One might well wonder what William Wordsworth could possibly have had in mind when he claimed that he had "walk'd with Nature" and found its "Divinity revolts offended at the ways of men." When Wordsworth was moved to pen those words in the 19th century, the natural world provided a refuge for highwaymen and posed barriers to travel and communication that were surmounted only with the greatest of difficulty. The sensibilities of a Wordsworth may have been wounded by the inroads of civilization, but for his less romantic contemporaries nature was something to be feared, not worshiped.
As we now know, when it comes to taking a beating at the hands of man, nature in Wordsworth's time hadn't seen anything yet. By the start of this century, the spread of the factory system had so defiled the English countryside that the naturalist W. Warde Fowler wrote of his yearning for "pure air, for the sight of growing grass, for the footpath across the meadow...." At about the same time, President Theodore Roosevelt found it urgently necessary to take action to preserve the U.S.' already dwindling natural resources. And by the 1960s the natural world had become so blighted by pollution, plastic and pavement that an unprecedented consensus was developing among Americans that the taming of the environment had, in many cases, gone too far. This conviction was strengthened by publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring, by the first photographs from space of the whole earth, which struck beholders as small and oddly vulnerable; and by widely publicized oil spills, notably an offshore blowout that fouled beaches in Santa Barbara, Calif. With opinion polls signaling public approval. Congress and state legislatures enacted tough laws to combat pollution and protect endangered species. Books and magazine stories bore such titles as Our Precarious Habitat, This Endangered Planet and The Ravaged Environment. Environmentalists, previously dismissed as so many kooks, cut their hair, carried briefcases and assumed high government positions. To instant historians, the '70s were the Environmental Decade.
Yet now, as the 1980s begin, jubilation over these successes is muted. Last week communities across the U.S. commemorated the 10th anniversary of Earth Day 1970, when throngs of Americans ushered in the Environmental Decade by demonstrating their support for cleaning up the land, air and water. It was clear on this year's Earth Day that some of the fresh appeal the movement enjoyed during the early 1970s had worn off. Environmental organizations are having more difficulty raising funds, and newspapermen who write about ecological problems are not getting their stories on Page One as readily as they once did. With the U.S. beset by galloping inflation and lagging productivity, not to mention an incipient recession, an energy crisis and various international embroilments, environmentalists suddenly find themselves on the defensive. Increasingly, they are depicted as obstructionists who stand in the way of profits and progress and push grandiose programs that increase the cost of living, eliminate jobs and stifle good old Yankee ingenuity.
Environmentalists are alarmed by this backlash. As all but the most unyielding of them recognize, environmental quality is not an absolute. The first shelter built in the wilderness was a compromise, and because man himself is part of the environment, compromise has continued to be necessary. The National Environmental Policy Act, the most influential law of the Environmental Decade—it took effect, tidily enough, on Jan. 1, 1970—doesn't outlaw anything but merely requires that before a project is undertaken, its "environmental impact" be assessed. The issue isn't whether steel mills will be built—of course they will—but how to keep them as clean as possible.
In practice, however, some environmentalists, emboldened by their new clout, are accused of being notably slow to compromise, even in the face of the nation's urgent energy imperatives. In the process, it is said, they have helped create a climate in which even their most legitimate achievements may well be jeopardized. Washington Congressman Allan B. Swift, a supporter of the environmental movement, gives voice to this fear by saying, "The economic interests lost to the environmentalists a decade ago because they refused to give at all. I think the reverse can now be true. If it turns out to be holy war, somebody will win it all. If that happens, we all lose in the long run."
So far, according to public-opinion polls, the citizenry's support for environmental objectives has weakened only slightly, if at all. Still, environmentalist groups are finding the national mood much less hospitable. "Environmentalists are against everything—period," says Utah Senator Orrin D. Hatch, voicing a familiar complaint. In a similar vein, The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized that economic growth had been impeded by the "fanaticism of a few environmentalists" imbued with a "Walden Pond vision of nature." The Journal has also accused environmentalists of "exploitation of the American legal system" and inveighed against what it calls "safety and health fascists." A number of large corporations have waged advertising campaigns advocating similar views.
The backlash takes other forms, too. On Capitol Hill it emerges as a Senate-passed bill to water down strip-mining laws and a House-backed measure to weaken pesticide controls. In the West it surfaces as the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement to switch control of federal lands to the states and, ultimately, to the loggers and mining companies. In the Midwest, it rears its head in a federal suit in which Dow Chemical Company has accused the Environmental Protection Agency of using satellites, U-2 aircraft and converted B-26 bombers to spy on Dow's operations in Midland, Mich., thereby uncovering information that could be of value to competitors. The EPA acknowledges using aerial surveillance, but only for monitoring air-pollution levels. Of the suit, one EPA official, John Connor, says, "How does an octopus defend itself? It lets go with a cloud of ink."
Environmentalists are also unhappy about actions taken by Jimmy Carter, who pleased them early in his presidency by saving the Redwoods, withdrawing Alaskan lands from development and making favorable appointments. More recently the President has disappointed them by giving the timber industry the go-ahead to cut trees faster than they can be replenished and by accepting Forest Service recommendations to set aside as wilderness only one-fourth of the 61 million acres under consideration for that purpose. Notwithstanding Dow Chemical's laments, environmentalists also accuse the EPA of giving too much ground in its fight against pollution, for which they blame Carter. Then there is the President's surrender on Tennessee's Tellico Dam, which conservationists denounced as a boondoggle and which was seriously questioned even by then-TVA Director S. David Stroud. Carter said he opposed the dam, too, but when Congress passed legislation to complete construction, he signed it with "regret."
None of which is more striking than the President's evolving energy policy. During the 1976 campaign Jimmy Carter promised that in the event of a conflict between energy and environment, he would "go for beauty, clean air, water and landscape." He promised that conservation would be the cornerstone of his energy program and pledged opposition to synthetic fuels, which pose serious environmental questions. But turmoil in the Persian Gulf and soaring oil prices have forced the U.S. to attach new urgency to reducing its alarming dependence on imported oil. Accordingly, Carter now calls every domestic energy source "critical." He continues to support nuclear power and has pledged his backing for both synfuel development and the conversion of utilities from oil to coal, a changeover that could exacerbate air-pollution problems. The Carter Administration has also approved oil exploration off Cape Cod and in Alaska's Beaufort Sea and is preparing to open bids for leases to drill along the entire California coast. Over objections of environmentalists and the Interior and Commerce Departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, it has approved construction of an oil refinery on Chesapeake Bay. The President also proposed creation of an Energy Mobilization Board to cut through environmental and other regulatory red tape, of which, to be sure, there is plenty; last week a House-Senate conference committee endorsed a procedure by which this board, the Congress and the President could speedily waive environmental laws for "priority" projects, an action environmental groups called a major setback. Most of this Carter professes to put in the category of necessary evils, strongly implying that environmentalists are guilty of shortsightedness.
Environmentalists reply that it is Carter, Congress and certain business interests that are being shortsighted—or worse. Russell Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society, tells of having attended a meeting at the White House last November at which the President defended his energy policies by saying, "If you were in my seat, Russell, you'd make the same decisions." Carter misjudged his listener. "Businessmen and politicians are interested only in making a buck and winning elections," fumes Peterson, who may have some license to talk this way, having been both a DuPont executive and a Republican governor of Delaware.