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Which way to the revolution?

No one is ever against the environment. We talk about modifying the weather, of making deserts bloom, of turning forests into pastures and prairies into breadbaskets. But it's probably fair to say that except in wartime and in a relatively small area, no one deliberately sets out to make this world unlivable.

Even Adolf Hitler had his "Eagle's Nest,' a private retreat amid Bavarian beauty. The worst scoundrels in history no doubt valued fresh air, clean water, fine scenery, and agreeable climate. The environment has never been the enemy of humankind.

The same cannot be said about environmentalists. For decades the word often began with a sneer and ended with a hiss. Environmentalists were seen as unreasonable tree-huggers and posy-sniffers who stood in the way of what was called progress, With what seemed overblown concerns about damage to the earth, they threatened jobs and the highest level of human comforts the world has ever known.

Even so, when the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, environmentalists came out of the woodwork. With relatively little notice, more than 20 million Americans indicated their concern for the way we manage Mother Earth. Youngsters shunned motorized transportation and walked, biked, or rollerskated to school. College campuses banned cars and even buried one. There were tree plantings and nature walks, rallies and speeches, and in the weeks that followed, Congress passed the first important environmental legislation.

When an extravaganza occurs, it is human nature to try to repeat the experience. More often than not, the results are disappointing, it being difficult to recapture the ebuilience of unexpected success. Twenty years after the first Earth Day, a second will be held this April, and indications are that the first will be surpassed.

Preparation has extended over a year instead of a few months.

Hundreds of communities are being marshalled in this country, and more than a thousand organizations in 109 other countries have agreed synchronize their efforts. There is talk of of televison uplinks and downlinks to coordinate widespread efforts, and a conquest of Mt. Everest will be telecast live if all goes well. Participants are being asked to plant one tree, and organizers are hoping for a billion new ones. (The American Forestry Association's Global ReLeafe program is a major element in this Earth Day thrust-see "Earth Day and Beyond" on page 54 and "Three of the Best Releaf Projects We Know" on page 42.)

The difference between the two events is less one of planning or technology than of attitude. Unless one is a logger in the Northwest or an oil driller in the Arctic, environmentalism is now an accepted state of mind. A Republican candidate for president called himself an environmentalist. World leaders hold summit conferences on environmental questions. In a recent survey by the Los Angeles Times, Americans used the E-word to describe themselves more frequently than they used words like Democrat, Republican, business person, conservative, or liberal.

Simply put, over the past 20 years, and particularly over the past two, we got nervous. Scientists had been talking about the greenhouse effect for years, but suddenly, in the unusual droughts of 1988, it seemed a real possibility. Iowa, a bread-and-butter state where the idea of air pollution had once been a crowded hog lot, is already looking ahead to the possibility of global warming. The lowa legislature is considering setting up a $10 million trust fund that would (a) devise new technologies to reduce the impact of CO, as a greenhouse gas and (b) devise ways to adapt to a changing climate by turning to different crops. After the 1988 summer, when many Iowa farmers could not even muster a corn crop in the sizzling heat, talk of shifting agricultural areas, altered forests, and mass migrations of people was not to be ignored. Also not to be ignored is the ozone hole discovered over Antarctica, very possibly related to human activities. If anything can get people's attention, it is the increased threat of cancer, implied by increased ultraviolet light pouring through gaps in our protective ozone gauze. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl showed us the global nature of catastrophic pollution. The massive oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound reminded us of how our energy appetites can affect the great outdoors. Rather suddenly, worrying about the environment was not the idle pursuit of sandaled youngsters flashing peace signs. Today's environmentalists shave and carry briefcases. They also fix school lunches and work the assembly line. Pollster Lou Harris testified before a Senate subcommittee that public support for environmental improvements was higher than anything he had ever surveyed. Americans would pay higher taxes, he reported, if they knew the revenue would go toward improving the outdoor environment. Higher taxes ! Of course, we Americans are a fickle lot. We drift from one social obsession to another, from peace protests to anti-materialism to super nationalism and back to materialism. We even name the decades according to the emphases of the times: the Roaring Twenties, the Fighting Forties, the Fabulous Fifties, the Turbulent Sixties. Will we smile as we look backward someday to the Nervous Nineties?

Evidence makes it seem unlikely. Wars end, by treaty or fiat. Hula hoops can be stashed in a corner of the garage. But you don't easily patch a hole in the ozone when the chlorofluorocarbons we're now releasing take years to reach the stratosphere to make bigger holes, and will continue doing so for a century. You can't quickly replace a rainforest after changing it into farmland, and you definitely can't replace a species after it becomes extinct. Environmentalism is not the latest fad-it's a new way of life, guaranteed by our extraordinary success as a species.

By crowding the planet, taxing its resources, dirtying its air, poisoning its water, perhaps now altering its climate, we have changed the rules. Scientists talk about some of the changes in our planet being irreversible. As author Bill McKibben says in his recently published book, The End of Nature, "More and more frequently, these changes will clash with our perceptions, until, finally, our sense of nature as eternal and separate is washed away, and we will see all too clearly what we have done. " The environment is not only America's problem. The first international survey on the environment revealed universal alarm. Sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Program and conducted by Lou Harris Associates, the survey of 7,825 adults in 14 countries found that most people in every country but Saudi Arabia rated their environment as "fair" or poor. "

The primary concern revealed in the international survey is the availability of safe drinking water, but awareness was also high on pollution of rivers and lakes in general, and of the air. Across a broad cross-section of economic strata, Harris pollsters found people deeply disturbed as well about the loss of farmland and forests, radioactivity, desertification, toxic wastes, and acid rain. And they found strong skepticism about the ability of government leaders to deal with the issues.

Thereby hangs a tale of the times. Where environmental matters are concerned, the people are ahead of their governments. That's both the bad news and the good news. Bad because it means legislative solutions are coming too slowly. Good because what the masses of people want, they eventually get. Ask any former government leader in Poland, East Germany, or Romania.

The growing public awareness of environmental problems, the growing involvement, and the growing restlessness all indicate that people are less and less willing to wait and see the results. They want action now.

Environmentalism is changing from a science-oriented, highly educated, elite group of reformers to a grassroots, community-based effort with all the democratic earmarks of the old town meeting.

It is these "new environmentalists" who make up the crowds on Earth Days, who are causing political candidates to embrace Mother Nature, and who inspire industry to think seriously about recyclable products. They adopted Dr. Rene Dubos' phrase, "Think globally, act locally," and they are doing so.

New nonprofit organizations aimed at saving some segment of the earth are increasing the competition for charitable dollars, and new magazines and newsletters seem to sprout weekly. Private efforts abound. A group of lawyers in New York has offered pro bono services to help save the rainforest. An advertising writer is attempting to rally commercial creativity for environmental messages. A former builder in Tennessee has formed an organization promoting environmentally sensitive construction materials. Citizens of a West Coast city forced their county to dust off park plans nearly three-quarters of a century old, then helped build facilities with volunteer labor. When a town council on the East Coast pleaded lack of funds to build recreation paths, local residents raised the money themselves.

All this grass-roots activity begins to smell of a revolution for planet Earth, and perhaps it is. It is becoming popular to say that Earth Day 1970 represented the beginning of that revolution and Earth Day 1990 will be its culmination-or at least its maturation.

But where meaningful change is concerned-real alterations in the way we live-the so-called revolution for the environment is moving more slowly than reforms in Prague. By coincidence, Czechs were hurling Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks in 1968, about the same time the first mass epithets were being slung by Americans toward the captains of industry.

For Czechoslovakia two decades later, major changes: the purging of powerful public officials, the dropping of communist domination of the government, the opening of borders long wired shut. For environmentalists 20 years after the first Earth Day: atmospheric ozone and carbon monoxide levels frequently exceed air-quality standards in major American cities, residential and industrial development largely continues without careful land use planning, and drinking water has declined in quality, not improved. Globally, nearly a quarter of the earth's people lack safe water to drink. Some revolution.

In all the phrase-making and pop quotations that have accompanied the environmental movement, perhaps the most quoted individual has been a possum. Pogo, the comic-strip character, seemed to put his finger on our problems perfectly when he said, "We have met the enemy and they is us."

Let's take Pogo a step farther and admit that now that we are confronting the enemy, we show a reluctance to charge. If everyone is an environmentalist these days, why isn't everyone recycling? Why are muscle cars still selling well and train tracks still being abandoned? Why are we cutting down our old-growth forests here at home while screaming at Brazil for doing the same? If we all know tacky development when we see it, where is serious land-use planning? Why do we insist on air-conditioning ourselves to a state of perpetual spring?

Life, it appears, is still a bit too lovely. It's one thing to complain about solid waste and quite another to separate clear glass from green glass, white paper from colored, and haul it to the recycling center in separate containers. Fast cars are fun; trains are a bother. Keep lumber and houses new and cheap. Turn up the AC.

Government and industry hear us loud and clear. They take things just as far as they think we want them. Until they see the society they serve truly taking the precautions that society says it wants, change will come slowly. Change will come slowly in the environment as well, but what we get will be less easily fixed than a government or a consumer product.

Whether one becomes a true practicing environmentalist or not depends on the extent to which one believes we are dangerously affecting the planet on which we live. Until that decision is made, the environmental revolution has not really started, and the opening salvos are being fired by popguns. AF
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Title Annotation:environmentalism
Author:Grove, Noel
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Previous Article:Conservation realities in the '90s.
Next Article:Environmental movers & shakers.

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