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Environmentalism Turns 16 | The Nation

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Environmentalism Turns 16

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Ask Brock Evans, Washington lobbyist for the Audubon Society, what he thinks of the liedown- in-front-of-the-bulldozer approach to 'environmentalism practiced by Earth First!, and he scoffs, "I want to know how many acres they've saved in the last few years." Earth First! founder Dave Foreman's response is, many acres have they given away?" In the sixteen years since the-first Earth Day, the most prominent environmental groups have become more savy and more pragmatic politically as they have blended into the Washington landscape. But another brand of environmentalism steers clear of Washington, maintains the passion that launched the movement, and is pursuing the most exciting innovations in the field today. This motley collection includes Foreman and his band of monkey-wrenchers; grass-roots activists on issues such as hazardous waste and garbage incineration; bioregionalists; and elements of some of the big national groups.

 This article appeared in the October 18, 1986 edition of The Nation.

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Seth Zuckerman
Seth Zuckerman's writings have appeared in Orion, Sierra and High Country News, among other publications. He...

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As the movement has matured, many national groups have adopted sophisticated tactics, a development whose merits are hotly debated by environmentalists. Some benefits are hard to deny: for instance, the Sierra Club's computerized index of its 377,000 members by Congressional district makes it easier for the group to organize -letterwriting campaigns to key senators and representatives. The Audubon Society, with a half-million members, has put together a similar index. The Sierra Club's Washington office, which had only one full-time staff member in 1970, has seventeen today. Prominent environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, appeared this summer on the list of outfits with the best access to the capital's decision-makers. Most leaders of these groups celebrate the movement's growing influence on government policy. "The environmental movement used to be about stopping things: increasingly, it's about doing things," says Ralph Cavanagh, senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.G.).

But the changes on Street don't sit well with all the activists on Main Street. Foreman criticizes the Washington contingent for trying to gain respectability through compromise. should never support a piece of legislation; a based writer is of Energy Unbound: A Fable for America's Future you should always be asking for more," he says. Lisa Finaldi, chair of the New York City-based Radioactive Waste Campaign, says many activists are so concerned about their credibility that when they fight a threat, "their attitude is, Can we hold this back and still appear reasonable?" Foreman and Finaldi regret that the environmental lobby has become less distinguishable from its adversaries in industry and government. "It's becoming just another business- everyone has to wear a suit and have a lap computer in their briefcase," says Finaldi.

Not only are the sides wearing the same uniforms, they're even trading players. Cecil Andrus, Secretary of the Interior under Jimmy Carter, was on the Audubon Society's board of directors from 1981 to 1984 and has been a paid consultant to the Wilderness Society. Rupert Cutler, who was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, became executive director of the Audubon Society in late 1980 and now heads Population-Environment Balance. Two high-level staff members of the Wilderness Society both worked for the Carter Administration: the society's chief lobbyist at the Bureau of Land Management, Terry Sopher, headed the government's wilderness program, and its director of wildlife-refuge programs, Viiam Reffalt, planned new refuges in Alaska. When business executives move between industry and government, progressives scream bloody murder. When environmentalists do it, the practice triggers a different fear: not that the activists will corrupt the government but 'that the government will corrupt the activists. "When I was chief lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, was becoming tempted by the idea that could become Assistant Secretary of the Interior," Foreman admits. Operating in the Washington milieu "tends to make you friendly with the agencies YOU should be watching over and criticizing." But Ken Ketwig of the Audubon Society says, "It hasn't lessened our stridency; it's improved our effectiveness."

One of the tools that the environmental ,movement has adopted from the mainstream is economic analysis. First trotted out by conservationists in 1970 against the supersonic transport plane, this type of study is now indispensable to their arguments. "It's been a revelation to us that practices that are environmentally destructive are also economically unsound," says Douglas Wheeler, executive director of the Sierra Club. Construction of many expensive new power plants has been halted on econ6mic grounds. More recently, financial analyses have become a weapon against the sale of timber from national forests. Peter Emerson, who heads the Wilderness Society's fourteen-person resource planning and economics division, cites a study by the Office of Management and Budget showing that those timber sales cost the taxpayers $621 million in fiscal 1985 when road building and other expenses are figured in. "If you quote those numbers," says Wheeler, "a Congressman will respond more readily than if you just say, Gee, I don't like 'em cutting trees." Foreman cautions that economics should remain a tool and not become an end in itself. October 18, 1986 369 you begin to depend on economic arguments alone, then you've bought the other side's line-hook, line and sinker," he says.

The Washington environmentalists have made alliances with some groups that once opposed conservation. The movement has made common cause with unions on the matters of herbicide spraying in national forests and emissions from chemical plants, in an alliance sometimes called the Budweiser-Yogurt Coalition. For instance, the National Clean Air Coalition includes the United Steelworkers of America and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, along with consumer and environmental groups. In addition, citizens in western Colorado fighting chemical discharges from a Louisiana-Pacific waferboard plant have the help of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. A group Wheeler founded, the American Farmland Trust, forged a link between environmentalists and farmers concerned about soil conservation. The National Taxpayers Union has joined the environmental coalition in opposition to astronomical government spending on pork-barrel water projects, road building in national forests and subsidies to conventional energy sources -expenditures to which environmentalists object on conservationist as well as economic grounds. Within the environmental movement, groups avoid duplicating one another's efforts -and form coalitions so that research outfits such as the Environmental Policy Institute can complement the lobbying power of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

The national environmental organizations have felt a -pinch since James, Watt's departure from the Interior Department. Watt's radical opposition to conservation boosted many groups' membership by as much as 90 percent; now those groups face the challenge of retaining their new members. "[Interior Secretary] Donald Hodel is doing for Mr. Reagan what Watt did for Mr. Reagan," says David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth and an archconservationist, "but he lacks the quality of making environmentalists mad enough to build our membership."

Brower resigned last month from the Friends of the Earth board, one year after it laid off most of its staff and moved from San Francisco to Washington. had fought that move bitterly because he thought it would turn the organization into just another lobbying group.

When environmentalism took its place on the national agenda in the early 1970s, many professional conservationists- clustered in Washington. They promoted landmark antipollution and wilderness protection laws, including the Clean Water acts of 1972 and 1977, the Resource Conservation and Recovery acts of 1976 and 1984 and the Alaska . Public Lands bill of 1980, and they pressed for enforcement. But times have been lean since the Reagan Administration came to power, and the movement's momentum has shifted from the capital to the grass roots. Even the Sierra Club is planning to intensify its efforts at the state level. The Potomac conservationists still assert their importance-" We've got to be there to influence the process I because we know that night and day, the timber interests and the developers are doing the same thing," says Evans of the Audubon .Society-but the innovations and the passion are coming from the hinterland.

Increasingly, conservationists are using demonstration projects to add credibility to their proposals. "People are taking federalism seriously and using the states as raboratories to try out their ideas," says the N.R.D.C.'s Cavanagh. The N.R.D.C. has advocated that utilities pay outright to retrofit.homes and businesses with energy-efficiency devices; it is now testing the feasibility of that notion in a countywide home retrofitting program in Hood River, Oregon, and is planning a commercial lighting program in Seattle. The Small Farm Resources Project in Nebraska works with farmers to develop farming techniques that use less energy, water and chemical fertilizer. And the American - Farmland Trust, which lobbies in Washington to conserve agricultural resources, also operates a pilot program to show how land trusts can preserve farmland.

Not surprisingly, the greatest degree of experimentation and local initiative is coming in connection with the hottest environmental issue of the decade-toxic waste. In the 1970s, says Michael McCloskey,l ongtime executive director and now chair of the Sierra Club, toxics was a "top-down" issue. "We could generate hardly any mail on the issue," he says. "Today it's a bottom-up issue, and the national organizations are being pushed to act by the people at home." The Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes works with 1,300 local groups, about 1,OOO of which have come into existence since the beginning of -1984. The groups have coalesced around issues such as ground-water contamination, waste dumps and, most recently, plans to incinerate municipal garbage. "It's the threat of something in their own backyard that gets people going," says Ruth Lampi, grass-roots coordinator of the Environmental Task Force. Observers note that the issue has mobilized people who had never been politically active and who wouldn't consider themselves Ieftists or liberals, from Native Americans in Oklahoma to members of garden clubs in Alabama. With time grass-roots groups have matured beyond their original position of "Not in My Backyard;" to demand, "Not in Anybody's Backyard" and to advocate alternative disposal methods such as microbial digestion and thermal destruction in closed systems. The local groups understandably take a tougher stance than the national groups, since they will have to live with the settlements they win. "If somebody's worried :about the health of their children, they won't be convinced by appeals to political pragmatism," says Foreman. Lois executive director df the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardbus Wastes, charges thathe smaller groups have often been sandbagged and ignored by the nationals. She is planning a conference of environmental leaders, to be held this wintert,o reduce friction between local and national activists.

Even within national groups, the grass roots and the central leadership sometimes go in different directions. The Radioactive Waste Campaign concentrated on low-level radioactive waste from its inception, in 1978, and it is now 370 " October 18, 1986 beginning to work on the military's nuclear wastes, which have been dumped in trenches, most of them unlined, at twelve sites throughout the country. Until this month the campaign was part of the Sierra Club. It struck out on its own because, among other reasons, its members felt hamstrung by a requirement to meet clubwide salary scales, which the campaign could not afford to do, aan rde striction that kept them from canvassing. In another internal controversy, some members sought to make the prevention of nuclear war a priority issue for the club, while others, including many of the top staff, argued that the link to the club's environmental mission was too tenuous. Eventually the membership voted to take on the issue, but disagreement persists about the dedication with which the staff is pursuing it. Anne Ehrlich heads the Sierra Club's Committee on the Environmental Effects of Warfare and wasn't surprised that people were hesitant to join the cause. "We were introducing a new and superficially different issue,'' she says. "We got the same reaction twenty years ago when air and water pollution hit the front burners and people were much more interested in preserving forests." The club has just released its first publication dealing with the issue-an anthology on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

More than any of the other new offshoots of environmentalism, the bioregional movement has stepped beyond the bounds of legislative and institutional reform. In the 1970s' when basic environmental gods such as clean air and water began to -gain credibility, says Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco, "it began to appear that classic environmentalism would find its limit in litigating court cases." The bioregional movement developed a result, and it focuses on the relationship between people and the land. Bioregionalists' projects range from the restoration of a salmon run in a northern California river to the preservation of family'farms in Pennsylvania and the cataloging of native prairie plants in Kansas. The movement recently held its second biennial continentwide congress, drawing about 165 people [see Kirkpatrick Sale, "How-to Bioregional," September 271. "Protests and demonstrations may point out what's wrong," says Berg, "but undertaking projects for filling human needs in ways that complement restoring or maintaining life places is the only practical approach for showing how the right things can be done."

Where do the two trails of the environmental movement, lead? There is little doubt that the professionals will continue to make crucial contributions in Congress and the courts-for instance, in the current battle over Superfund legislation and the impending fight over the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. But the people advancing the frontiers of the movement are the ones who are attracting constituencies by organizing against hazardous wastes in communities and workplaces, building new coalitions, demonstrating the success of utility-financed conservation, and knowing and maintaining their unique environments. They're bringing environmentalism into people's lives, and there can be no stronger foundation for the practical and political struggles that are required to clean up the continent.

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