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It can be argued that such challenges, numerous though they may be, merely oblige businesses to justify their activities environmentally, an objective that surely seems reasonable enough. Yet Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, whose state is a major battleground in the war between environmentalists and developers, complains that some environmentalists seem to expect to win all the challenges, which is an altogether different thing. Lamm is not unsympathetic to environmentalism and as a state legislator raised environmental objections in leading a successful campaign to scratch Denver as the site of the 1976 Winter Olympics. Yet he complains, "Some environmentalists have unreal expectations. They demand total allegiance to their viewpoint. They fail to appreciate that people who build things in this world have done some good, too."
In the face of the current backlash, environmentalists are wisely reexamining some of their tactics. A case in point is their well-publicized protest that Tellico Dam threatened the habitat of the snail darter, a tiny perch entitled to protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Stating the case for such protection, David Brower says, "People say we can survive without the snail darter, and maybe we can. But we can't survive with the mindset that says we can. At some point the destruction of other species will result in our own destruction, and the trouble is that nobody knows what that point is." Nevertheless, National Audubon Society Communications Director Dick Beamish allows that defense of the snail darter may have been a public-relations mistake. "Environmentalists have been made to look generally ridiculous because of the snail darter," he says. "There are reasons for opposing the Tellico and other boondoggles apart from obscure, funny-sounding endangered species. We're better off stressing the economic folly of such projects."
Environmentalists can become more flexible in other ways. Thanks largely to laws passed in the '70s, corporations now invest considerable manpower and money in protecting the environment. These laws have forced some businesses to pare profits, lay off workers and experience costly delays in their plans. On occasion they have forced, or at least hastened, the closing of inefficient plants. These environmental constraints may have been justified in some cases, in others not. One wonders, for example, why the Wyoming Environmental Quality Department found it necessary to request that a coal company go to the bother and expense of planting sagebrush on the sites of worked-out strip mines even as federal authorities were spraying large areas of the West to eradicate sagebrush. It is possible to muster a dollop of sympathy even for mighty Standard Oil of California, which spent $61 million last year to comply with environmental laws. Measured against Standard Oil's 1979 sales of $32 billion, this was the equivalent of a $38 outlay by a family earning $20,000, but the company's domestic production subsidiary. Chevron USA, also has to tiptoe through a maze of dozens of ever-changing, frequently conflicting federal, state and local pollution standards while, along with the rest of the oil industry, finding environmentalists at every turn blocking its efforts to put up refineries, pipelines and drilling rigs. It is with some justification that Bruce Beyaert, Chevron's manager of environmental affairs, complains, "We're being whipsawed by the environmental extremists."
Some environmentalists concede that their movement must become less strident and less negative, or as Henry Richmond, director of an environmental organization known as 1,000 Friends of Oregon, puts it, "Solution-rather than ambush-oriented." This makes sense not only because of the worsening economy but also because of the changing nature of environmental problems. "Ten years ago the problems were very obvious ones, like dirty air," says Jackson B. Browning, director of health, safety and environmental affairs at Union Carbide. "The problems today are toxins, carcinogens and other things that are more subtle and not as easily measured. And it will cost as much to do the next 5% of the cleanup job as it did for the first 95%. Is it worth it? The relationship between risks and cost is now the crucial issue."
One innovation that may help ease environmental rigidity is the EPA's adoption of a "bubble" approach that allows companies to decide for themselves where and how to reduce air pollution in a plant or area—so long as the total from all sources is within specified limits. Environmentalists can also come up with alternatives to projects they oppose; in Maine environmentalists fighting the proposed Dickey-Lincoln Dam, an Aswan-sized project that would despoil the scenic St. John River, have suggested constructing several smaller dams instead. And wherever possible environmentalists should follow the already growing practice of subjecting projects to strict cost-benefit analyses.
Yet there is such a thing as compromising too much. Useful though cost-benefit studies may be, trying to put a precise dollar value on saving a human life or a wetlands seems as ignoble as it is impossible. The sobering fact is that, like a rich uncle, the environment elicits expressions of deep concern from some of the very people who would hasten its demise. They include businessmen who all too often had to be shamed, pressured and legislated into protecting the environment. They also include plenty of private citizens. Such people seem to consider it perfectly all right to pollute so long as it's done:
1) A little. This seems to be the rationale of Californians who rig their cars to avoid burning costlier—but cleaner—unleaded gasoline. It is also the justification for businessmen who insist that environmental hazards posed by their activities are either (the words seldom vary) "insignificant" or "acceptable."
2) In somebody else's backyard. Or so say those Westerners who argue that their abundant coal reserves should be mined—provided that they are burned elsewhere. The category also includes industry whose pollution causes acid rain many miles away as well as "midnight movers" who make a practice of dumping toxic wastes into marshes, sewers, creeks and under the nearest highway overpass.
3) When it is too costly to stop. This is the battle cry of business leaders who seize every downtick in the Dow Jones Industrials as an excuse to plead for exceptions, delays, waivers or revocation of environmental laws.
It is obvious that if all attempts to avoid environmental constraints succeeded, the cumulative effect would be calamitous. This prospect prompts California Congressman Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, to warn that the U.S. "must not be stampeded by a handful of special-interest lobbyists into turning the clock backwards in the fight to protect the environment." What makes Waxman's counsel all the more persuasive is that the supposed economic stakes against which environmental quality is balanced are often illusory. When Silent Spring first detailed the ecological damage caused by DDT, the chemical industry played on the tensions of Cold War I by warning that the pesticide was essential lest U.S. farms be outproduced by those in the Soviet Union. DDT was banned—without anything of the kind happening. When U.S. Steel announced the full or partial closing of 16 plants last November, Cold War II had not yet begun, but that didn't prevent the company from placing an ample share of the blame on expensive environmental laws. U.S. Steel neglected to mention that those laws were proving costly partly because of its slowness in complying with them. Nor did it mention that the Japanese companies that have outhustled American firms on world steel markets are subject to even more stringent environmental restrictions.