'Greens' suffer post-election blues


Environmentalists I talked to in the wake of the recent elections were feeling dismayed, betrayed and bereft of answers.

In Pennsylvania, the governor-elect, Tom Ridge, had run promising to dismantle the state's main environmental agency.

He joins another weak environmental governor, Virginia's George Allen, on the executive council that, with Maryland's Parris N. Glendening and D.C.'s Marion S. Barry, oversees the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.

Glendening, backed heavily by environmentalists, barely beat back the challenge of Ellen Sauerbrey, who consistently opposed environmental protection bills for 16 years in the legislature.

Imagine if Sauerbrey had won. (She is still challenging the outcome.) Mayor Barry, a member of the original bay cleanup council in 1983, might have been the leading light in the new lineup -- a less than thrilling prospect, though as I recall, he was all right on bay policies during his first tour of duty.

The national scene looks bleaker. The 1994 environmental voting score for the 10 House committee chairmen swept out by Republican control was 76 out of a possible 100, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

Seven was the average score for the incoming House chairmen.

The Senate looked good by comparison, with an average score of 68 for outgoing chairmen vs. 37 for their replacements.

And the Roper polling organization recently announced significant drops in just the last two years in the number of Americans who would call themselves strongly committed to the environment.

So the agonizing by environmentalists has begun: Does the public care anymore? Do they understand our message? Do we need to change our tactics? Our goals?

An environmentalist asked me, "Just speculating, what could we say to the public that would compete with 'Cut taxes and government, balance the budget and make everyone better off' "?

Probably nothing, I replied -- and certainly nothing that would be the truth. I didn't mean that environmental groups should overlook the country's mood as a reason to rethink where they are headed and how they might better get there.

But they also ought to remember that what the environmental movement is about is not destined to win popularity contests.

Consider Ralph Nader, a consumer activist and all-around nudge whose 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," spawned a revolution in auto safety. Nader, who epitomizes government intrusion in our lives, may have saved more Americans than Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine. Yet, incessant lobbying to buckle up will never win acclaim as conquering a dread disease does.

Government role unavoidable

Similarly, federal regulation of pollution and natural resources will seldom win the public's affection. But surely as fish, birds, and dirty air and water, including runoff from the land, routinely cross state boundaries, such government involvement is unavoidable.

The internationally recognized program to restore the Chesapeake is both a testament to big government oversight and a testing ground for ways government may protect the environment less intrusively.

Federal leadership and federal money were essential to both the science and the multistate organization that inaugurated the program between 1978 and 1983.

Federal oversight was key to bringing back rockfish, which migrate through 13 states, and federal money helps Pennsylvania farmers control pollutants that may not even cause a problem in Pennsylvania rivers -- but create havoc when they reach the bay, far downstream.

And government, industry and agriculture in the Chesapeake watershed voluntarily have committed to push well beyond the requirements of federal laws in reducing some key pollutants.

Now the cleanup is moving to the level of local river systems, where citizens are given cleanup targets by government but are allowed to choose how best to meet them.

But none of this would work without credible regulatory authority at several levels of government -- always in the background if local and voluntary efforts fail.

Environmentalists, in searching for new answers, also ought to recall Galileo, brutalized by the Roman Catholic Church four centuries ago for announcing that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the known universe. Not until 1979 did the church reconsider the astronomer's "crime."

The modern environmental movement, abetted by the science of ecology, espouses similarly profound change: That humans are part of -- not lords of -- the community of all living things.

The concept of humankind respecting Nature is of course much older, just as Copernicus posited a century before Galileo that all else did not revolve around the Earth.

But it was when Galileo proved it that the feathers flew.

And so it has gone, with reaction to environmentalism, as laws for endangered species and expanded wetlands protection have begun to put into practice a more eco-centric world view.

Can't stand still

No one has all the answers to the clashes this has created, such as the one between the very real rights of private property owners and the equally real impacts of their land use on the environment. But a well-orchestrated and effective anti-environment campaign by property rights groups and others has outflanked environmentalists and threatens to hopelessly polarize what should be a legitimate debate.

Nationally and locally, the public's mood and that of legislators seems unfertile ground for progress. But to stand still is to go backward. Consider the bay.

Think of its six-state watershed, or drainage basin, with all the natural resources therein, as a box. You can't make the box any larger, yet we keep putting more people into it -- another few million in the next couple decades.

Think of it as having a house with a fixed number of bathrooms and adding more children to the family, namely teen-agers, whose bathroom demands reflect the watershed population's ever-growing consumption of goods and services that impact the bay.

To survive, you have two options: Make more rules to govern bathroom use or ensure that all voluntarily learn to limit themselves.

Time for reflection

It is like that with the bay, if we are serious about reconciling our growing numbers with a sustainable quality of environment. We can make more rules or behave more respectfully of other family members voluntarily. The reality is it will take a mixture of both.

Neither will repealing rules automatically ensure better voluntary behavior (at least in my family).

I'm still unsure what the public's turn to the right signified for the environment, or for much else.

People feel bummed. More government doesn't seem to help, so they will try less government.

It is a proper time for environmentalists to rethink their strategies and explore creative alternatives but no time to forget where they have come from, all they have accomplished and where they must head.

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