Why 'Green' Is No Longer Radical

Twenty-seven years after first Earth Day, environment shapes thinking everywhere from classroom to boardroom.

Environmental thinking has permeated American society from classrooms to corporate boardrooms, from church pulpits to the halls of Congress.

Don't believe it? Consider this.

Hardly anybody took notice the other day when Ralph Nader called the Pentagon "green."

The Defense Department had announced that "in recognition of Earth Day" it would begin using recycled copier paper. The brass proudly noted that this would save 150,000 trees per year and 60 million gallons of water.

Mr. Nader (the Green Party's presidential candidate last year) had one of his watchdog outfits immediately send out a press release lauding the Pentagon and urging the rest of the federal government to follow suit.

Hot news? The lion and the lamb making nice? The Associated Press put out a seven-sentence story that most newspapers ignored.

"It is entirely possible that when the history of the 20th century is finally written, the single most important social movement of the period will be judged to be environmentalism," sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in 1983. Now, 27 years after the first Earth Day, that prediction may not be so radical after all.

True, most news about the environment focuses on conflict. Loggers vs. spotted owls. Developers vs. conservationists. Industrialists vs. clean air advocates.

But there are many places around the country where once-divided interests are quietly working things out. Developers mitigating their impact with constructed wetlands. Ranchers and conservationists crafting plans to protect endangered fish. Small towns with award-winning energy conservation programs.

Many are heeding what poet, essayist, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry once wrote: "The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling.... Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded."

Big business is making a major effort to clean up its environmental act as well. Three-quarters of all corporations now conduct environmental audits of their operations, and about half have elevated oversight of environmental compliance to their boards of directors (triple the 1990 figure).

At the same time, most mainline environmental groups have come to appreciate the economic impact of environmental regulation. For several years, the two sides worked together on the President's Council on Sustainable Development. Both agreed that such regulations need to be made more flexible without letting polluters off the hook.

Thousands of local events have been planned around Earth Day this year. Beach cleanups. Parades. School events. Special sermons in churches and synagogues.

But poll after poll shows it is more than a once-a-year issue for most Americans. Or as researchers Everett Carll Ladd and Karlyn Bowman have observed, "The transformation of the environment from an issue of limited concern to one of universal concern is complete."

For one thing, people have gotten used to the results of environmental protection.

"Millions of Americans are breathing cleaner air," Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner tells people who visit her Web site on the Internet. "We no longer have rivers catching on fire. Our skies are cleaner. And US environmental expertise and technology are in demand throughout the world."

Using EPA figures, the National Association of Manufacturers boasts that "America's manufacturers have managed to reduce toxic emissions by 43 percent in the past seven years alone."

There remain many political battles over environmental issues, however.

Getting the last few bits of some nastiness out of the air or water is always a lot harder than getting the first 50 percent. And whether or not it is economically or socially worth it to do so is another matter entirely.

DOES it make any sense to try to save every last bug and weed in a world where nobody knows for sure how many species there are or what a natural rate of extinction is? Or might it be true that what naturalist Aldo Leopold once wrote - "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts" - could be as crucial to the future of humankind as it is to "lesser" species?

More broadly, is there an absolute right to material wealth and the creation of offspring in an age when the combination of the two can cause harm?

Such questions involve personal and political values - sometimes even religious beliefs. And where values and beliefs are involved there will always be dispute.

Don't think for a moment, for example, that corporate and government gadfly Ralph Nader is getting all warm and fuzzy about his long-time adversaries. He may have said nice things about the Pentagon. But on tax day last week, his Public Interest Research Group was also pointing out that between 1991 and 1996, "polluting industries" gave $89 million to congressional campaigns in order to protect $19 billion in subsidies.

The social and political landscape may be greener, but it's a matter of shading.

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