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Jerry Kirshenbaum
May 05, 1980
The Environmental Decade is past, but is environmentalism passé? A status report
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May 05, 1980

Whither The Earth?

The Environmental Decade is past, but is environmentalism passé? A status report

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In their unhappiness over the backlash, environmentalists point out that they have been warning for years about the dangers of U.S. reliance on Mideast oil. Now that the gravity of the problem finally is widely recognized, they consider it unfair that they're being blamed for it. "We've been so right it hurts," says David Brower, the founder of the influential environmental organization, Friends of the Earth. But environmentalists don't dare spend too much time gloating; they must marshal their forces to preserve the triumphs they scored in the '70s.

That could be quite a struggle. Environmentalists as a group tend to see doomsday lurking around every bend, and they are capable of scare tactics just as egregious as those their foes have sometimes used against them. Yet it is a source of understandable anxiety that for all the gains of the '70s, about the most environmentalists can bring themselves to say is that conditions would be even worse today had those advances not occurred. They argue that their recent string of defeats—"It makes us feel like the 49ers," says the San Francisco-based Brower—has occurred just when another Environmental Decade, or better still, a succession of them, is urgently needed. To be sure, the air is cleaner today in dozens of U.S. cities than it was in 1970, and fewer fish are found floating belly up in the Hudson River, the Potomac, Washington's Bellingham Bay and other waterways. And, granted, neighbors of a coffee processing plant in Houston no longer suffer the indignity of having hot Java rain on them, which used to happen when coffee dust from a plant chimney mingled in the wind with steam from a nearby vent. Still, air pollution remains a major problem in Los Angeles and Philadelphia as well as in such former clean-air havens as Denver and Salt Lake City; Phoenix, once a mecca for asthmatics, suffered a five-day smog alert last winter.

There are also newer, more complex problems, many of them potentially more far-reaching and insidious than the "conventional" pollution with which the laws of the 1970s dealt. One is the gradual depletion of the atmosphere's ozone layer, caused partly by fluorocarbons released by aerosol cans (such cans with fluorocarbon propellants are banned in the U.S. but are still widely used elsewhere) and automobile air conditioners. Ozone depletion allows more ultraviolet rays to reach the earth, increasing the incidence of skin cancer and the danger of climatic changes that could play havoc with agriculture. Another problem is the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide that results from, among other things, the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests; this buildup, scientists warn, traps heat close to the earth, creating a "greenhouse" effect that could dry up croplands and melt polar ice caps, flooding populated coastal areas. Then there is acid rain, which is thought to occur when pollutants from the towering smokestacks of coal-fired plants are borne by winds to points hundreds of miles distant. Acid rain apparently generated by industry from the Ohio Valley has corroded buildings, blistered crops and killed fish as far away as New England. According to a Library of Congress report, airborne chemicals have eliminated fish in 90% of the Alpine lakes in the Adirondacks.

There is also reason for alarm in the spread of toxic substances, many of which have come into use since World War II and are believed to cause cancer and other diseases. The reckless dumping of poisonous wastes in vacant lots, sewers and waterways has forced the evacuation of homes, the closing of rivers to fishing, the shutdown of municipal sewage plants and the contamination of drinking water. Noting that such deadly chemicals as PCBs and Kepone can persist in the environment for decades, if not centuries, a House Commerce subcommittee declared last fall that "industry has shown laxity not infrequently to the point of criminal negligence, in soiling the land and adulterating the water with its toxins."

Most of these problems are aggravated by a global population explosion that William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA and now an executive of Weyerhaeuser Company, calls "the single most overriding cause of environmental stress in the world." After taking the whole of human history to reach a population of one billion in 1813, mankind has required just 167 additional years to hit 4.5 billion. A population of more than 6 billion is likely by the year 2000. In a frantic attempt to feed these masses—according to the President's Commission on World Hunger, there may now be as many as 800 million people with too little to eat—rain forests are being cleared at a breakneck pace, resulting in decomposed vegetation that contributes to the buildup of carbon dioxide. This also results in the rapid loss of plant and animal species, violating naturalist Aldo Leopold's dictum: the test of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. It further increases the chances of biological disaster by diminishing possibilities for development of plant strains resistant to pests and disease.

In the U.S., population growth is compounded by the squandering of once-abundant resources. American industrial expansion changed the face of a seemingly boundless and amazingly resilient land, creating a prosperity based on yearly model changes, forced obsolescence and throw-away containers. To keep the economy humming, vast tracts of trees have been leveled, wild rivers dammed, mountainsides disemboweled. Waterways, the air and human lungs have been used as sewers. Americans have merrily driven their automobiles, fouling the atmosphere and creating an unseemly urban sprawl while leaving behind decaying central cities. Signs of exhaustion are discernible even in Alaska, the last frontier, where citizens fret about post-pipeline population growth and air pollution. Other parts of the West are plagued by severe water shortages; in Houston the extraction of oil and water has so eroded the ground that flooding occurs at practically the hint of rain. Because of the relentless construction of shopping malls, highways and housing, the U.S. is losing three million acres of farmland a year. And that doesn't include arable tracts lost to erosion and runoff. The disappearance of croplands could reduce the U.S.' food-exporting capacity, further limiting its ability to purchase imported energy—not to mention to feed an increasingly hungry world.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. It now seems laughably ironic that early in this century, fears that city streets would become buried under horse dung prompted many people to innocently welcome the arrival of the automobile as a godsend that would unfoul the air. Similarly, advances in the control of disease, an environmental boon, have had the paradoxical effect of stimulating population growth. Russell E. Train, former administrator of the EPA and now president of the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., notes that decisions on whether to ban carcinogenic pesticides turn on the sort of question that would tax a Solomon: How many bushels of corn are worth how many cases of cancer?

Balancing environmental and economic objectives is tricky. Earlier conservationists compromised to the point of abdication, confining themselves largely to the creation of wilderness preserves. Environmentalists say they continue to exercise restraint. They claim that long before Three Mile Island they could have mounted a solid legal challenge to nuclear-waste-storage practices on the grounds that no impact studies had been made but refrained from doing so for fear of appearing even more obstructionist than they already did.

Not that environmentalists are exactly bashful about making such challenges. Far from being the homogeneous, single-issue bunch it is sometimes depicted to be, the environmental "movement" is, in fact, a vast coalition whose membership shifts from issue to issue, a characteristic that accounts for much of its vociferousness. Thus, an oil company executive who fights environmentalists tooth and nail on the job became an improbable but enthusiastic ally of many of his sometime foes in opposing the construction of an ammonia plant near his California home, a clear case of one's own nest being fouled. Incongruous, too, are the disparate forces battling the Central Arizona Project, a proposed complex of dams intended to bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. Besides the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, which are worried about threats to the bald eagle and flooding of natural landscape, the project has been opposed by the Young Americans for Freedom, a right-wing group that objects to Washington's deep involvement, and the Young Republicans, which finds the project fiscally irresponsible.

As these examples indicate, environmentalists of some kind or other can be counted on to challenge practically any undertaking. In Oregon they are fighting the timber companies to save the habitat of the Northern spotted owl. In Texas they are trying to prevent construction of supertanker terminals, which pose the danger of oil spills. In Maine they are challenging the St. Regis Paper Company's pesticide-spraying practices. There is hardly a square foot of California that is not under dispute. Environmentalists in that state are trying to close down nuclear plants, clean up hazardous wastes, protect deserts from recreation vehicles, halt the spread of neon on the shores of Lake Tahoe and limit municipal growth. A decade-long battle between an organization called GOO (Get Oil Out) and offshore oil-drilling interests over petroleum production near Santa Barbara rages on, having already produced 21 public hearings, 50 consultant studies and a dozen lawsuits.

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