Struggles for rights show parallels


March 12, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Is there an underlying link between the struggle of African-Americans for equal treatment, and environmentalists' struggle for an enduring relationship with nature?

I have been struck by the parallels found in separate letters to the editor of my local newspaper on both subjects in recent months.

"Minorities get preference over whites already/Swamps have more rights than land owners," the writers complain.

"We have already legislated civil rights and integrated our schools/regulated pollution in the air, water and land," they point out.

And: "What is it blacks/environmentalists want, anyhow; what will it take to satisfy them?"

Positive connections between civil and natural rights also seem clear. More than a century ago, writing "The Descent of Man," Charles Darwin reflected that human moral development had been a continual extension of "social instincts and sympathies" toward all races, the handicapped and even nature.

Our courts in this century have followed a similar broadened extension of rights -- to women, children, minorities.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the environmental legislation emanating from the first Earth Day in 1970 -- extending protection, if not rights, to nature -- together rank among the great civilizing achievements of 20th-century America. Yet, three decades later, we are troubled and frustrated on both fronts.

A recent column in these pages by Clarence Page explained what many African-Americans feel: After years of legitimate racial progress, there isn't much integration.

He cited studies: Blacks are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods than other minorities, and are likely to continue to do so; and de facto segregation in America's schools is the highest it's been since 1967. Page also quoted a lawyer whose school district is accused of a 30-year pattern of giving minority students secondhand books and separate classrooms and bathrooms: "Racist to me," the lawyer explained, "is a conscious attitude, like running around with hoods and white sheets."

Page wrote: "Never have I seen whites more weary of the idea that race is still a significant problem in America. Never have I seen blacks . . . so weary of pressing for white acceptance."

With the environment, there are many, many examples of progress in recent decades. But we have yet to answer a basic question posed in an Earth Day editorial in Fortune magazine 24 years ago: Can "a high-technology society achieve a safe, durable and improving relationship with its environment?"

In just the last decade on Chesapeake Bay, for example, there have been extraordinary political alliances forged among the states that share the watershed; and major strides in the control of pollutants from sewage, smokestacks and automobiles.

All of this, accompanied by perhaps $1.5 billion in spending, has at best "stabilized the patient," bay environmental managers say; the heavy lifting has just begun. The reason is that population in the watershed continues to increase, and we have only begun to face the fundamental changes that must occur if millions more are to live here without eroding gains already made.

We are at the point where cleaner cars must be accompanied by driving less; better landfills must be linked with producing less waste; cleaner discharges from sewage plants and factories must be joined with a phaseout of discharging to waterways in the first place.

Then there is the pressing need to change the way we live on the land. Sprawl development consumes open space at a hideous pace -- worse than in 1970. It increases pollution, destroys wildlife habitat and trashes the aesthetic qualities of our countryside.

Doing anything much about it clashes with private property rights, to a much greater extent than previous pollution battles waged largely in the public domains of air and water.

Public reaction ranges from apathy to backlash, including efforts by some to portray environmentalists as a threat to liberty and the economy. The situation often seems to echo Clarence Page on racism -- never have people seemed so weary of hearing that pollution hasn't gone away, hasn't been solved.

Even among the ranks of the committed there is no clear consensus on how to proceed on the environment. A glimpse of this comes from interviews, commissioned last year by the 83,000-member Chesapeake Bay Foundation among a cross section of its staff, trustees and outsiders familiar with their dedication to bay restoration.

"While at one point CBF could point to polluting industries, uncaring companies, and other impersonal institutional forces as the main enemies of the bay, that is no longer the case," the interviewers wrote. "It is now the life style and consumption habits of . . . all of us that have become the greatest threat to the bay. The solutions to these are far more complex."

From the interviews, two very different visions of "saving the bay" emerged:

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