Of the increase in dialogue between environmentalists and corporate leaders, Deland says: "These are folks who a year ago communicated - if they were communicating at all - through their lawyers."
Some critics charge that mainline environmental groups have become too willing to compromise. There are other criticisms as well: that these groups have become overly concerned with fund-raising and building their own bureaucracies and that they have focused almost exclusively on wildlife and public-lands issues and tended to ignore environmental problems affecting the health and safety of minority and working-class communities.
Of this concern, Karin Sheldon, the Wilderness Society's vice president for conservation and a Clinton transition-team member says, "That's a fair assessment of the past, and we are trying to reach out to those communities in an effective way."
"We've been guilty of talking in very technical and complicated political terms," admits Rebecca Wodder, another Wilderness Society vice president. "To succeed we need to broaden our reach."
Lester Brown of Worldwatch acknowledges a feeling among many environmental activists around the country that "the national groups have become traditional and conservative and don't have much fire in their bellies anymore."
Some of the harshest criticism of mainline environmental groups has come from within the movement. In a recent book entitled "Inside the Environmental Movement," Donald Snow writes:
"Managing for the bottom line has allowed the leaders of many large, prestigious conservation groups to become virtually divorced from their own memberships.... Practically none of the mainstream conservation-environmental groups in the United States - regardless of location, scope, or size - works effectively with or deliberately tries to include people of color, the rural poor, the politically and economically disenfranchised."
The challenge for the environmental movement now is to meet such criticisms directly. Then the movement will remain relevant as well as effective.