The defeat of Big Green: politics of confrontation make a comeback

Daniel Botkin

November 12, 1990|By Daniel Botkin

THE DEFEAT of two California initiatives sponsored by environmental groups does not signify, as their supporters seem to believe, the demise of environmentalism or increasing voter hostility toward the environment. More important, the campaign itself showed a surprising and disturbing lack of faith in democracy among proponents of a good environment.

Before last Tuesday's election, champions of the state's "Big Green," Proposition 128, arrogantly claimed the fate of the environment lay with the measure's success, that its defeat would signal to the rest of the nation that environmentalism was losing its political potency. But Big Green was never the whole of the environment nor all of environmentalism.

Environmentalism became a popular political issue in the 1960s, its chief impetus Rachael Carlson's 1962 "Silent Spring," which warned of the dangers of pesticides.

The 1960s was a decade of confrontation, of good guys (environmentalists) vs. bad guys (industrialists), of environmentalists having to prove that the environment presented a serious set of unresolved issues. Confrontation helped to establish public awareness of the problems, setting the stage for the 1970s, when a series of landmark environmental laws were enacted, among them the National Environmental Policy Act, which set up the Environmental Protection Agency.

Contrary to the emotional rhetoric swirling in the wake of Big Green's defeat, some aspects of the environment have gotten better. The air is cleaner. Sulphur-dioxide emissions, for example, declined from 26 million metric tons, in 1973-75, to 21 million, in 1982-84, according to the World Resources Institute, a non-governmental organization with a solid reputation on the side of the environment.

By the 1980s, we seemed to be making great progress. But in the second half of the decade, we discovered that many environmental problems transcended boundaries -- global warming, the ozone hole, deforestation and the worldwide loss of biological diversity. Alarms went off.

Unlike the '60s, environmentalists did not have to persuade the public of the importance of these concerns. Eighty-two percent of all voters rate the environment as one of the top three or four issues according to a new report from Environment Opinion Study, Inc. But environmentalists have yet to win the battle of individual action. Although 81 percent of the respondents said that they would be willing to make some inconvenient adjustments, only 17 percent reported that they would be ready to make major sacrifices to clean up the environment. Only 41 percent said that they had reduced or would reduce driving.

The 1990s, then, should be the decade in which environmentalism completes its rise from the emotionalism of the '60s to become thoroughly professional, a time when we begin to understand the roles of citizen, politician and expert in environmental issues, a time when we manage the environment, not just emote over it.

The central question is not: Do we have the technical and scientific expertise to solve environmental problems? It is: Can we solve environmental problems within a democratic form of government?

The environmental initiatives on last Tuesday's ballot raised some issues about democracy and environmentalism in America. They are: a surprisingly cynical distrust of democracy among some environmentalists, confusion about the role of science and expertise in environmental law and a willingness to substitute rhetoric for progress. (This is ironic, because information flowing from a more open Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has shown that non-democratic governments are more likely to despoil the environment.)

The residual danger from the Big Green campaign is that it re-politicized the environment, unnecessarily returning the issue to the confrontational emotionalism of the 1960s. The initiative itself -- 39 single-spaced pages of complex and confusing assertions -- was certainly not something voters would avidly read. Filling the intellectual vacuum was the old emotionalism revived by advertising that embraced the bogey man theory of politics -- vote against the person or industry you love to hate.

Accordingly, Big Green and the other environmental initiatives, though about means, were advertised as if they were only about ends. The worst example was the use of a cancer-stricken child in a pro-Big Green commercial to hype the badness of chemicals. The image of a hairless child served to frighten the viewer away from the real issues about how to solve environmental problems.

Another example of this throwback to '60s-style confrontation was a telephone call I received the other day. The caller was complaining about an article I had written on Big Green. I was "irresponsible" for drawing attention to the initiative's problems, even though they were real, because by doing so I would merely confuse the public and make them vote the wrong way.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.