A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on a meeting of professional environmentalists who had gotten together to discuss that perennial favorite topic: whither the movement? Or, more fundamentally, is there a movement? And if there is, what is it?
Most of the participants were in their late thirties and early forties, and nearly all had spent their entire adult lives working for environmental groups first as organizers and more recently as fund raisers and administrators. All of them seemed to share a sense of exhaustion, not just the personal fatigue brought on by too many long days, but a sense that the movement was tired, that it had nothing new to offer and that everyone--including everyone in the room--was sick of hearing about the old.
Some of this was nothing more than the effects of middle age. As the years go by, children and other distractions soak up energy that used to be available to serve the cause. But part of it is real. American environmentalists have come a long way in the 26 years since the first Earth Day but not always in the direction they wanted to go.
For one thing, they moved to Washington. Lobbying the federal government on behalf of the environment started near the end of the last century when enlightened hunters began to push for controls on seasons and bag limits and the institutional ancestor of the National Aubudon Society successfully gained laws protecting song birds and ending the trade in feathers for women's hats.
The Washington focus increased through the decades, especially after the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In 1981, Reagan gave it a real boost. When he took office uttering assorted menaces in the direction of environmental protection, the major groups beefed up their Washington forces. Initially, most of the people working in those offices were experienced grassroots organizers, but the balance has gradually shifted until now most are people who were hired right out of college to work in Washington. These are the Lane Kirklands of environmental protection. Kirkland, the current president of the AFL-CIO, went straight from college to the national headquarters of the labor organization, and his actions as president often reveal his lack of experience in the nitty-gritty of organizing and running a local.
Environmental lobbyists tend to develop a courtier's attitude toward those in power, obsessing about the moods of key committee chairs the way French aristocrats used to worry about the quality of King Louis' bowel movements.
So a split developed between Washington and the hinterland. The split became a trichotomy during the course of the eighties as local organizations sprang up to deal with important issues that the national groups were overlooking. The movement to protect the last old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest rose in Washington(the state), Oregon, and northern California, not in the District of Columbia. Dozens of organizations were formed in all parts of the country to fight the dumping of toxic wastes in working class and minority neighborhoods.
Some of the national groups, notably the Sierra Club, have made a major effort to link up with the local organizations, but the relationship is often rocky. The national groups complain that the locals have too narrow a perspective and that they tend to think of themselves as entitled to a bigger share of the limited amount of money available for environmental activism. The locals say that the nationals keep too much of the money for themselves and that they don't appreciate the sense of urgency felt by people whose kids are soaking up heavy metals from the dirt in the front lawn.
The people at the meeting spent part of the day trying to figure out how all these pieces fit together as a movement. And they also spent a lot of time talking about their message. How do we best approach people with our concern for the environment? The concensus seemed to be that environmentalists are too negative. The prospect of imminent catastrophe loses its power if the catastrophe doesn't happen. People stop believing that Armageddon lurks in an amendment to the Clean Water Act. In some cases, they start listening to Republicans who tell them that the free market will keep us all safe as houses.
But how do we produce a positive message when so many environmental indicators seem to be pointing down? This question was on my mind when I read an essay by Gregg Easterbrook in the April 10 issue of The New Yorker. According to Easterbrook, the environmental news is almost all good. Regulations based on such major environmental laws as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act have done a splendid job. They have created major improvements at modest cost and rather than strangling the economy, they have actually strengthened it.
Easterbrook has lots of numbers to back up his claims. Cars are indeed much cleaner, emitting 80 percent less pollution per mile than the cars of 1970. Airborne lead is down 98 percent, thanks largely to the fact that--outside of a few environmental backwaters such as Seattle--leaded gasoline is no longer available. Phosphorus in the Great Lakes ranges from 40 percent to 70 percent below the levels of two decades ago and algae blooms were only memories even before zebra mussels started eating everything.
You can't really argue with these improvements. Indeed, I don't want to. According to the reactionaries, environmental regulation is both expensive and ineffective. But Easterbrook's numbers show that the costs have been consistently well below the hysterical claims of business and that the rules have had a very large effect. Things are indeed better in a number of noticeable ways.
Having said that, I must, at the risk of sounding negative, insert here the words "Yes, but." We have seen real improvements, but the exhausted environmentalists I saw at that recent meeting know that these improvements have come only after long, bruising battles with industry. If you could devise a regulation that would guarantee every manufacturer record profits every year for the next decade, American business would fight it to the last lawyer. Lies, evasions, and delays are the commonplace strategies of corporate America, and nowadays, they have their friends running Congress and many state governments.
In the Great Lakes, we saw real improvements in the first few years of the Clean Water Act, but since the mid-seventies, very little has changed. Easterbrook tells us that since 1973, when the Endangered Species Act went into effect, "only" seven animal species have been lost. At that rate, we would lose over 30 species a century, not a rate that inspires comfort.
Easterbrook loves the sort of free market devices that allow companies to sell pollution credits to each other. Wisconsin Power Company cut its airborne emissions so far below the legal requirements that it was able to sell the right to exceed the limits to a company in Tennessee. It is not clear to me why we should be happy about this. It does reward Wisconsin Power for its good work, but if I lived downwind from a Tennessee power plant I don't think I would be pleased to hear that the electric company had purchased the right to give me emphysema.
It may be that environmentalists are constitutionally dour types who couldn't accept a gift horse until they had it checked by an orthodontist. Or maybe our failure to celebrate our successes comes from our bitterly won knowledge that the other side can lose every battle but the last one and still win the war. We shouldn't celebrate prematurely, and in environmental matters it often takes centuries for the consequences of our actions to reveal themselves.
While I can't agree with Easterbrook's relentlessly sunny view of our situation, I do agree that we need to give ourselves some credit for the achievements of the past 25 years. If our judgements are too harsh they provide ammunition for the free-market crackpots who now run the House of Representatives and a number of our state legislatures. Regulation can work and has worked. When it fails, the cause is almost always the obstructionism of the malefactors of great wealth who dominate our economy. The message environmentalists should be crafting is that we have come a long way. We shouldn't give up now.