In some environmental quarters the drying up of petroleum reserves is regarded more as a blessing in disguise than a disaster. The reasoning is that an inordinate number of problems—everything from the destruction of caribou range to filthy air—are directly connected with petroleum consumption. When (the question of "if" no longer seems debatable) we are forced to withdraw from our petroleum habit, we may have an opportunity to make use of new and cleaner energy sources, to turn to solar, geothermal, wind and thermal power. However hopeful this may be for the world of the future, development of exotic energy sources has been hampered by a lack of research planning and funds and, according to some, by the hostility of the producers of conventional power. A recent report prepared for New Hampshire Senator Thomas McIntyre charges that General Electric, Westinghouse and TRW, because of their heavy involvement with nuclear power, have vigorously and effectively lobbied against Federal funding of solar research. Which brings to mind the joke—or astute observation—circulating during the 1973-74 fuel shortage: The energy crisis will end as soon as Congress gives Mobil Oil a 99-year lease on the sun.
There is an overriding reason why so little has been done to face up to energy realities. The panic of 1973-74 clearly demonstrated to national politicians that it is rash, possibly suicidal, to support measures that would appreciably interfere with our petroleum habits. Therefore the thrust of the decisions that have been made is to permit America to go on being a petroleum culture and let another President, let another Congress, let another generation worry about what happens when this becomes impossible.
Land use and controls, like energy use and controls, are often cited by environmentalists as being fundamental to many other issues. "I am in no way trying to minimize our air or water problems or the antipollution work being done in this area," says Elvis Stahr at National Audubon. "However, those are the easiest elements to deal with. If we chose to stop dumping wastes into the air, pollution there would disappear in a matter of a few weeks. It would take longer to clear up the water, but not much. When it comes to land—which has been drenched in contaminants and toxins, eroded, leached, covered over with asphalt and concrete—any cleanup or restoration will take a lot longer and require much larger investments. Nevertheless, this effort must be made. We live on the land and that is where we have had our greatest and most unfortunate environmental impact. Land use is the area in which there is the greatest need for us to change our behavior."
If anything, changing land-use habits may prove to be even more unpopular than tampering with petroleum habits. Large-scale attempts to impose land controls, to restrict private-property rights, have thus far been very controversial. Last year a bill encouraging the states, with subsidies, to preserve more open space and create tighter restrictions on how and where land could be used was defeated in Congress, having been adamantly opposed by rural, real estate and development interests. So one might have predicted defeat for a massive plan involving restrictions on how Californians could play, work, travel and live in that state's coastal zone—yet it was approved by the state legislature.
Another major national land-use fight (or so opponents characterize it) has developed as an outgrowth of air-pollution legislation. Under an amendment to the Clean Air Act, EPA established regulations that would allow states to prevent air pollution in areas where the air is still relatively pure, notably in the Rocky Mountain states. Opposition has again been considerable. "These are among the most dangerous environmental proposals," says F. W. Chapman Jr. of Atlantic Richfield, which has building plans in the clean-air zones. "If they are carried through, they could effectively halt private development in large areas. In effect, it is regional zoning by the Federal government."
The feeling that there is some kind of master environmental plan that has been created secretly and is being unveiled little by little is not an uncommon one. However, according to Russell Train, the EPA chief and therefore the man most likely to know, there isn't one. Train says there is no national environmental model specifying how much wilderness, green space, rural and developed land we should have; how many species of animals and plants we should preserve; how clean the water and air should be; how much environmental sickness and death we can tolerate; or how healthy we can afford to be. "Creating such a model," says Train, "is intellectually interesting but it would be inexpressibly difficult to do and it might not be desirable. To the extent it was acted upon, it would tie future generations to our ideas of what is environmentally desirable and affordable. Our descendants may have quite different notions about what constitutes the good life."
There may be no comprehensive environmental guidelines (or conspiracy, as opponents sometimes hint), but there does seem to be a common theme connecting the programs and policies that environmentalists often cite as being the most urgently needed: land-use restrictions, control of toxic substances, environmental disease prevention, conservation of resources, the development of clean energy sources. Implicit in the new round of proposed reforms are suggestions that environmental purity—not profits, convenience, warmth or mobility—should be the main criterion for choosing new energy systems. For the same reason it is suggested that we forego the use of a variety of chemical compounds that have made farming, manufacturing and domestic living more productive and less costly or laborious. National controls on land use emphatically suggest that we cut back on or more closely regulate activities such as developing residential subdivisions, shopping centers, ski resorts, marinas, highways, airports and industrial parks. So far as natural resources are concerned, if we are to conserve them and protect the land and waters in which they are found, we must ultimately consume less. All in all, the thrust of the new environmental demands is that to promote environmental harmony we must reduce the rate of development and become much less progressive as progress is commonly understood.
Behind this reasoning are certain all but indisputable premises. The world can feed and shelter just so many of us, provide us with just so many useful resources, absorb just so much of our waste and poisons, tolerate just so much growth and development. What is disputable is just how close we are to these finite environmental limits. The present oil shortages and many pollution problems could have been largely avoided had we at, say, the turn of the century, banned the internal combustion engine, which was only just coming into wide use. Yet there are few if any of us who now would agree that such a prohibition would have been prudent then. Analagously, perhaps we are now still a long way from any environmental limits, the planetary carrying capacity, so to speak. Perhaps by doing this and that, mending our ways moderately, continuing with palliative actions, we can go on for a long time doing more or less what we have been doing.
Many environmentalists think otherwise, contending that we have in fact very little time in which to create new institutions and life-styles suitable for an environmentally balanced—rather than exploitative—society. One way or another, so this scenario runs, we will poison, pollute and consume less. We will do so either because we rationally and voluntarily choose to change our behavior or because we are forced to change by inexorable natural forces and realities. In the latter case, our potential for environmental mischief would be curtailed because we would have fouled and abused the planet to the point where the range and numbers of our species would be drastically reduced. Any such enforced reduction would presumably be attended by terrible, if not terminal, hardships. Time is of the essence, warn many environmentalists. We are the generations that must pay the bills for past excesses or else dumbly accept the unimaginably awful consequences of environmental default and bankruptcy.
Each day clouds of arsenic-laden smoke from a 585-foot copper-smelter stack rain down on Anaconda, Mont. The arsenic smoke is the principal reason why the community has an abnormally high death rate from cancer and respiratory diseases. However, there is little agitation to shut down the Anaconda operation. "Without the smelter, this town couldn't support two cowboys and a saloon," says the bargaining agent for the local union that represents 1,100 smelter workers.