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The ozone's shot, the oceans stink - so what has the Monthly had to say?


Phil Keisling, an editor of The Washington Monthly from 1982 to

1984, is a member of the Oregon House of Representatives.

George Bush's "Ich bin ein environmentalist" speech at the Republican convention, and his infamous commercial blaming Michael Dukakis for the pollution in Boston harbor, left many Democrats livid. After all, Reagan-Bush gave us Anne Gorsuch and James Watt, and Bush helped cut funding for the very federal program Boston was relying on to speed its harbor cleanup. So where were

Duk >;akis's hardhitting commercials that laid out this sorry record for public ridicule?

It's especially puzzling when one considers Americans' overwhelming support for environmental issues. In poll after poll, Americans choose environmental protection over development, even when they're told the consequences would be reduced living standards and higher unemployment. Relatively new environmental horror scenarios-ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, large-scale deforestation--have only strengthened such at >;titudes.

That's all the more reason to understand better Dukakis's failures-and our own. Indeed, examining The Washington Monthly from 1969-89, it would be difficult to discern the extent to which American attitudes towards the environment have undergone a sea-change in this period. Only the women's movement rivals the environmental movement for its impact on the values of an entire generation. Yet aside from articles on a few discreet environmental issues-strip mining, the energy crisis, toxic waste- >;the Monthly has done little to articulate what might be called an "environmental ethic," a broad philosophical foundation on which the Democrats could capitalize.

Such an environmental ethic would certainly appeal to the upscale, urban backpackers who frequent America's wilderness areas. But it would also include the vast numbers of suburban residents and blue-collar workers whose tastes run more to fishing and hunting. (Oregon is typical of most western states in that more residents have hunting and f >;ishing licenses than vote.)

These Americans certainly don't agree on everything; many of the latter voted for Reagan. But they do share some basic values-for example, a fierce desire not to see prime hunting, fishing, and scenic areas despoiled by oil derricks and condominiums.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss such notions as "love of the land," as gushy romanticism, and, in a sense, they are. But it's a romanticism that's quintessentially American, no less so than a longing for community, a desire to

>;be an entrepreneur, or a fondness for passenger trains. And like these notions, such an environmental ethic looks backwards as well as forward. It contains powerful images of "what used to be"--undammed rivers, vast virgin forests, pristine air. (Remember how much of Reagan's success was due to a similar backwards glance to the era of small-town values, voluntarism, and small government.) But it also looks forward. At the center of an environmental ethic is the notion of today's generation trying to do >;right by the next generation, and beyond.

So why have Democrats beean so shy about articulating such a vision? Recent history is certainly one reason. Reagan's appeal was based largely on a belief that we could have it both ways. In many Democratic circles, those who talk about "limits"-a Jerry Brown term much derided of late-are still treated like unwelcome relatives at family gatherings.

A second reason is that many Democrats don't think we have to trumpet environmental issues, that voters will as >;sume that Democrats are more sensitive to protecting our land, water, and air.

This fails to give some Republicans their due; Richard Nixon, remember, presided over Earth Day in 1970 and played an active role in much of the landmark environmental legislation of that era. The Democrats also tend to ignore some of their own history. Indeed, when other Democratic values have come into play--full employment, an activist federal government-the environment has often been the loser.

It's one thing to wax out >;raged over a Love Canal or toxic waste dumps, vilifying the negligence of big oil and chemical companies. But what if the issue is preserving large tracts of old-growth trees, some of them almost 1,000 years old, thereby threatening the jobs of local loggers and union millworkers? What if damming a wild river will help thousands of farmers to "make the desert bloom?"

These are much tougher issues, and Democrats have often tried to have it both ways. Mo Udall, widely admired for helping set aside vast st >;retches of Alaskan wilderness, has his fingerprints on some of Arizona's most senseless water diversion schemes. FDR's public works programs were marvels of engineering and employment. Yet his legacy also includes some heart-rending tales of environmental destruction. The Grand Coulee Dam, celebrated in song by Woody Guthrie (under contract to the federal government's Bonneville Power Administration), single-handedly destroyed most of the wild salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest. The Democrats have lon >;g been overly fond of large public works projects that benefit lots of people, many of them small farmers or members of building trade unions. Like a private developer run amok, it has too often been a Democratically controlled Congress that has leveled forests, dammed rivers, and flooded canyons in the name of progress. Indeed, southern Democrats are still notorious for championing such projects-which should give Democrats some pause as they scour the landscape for a post-Dukakis standard-bearer.

At th >;e national level, the Democrats haven't yet found the voice that will allow them persuasively to champion environmental values, and the Monthly hasn't been much help. (At the state level, Democratic governors like Cecil Andrus of Idaho and Bruce Babbitt of Arizona have combined environmental advocacy with political success in the heart of "Reagan country.") To be sure, this won't be easy. The Democrats run the danger of again appearing to be the party of doom and gloom, expressing environmental fears more >; vividly than they express opportunities. (On economic issues, they've recently had just this problem.) The challenge is to link an environmental ethic with other values-community, generational fairness, even entrepreneurship.

That's where the Monthly can be of particular use. The magazine has been bold and persuasive in advocating these values. Linking them to an environmental ethic may be the Monthly's next frontier. A few possibilities:

* Community: The Monthly has looked to public schools, the >;military, and national service as ways of bringing diverse classes together to the benefit of us all. National parks and other prime outdoors spots do the same. And if the Monthly is looking to promote forms of service, there's never been a better time to revive the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of FDR's best legacies. The Monthly recently ran an article attacking sidewalk cafes for taking liberties with curbside space that belongs to the public. There are forests, mountains, and lakes that need simi >;lar defense from those overzealous to exploit them for private or short-term gain.

* Generational fairness: The Monthly has derided the selfishness behind entitlement programs that tax young workers to subsidize the benefits of retired millionaires. What about the selfishness that would bequeath extinct rivers, forests, fish, and animals to the next generation?

* Entrepreneurship: The development of certain alternate energy technologies-solar energy, for example-promises to make communities much less

>;reliant on distant, central generating stations that burn coal or nuclear fuel. If there are any "hightech" entrepreneurs who deserve government encouragement, they are in these fields. And while it may seem risky for a local community to move away from a resource-consumption economy, the longterm benefits may be greater than the short-term costs. For an inspiring example, look to Butte, Montana, which a decade ago faced economic havoc when its open-pit copper mines were closed. Its economy has attracte >;d national attention in the past few years for its strength and diversity.

The Democrats are struggling for a way to regain the White House, short of being turned "the other guy," when or if the economy collapses. What better vision to offer than one that embraces this country's natural beauty and the imperative of preserving it for future generations? Perhaps at some future Democratic convention the theme song shouldn't be Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" but an equally inspiring American piece-Woody >; Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land."
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Author:Keisling, Phil
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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