Chicago. -- The Clinton-Gore campaign is soft-focusing the environmental convictions of the vice- presidential candidate -- with good reason.
The senator from Tennessee has bought into the whole extremist, apocalyptic, sky-is-dying vision of the global future and has been advocating sweeping measures that would require enormous economic, political and lifestyle changes throughout the world and especially in the United States.
Al Gore has been calling for no small plans to improve Earth's environment. He wants to make environmental concerns "the central organizing principle of our civil- ization," as he explains in his book, "Earth in the Balance," published just before he joined the Democrats' presidential ticket.
What he means is "embarking on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, in short, every means to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system.
"Minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change -- these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary."
Mr. Gore's "sacrifice, struggle and a wrenching transformation of society " suddenly got translated into "new opportunities for jobs" in the hands of Bill Clinton's spin doctors. But the book leaves no doubt whatsoever that the vice-presidential candidate advocates severe restrictions on American lifestyles, new global governmental constraints and massive assistance from the United States to Third World countries -- all in the service of environmental alarms that are still highly controversial.
What's particularly worrisome is not only the drastic changes Mr. Gore believes necessary to prevent worldwide disaster, but his unwillingness to acknowledge that many reputable scientists don't share his crisis views. In fact, much good scientific data contradict the apocalyptic theories of global warming and other impending ecological calamities the senator finds so compelling.
But Mr. Gore sees no time to collect more information or to consider the impact of his proposals before taking drastic actions to remake the world in a greener image.
"It is essential that we refuse to wait for the obvious signs of impending catastrophe, that we begin immediately to catalyze a consensus of this new organizing principle," he says in his book.
Never mind that some of the most highly hyped environmental concerns have turned out to be overblown or manufactured to serve other agendas -- for example, Times Beach, Alar, Agent Orange.
Or that some government efforts to help have actually cost thousands of American lives -- like the auto-emission standards that have forced cars to become smaller, lighter and less safe.
Or that some government attempts to deal with environmental programs sometimes turn out to be hideously expensive and largely ineffective -- like the Superfund to clean up toxic waste dumps.
Or that private enterprise and intelligent incentive programs can often accomplish more environmentally than government regulations -- as hundreds of specific instances show.
In his book Senator Gore calls for dozens of radical and controversial actions that would not endear him to much of the public if they understood the scope of his intentions.
Among them are requirements that the wealthy nations "allocate money for transferring environmentally helpful technologies to the Third World and to help impoverished nations achieve a stable population and a new pattern of sustainable economic progress."
He adds, "To work, however, any such effort will also require wealthy nations to make a transition themselves that will be in some ways more wrenching than that of the Third World, simply because powerful established patterns will be disrupted."
All this is to be accomplished through complicated treaties and agreements that "establish global constraints on acceptable behavior but that are entered into voluntarily -- albeit with the understanding that they will contain both incentives and legally valid penalties for noncompliance."
Mr. Gore makes it sound sensible and easy. But the horrendous political and practical difficulties relief organizations are experiencing in trying to help the starving people of Somalia suggest how complicated it can be to intervene in other cultures and political systems even when disaster is obvious and immediate.
There is no shortage of people who do care about the environment. But many of them are painfully aware of the toll of environmental problems that have been caused or aggravated by government management and regulations and by unintended consequences occurring because situations were not adequately understood.
The good guys don't necessarily push public-sector intervention or speedy action to accomplish environmental goals. The bad guys may turn out to be alarmists set off by findings of one part per billion of a substance associated with a tumor in a rat, or regulators whose rules have unintended consequences.
But Mr. Gore is right to be concerned and to care. Protecting the environment is essential. People do need to understand the impact of their lives and choices on the future of Earth. But before we make staggering changes in our institutions, our economic system, our tax structure and our way of life, before we lean hard on other countries to change their cultures and their political systems, it's imperative to understand the problems and the impact of proposed solutions better than we do now.
Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.