Arlington, Virginia. -- Tomorrow is Earth Day, the 25th anniversary of the event. The question is whether it will be a tired replay of the original or an occasion when we begin to shape a new, more timely vision for environmental protection in this country.
The original Earth Day was born in an angry spirit. It was the good guys against the bad guys, mostly industry. A grim picture of the future was painted in environmental speeches from San Francisco to Manhattan, with charges that American business was thoughtless and greedy, helping to pollute the human race to extinction.
This moralistic outcry goaded government into fast action. In the surge of concern which Earth Day reflected, a get-tough regulatory agency was created and laws were passed to purify the country's air and water without regard to cost. In the ensuing years, young environmental lobbyists roamed the halls of Congress, publishing lists of heroes and villains and waving polls showing the public's concern about pollution. These scrappy tactics brought more laws, a fast-growing structure of regulation and a swelling national cleanup budget.
But since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1990, the traditional approach to environmentalism has gone on the skid. Several cleanup laws slated for renewal didn't get past the last Congress. A proposal to upgrade the Environmental Protection Agency to cabinet status floundered. Industry learned to fight back, arguing that environmental cleanup costs jobs. Landowners and state and local governments began to feel overburdened with protection requirements.
In the new Congress, we are seeing a broad effort, especially from the House side, to curb the environmental-protection program established since the first Earth Day. A coalition in a House committee has proposed to scale back the Clean Water Act. In a single piece of legislation, the House recently voted to weaken the air-cleanup effort, the endangered-species protection program and national forest conservation. And in a slap at federal rule-making, the House approved a moratorium on new government regulations, leaving the environmental community to hope that the Senate will insist on more moderate reform. These actions have been backed by rhetoric every bit as angry and exaggerated as allegations by the environmentalists in the past.
Another dose of moralizing isn't going to reverse the situation. In fact, I believe the environmental hype and hardball tactics helped to create it in the first place. The public has sensed that the cleanup crusade has produced some unrealistic choices. Protecting endangered species with little room for compromise . . . trying to eliminate all signs of contamination from hazardous-waste dumps . . . pursuing minuscule cancer risks. Such absolutist efforts have stirred resentment and skepticism and now the "bad guys" are playing on it.
Clearly it is time for a new approach to environmental politics. We need a win-win philosophy in place of the battlefield mentality. If the cleanup drive is going to survive tight budgets and new Congresses and administrations, the environmentally-concerned must start listening to other viewpoints and seeking common ground.
We're all in this together -- farmers, property owners, ranchers, environmentalists and businesses. If bridges aren't built between these groups so that everyone's interest is served or accommodated in action to protect the environment, they will divide and may cancel each other out. In the worst case, we could land back where we started, with a feeble pollution-control effort comparable to that of the 1960s and before.
Some positive change is on the way. While the rhetoric has been flaring, the win-win approach has been sprouting.
Community land trusts (3,000 of them now) are doing a good job of advising people how to keep their property and protect it in the public interest. Urban environmental groups are linking up with some companies who believe less reliance on the automobile would curb congestion and help business. The U.S. Interior Department recently announced a project to encourage landowners to create habitat for endangered species, while relieving them of fears about possible land-use controls later. And some groups are seeking environmental jobs for inner-city kids, hoping to serve ecological and social goals at the same time.
There are a surprising number of examples. Taken together, they could be a fresh, creative wind in a situation where the typical response to environmental problems -- a new law with a new set of rules and a big outlay of dollars -- has worn thin.
Traditional government problem-solving may have worked to eliminate much of the gross pollution that we used to see in many rivers and lakes and in the air over some of our cities and towns. But dealing with the remaining pollution is harder and costlier and calls for new methods such as altering the way products are made. And lasting environmental protection will require changes in the values and objectives of the society itself -- in the way we live, use resources and view economic progress. Such changes can't be accomplished by government programs
and rules alone. They will require the understanding and participation of almost everyone, as the effort to save the Chesapeake Bay has shown.
Environmentalists could take an important step tomorrow toward vision of reconciliation and consensus. They could acknowledge the successes: Air and water are cleaner than on that first Earth Day; business is more environmentally sensitive and the public more aware of its responsibilities. It may be time to take stock of the quality of our environment and review our protection priorities, considering our goals, the possible payoffs and costs, and the degree of environmental risk from various activities.
After two and a half decades of hard work on environmental problems, we may know more than we think about the potential threats, about who should do what to combat them, and about the resilience of nature itself. In the first Earth Day, we proceeded with anger and a sense of crisis. Maybe this Earth Day, we can proceed with more understanding, not only about the problems, but about each other.
John Heritage was environmental aide to Gaylord Nelson when the former senator founded Earth Day.