The Environmentalists Sue for Peace

April 22, 1995|By HAL PIPER

Interesting news on this 25th- anniversary Earth Day. The environmentalists are suing for peace.

(Note to environmentalists: Please, save your stamps. I'm secretly on your side. Keep reading.)

The first 25 Earth Days were conducted according to traditional American principles of discourse -- as a death struggle between Virtue and Iniquity. Both sides, of course, claimed to incarnate Virtue. Both also claimed to be the voice of Sweet Reason, struggling to be audible against the stentorian bellow of the Empty Rhetoric on the other side.

Virtue (or Iniquity) stood for saving spotted owls and snail darters, no matter what the cost to humans. Iniquity (or Virtue) stood for destroying the rain forest in the paramount interest of safeguarding precious hamburger-flipping jobs.

Sentimentality bathed Earth Day. One year, my church put on a play, based on the ''Peaceable Kingdom'' paintings of Edward Hicks, in which the Lion lying down with the Lamb explains that at first it was hard for him to become a vegetarian, but the upside is that he's come to appreciate his former prey as fellow creatures.

In past Aprils, The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page has had a sterile choice of articles either demonizing polluters or demonizing tree-huggers. But this isn't where the argument is. On the basic issues, the environmentalists have won; everybody wants clean air and water, every business wants to be seen as environmentally friendly. It is counter-productive to continue to insist that Earth will become a lifeless cinder unless lions become vegetarians and the rest of us forswear modern civilization.

The most famous of all Cassandras is Paul Ehrlich, who specializes in predicting that we will all starve because the world is breeding too many eaters. He has been at it since before the first Earth Day, while the global diet steadily improves and the only famines are in thinly populated countries, not ''teeming'' ones.

Mr. Ehrlich lost a bet over another of his predictions -- that rising prices of increasingly scarce raw materials would reduce global living standards. The economist Julian Simon offered to wager that the prices of copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten would drop over 10 years. At settlement time, Mr. Ehrlich paid off -- $576.07, based on the decline from an agreed base of $1,000.

Yet his 15 minutes of fame go on and on, thanks to television producers who have to scare up a doomsayer to give spine-tingling pizzazz to their programs.

But suppose global famine really does impend. We'll be taken unawares, for nobody believes Mr. Ehrlich. (The television producers are just doing their job.) Chicken Little's sky never fell, but a wolf eventually attacked the flock of the Boy Who Cried. Thanks to Mr. Ehrlich, whose foolish apocalypticism has set the terms of popular discussion, it is harder to get alarmed over, for example, the decline of ocean fish stocks -- but that may turn out to be a very serious problem indeed.

Last November. a funny thing happened. Well, not so funny to environmentalists -- their worst nightmare came true. Newt won.

Which may restore some sanity to the environmental debate. Samuel Johnson famously said that nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hanged on the morrow. With Newt in charge, that's exactly the prospect the environmentalists face. Listen to some Newtoids:

* Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, scoffs at the idea that the Pacific salmon is endangered: ''You can go and buy a can of salmon off the shelf at Albertson's.''

* Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, contemplating a tree, says: ''I see paper to blow your nose.'' He is now chairman of the House Resources Committee.

* Rep. Sonny Bono has a solution to the problem of endangered species: ''Give them all a designated area and then blow it up.''

At last the environmentalists have real demons to fight, instead of imaginary fantasies about the extinction of planetary life. It's fascinating, then, that many of this year's environmentalist commentaries are mild invitations to find common ground. I could publish on the page opposite only a couple of the dozen or so articles I received, arguing that we're all on this earth together, and it's time to stop calling names and start building bridges.

It's a good message, for the real point of Earth Day is not to get Paul Ehrlich on television but to remind us that we want the Baltimore spring to be as beautiful for our children as it is for us this morning. If Newt has managed to focus the environmentalist message, he has done more good than he intends.

D8 Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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