SI Vault
Edited by Nicholas Dawidoff
November 05, 1990
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November 05, 1990


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California is a state blessed by nature but cursed by man, who has given it filthy beaches, bespoiled farmland and skies clouded with smog. Now some Californians are attempting to undo the damage. On Nov. 6, the state's electorate will vote on Proposition 128, the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, popularly known as Big Green, a sweeping 39-page, 16,000-word initiative that has been the subject of fierce campaigning on both sides.

By combining disparate stipulations that would limit pesticides and off-shore drilling and protect redwoods and beaches, Big Green attempts to redress what proponents claim are years of ecological irresponsibility by California lawmakers. Prop 128 would, among other things, phase out pesticides known to cause cancer or harm to reproductive systems, sharply reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, eventually ban chlorofluorocarbons, issue $300 million in bonds for reforestation and impose tough measures for cleaning up oil spills and preventing them. It would also create a powerful elected official to oversee environmental enforcement. In addition to weighing all that, California voters must consider three other environmental bills, including Proposition 135, an agribusiness-backed alternative to the antipesticide provisions of Big Greer that calls for closer monitoring rather than bans.

To help voters make up their minds opponents of Big Green have spent some big green—$16 million—on TV commercials proclaiming that the initiative would cost tens of thousands of job; and billions of dollars to businesses and taxpayers. Environmental groups that support Big Green have far less money but have enlisted a legion of such show biz luminaries as Madonna, Stevie Wonder and Neil Simon to plead for passage. The pro-Prop 128 forces contend that it is far cheaper to clean up the environment now than it will be later.

Scientists and other experts are at odds too. Contending that the elimination of many pesticides will make fruits and vegetables scarcer and thus more expensive, Aaron Wildavsky, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, sarcastically says that Prop 128 "is a remarkable accomplishment. It will make people poorer and sicker all in the name of better health." But Al Meyerhoff, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council and one of the authors of Big Green, replies, "Industry people just want to manage cancer. This will help prevent it. If it's so bad for consumers, why is it supported by Ralph Nader? If it's so bad for workers, why is it supported by the AFL-CIO?"

As recently as August, polls indicated that Big Green would pass with ease. But fears of a recession and higher energy prices caused by the Persian Gulf crisis have contributed to voter skittishness about the legislation, and the outcome is now considered a toss-up.

Unwieldy and fine-print-laden though Big Green may be, there are incontestable arguments in its favor. Los Angeles's average daily temperature is a troubling 6% warmer than it was in 1940. Huntington Beach is still recovering from the 349,000 gallons of crude a tanker spilled into its surf last February. The gaping hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica surely has not been helped by California, which, were it a country, would rank 12th in the world in carbon-dioxide emissions. And it seems only reasonable to expect a state that grows half of the U.S.'s fruits and vegetables to exercise greater control over chemicals that cause cancer.

By approving Prop 128, the most populous state would be sending a signal message to the rest of the country. "The linchpin of Big Green is prevention rather than cleanup," says Meyerhoff. Big Green may not be perfect, but prevention's time has surely come.


Tonia Angel and her boyfriend, Mark Payne, are co-owners of a farm in Prineville, Ore., where they are raising 10 South American pack llamas as breeding stock. Payne is an energetic sort who holds a second job as the golf pro at the Prineville Golf and Country Club. Now Payne has found a way to merge his two vocations. Any golfer willing to spend $200 for 18 holes at Prineville, where the greens fees are usually $20, may hire a llama to do his caddying for him.

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