12 Trends

Wild Ideas for the New Millennium

The classic late 19th/early 20th century environmentalism articulated by John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and others didn't stray far from protecting the land and the species that live upon it. But as the 20th century wanes, the field has become far more crowded with issues, and complicated by our technological society. In our first edition of 2000, E offers a progress report on some of the movement's emerging trends. These issues, on the fringes a few years ago are, for better or worse, moving into the mainstream, and their momentum can't be denied.

Recycling: Source Reduction and the Rise of Reuse

The national recycling rate has increased 28 percent — up from just 6.6 percent in 1970.© Frances F. Roberts

There's no question that, despite some skeptical articles, recycling is a 1990s success story. In a 1997 cover article entitled “Talking Trash,” E noted that home-based recycling is favored by 73 percent of Americans, and they've been putting their blue bins on the line. The most recent 1999 Environmental Protection Agency report puts the national recycling rate at 28 percent, up from just 6.6 percent in 1970. “There was a steady increase in recycling in the early 1990s, but the growth rate has slowed,” says Kelly Lease, a program associate at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. The kind of recycling abuses that saw bin-collected paper, plastic and metal thrown into landfills have mostly been curtailed, Lease says. And reuse, the second of the three Rs, is also on the increase. “That's where we'll see a lot of the growth in coming years,” she adds.

John Ryan, who is research director at Northwest Environment Watch and author of a new book entitled Seven Wonders, is glad to see what he calls a “big push” on recycling, but he's not sure it deserves its reputation as “poster child for ecological living.” In his book, Ryan celebrates simple reuse options like taking books out of the library and renting videos instead of buying them.

One of the most effective ways to save resources is to make producers responsible for their packaging, as E noted in a 1997 piece entitled “The Producer Pays.” The big news then was Germany's new and stringent packaging law, which has become a dramatic success. The national law has since been copied by the Netherlands, in the so-called Dutch Packaging Covenant; unlike the German law, the Dutch plan was drafted by a business-government coalition. Yet producer responsibility remains in its infancy in the U.S. Its backers include nonprofit groups like the New York-based INFORM and the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, which sponsors a Product Stewardship initiative.

Green Business: Moving Into the Mainstream

Earth Day 1990 was a catalyst for many things, not the least of which was phenomenal growth in the heretofore sleepy field of “green business.” Earth-conscious enterprise was then a sleepy field, presided over by relatively moribund firms that catered to a relatively small cult of “health fanatics.” The products themselves were poorly marketed, expensive, and often ineffective in use.

The new companies aim their products at mainstream consumers, and go head-to-head in quality with established supermarket brands. In time, they've been able to compete in price as well, breaking down one of the last consumer resistance barriers. The result has been incredible growth: This is now a $30 billion industry, with a large and devoted consumer base.

Publications like the Council on Economic Priorities' Shopping for a Better World have had a profound effect on buying habits. The guide, which lists 2,400 brand-name products, has found its listings translated directly into marketplace behavior. More than three-quarters of the book's readers say they've changed brands after reading it. A Walker Research poll in 1994 found that 78 percent of consumers are avoiding or refusing to buy from certain businesses because of negative perceptions about them.

These days, U.S. consumers spend as much as $110 billion annually on products they identify as “socially or environmentally progressive,” buying them from such green companies as Seventh Generation, Real Goods, Working Assets Long Distance, Tom's of Maine, Deja Shoe, Smith and Hawken, The Body Shop and Ben and Jerry's. What's more, according to a study by the Social Investment Forum, a further $150 billion is held in union, church and teacher pension funds that use social screens in making investment decisions. Another $12 billion is invested in mutual fund partnerships that use ethical formulas.

Jacqueline Ottman, who heads J. Ottman Consulting, sees the business as in a period of mature growth. “Companies now know how to make marketing claims that people understand and accept,” she says. In 1991, E reported that mainstream industry was in a “race to be greener,” and that many corporations were appointing “environmental vice presidents.” Now many big companies are simply gobbling up their environmentally conscious competition. Heinz, for instance, acquired Earth's Best, Colgate-Palmolive bought Murphy's Oil Soap and Frito-Lay bought Smart Food. It's a definite 1990s trend that has the potential of diluting the significance of green name brands. But it also means that green marketing is not going away.

Organics: Reshaping the Supermarket

With the rise of biotechnology, organic produce (and its third party certification system, which ensures freedom from toxic pesticides and fertilizers) is looking better and better to many shoppers. Although organics still make up only one percent of the market, sales have in fact grown 20 percent a year for the last nine years, boosting it to a $6 billion industry. Consumers can now easily pick up organic and natural foods at 73 percent of grocery stores, reveals a Food Marketing Institute study.

Certification programs for organic products have made quality control easier.Courtesy of the Organic Trade Association

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, sees this as only the beginning of a more chemical-free future, predicting consumer demand will draw organics into food service, “from packaged salads to airplane meals,” as well. The entire Berkeley, California school system is shifting to organic foods, he points out, and already offers at least one item on every menu. “They're working to transition the entire program from pizza slices to peanut butter,” Scowcroft says. And then, he adds, “there's a whole group of chefs who see it as a new area for the restaurant business.” They include Nora Poillon, owner of Nora and Asia Nora in Washington, DC, whose use of at least 95 percent organic ingredients makes hers the first restaurants to be third-party certified organic.

With the fiber industry not far behind (in 1997, large apparel companies purchased 2.15 million pounds of organic cotton), organics, and the mainly family farmers behind it, seem to be gaining ground. But the fate of national standards is still in limbo. The original U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposal, E reported in May of 1998, called for the inclusion of genetically modified organisms, food irradiation and sewage sludge. As a result of a large consumer outcry (the USDA received a record 280,000 comments in response), they were revised yet again.

Environmental Education: Greening the Curricula

It's not the kind of news covered in Edmund Morris' splashy and controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, but one of the former President's many budget-slashing acts was defunding the original Environmental Education Act. Former Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) authored the original bill in 1970 but, he says, “The education establishment and the old Health, Education and Welfare office didn't do a damn thing about it, then Reagan killed it entirely.”

Fortunately, environmental education (EE) is back in a big way. A new federal law was passed in 1990, and the Environmental Protection Agency is awarding grants and encouraging startup programs. An environmental curriculum is now mandated in 31 states. In addition, there's been a huge increase in college EE programs. The Nathan Cummings Foundation reports that a third of existing course offerings were created after the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990. In a 1991 E article, Mitchell Thomashow of the Antioch College Environmental Studies Department correctly predicted a huge turnaround in what had been an atmosphere of despair during the Reagan years. “Universities not tuned into the 'EE revival' are going to miss a major opportunity,” he said.

If there's a dark side to our emerging EE Nation, it's in the discouraging words from a small coterie of well-connected naysayers who've concluded that kids are being scared to death, especially by inflammatory textbooks. Leading this conservative backlash are Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw, co-authors of the book Facts, Not Fear. In a recent letter to E's editor, Sanera and Shaw react with horror to a textbook scene showing a fictitious city underwater because of global warming. “You minimized the clear evidence of serious problems with environmental education,” they charged. But scientists do predict that global warming could cause the inundation of coastal cities. And they point, even more ominously, to evidence that the process is already underway. Sheltering students from the truth seems dubious policy for environmental educators.

Alternative Vehicles: The Race to Build the Clean Futurecar

“The car will not vanish, so we must clean it up,” writes Hank Dittmar of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. Only public transportation could really solve the problems of gridlock and polluted skies in America's cities, but the prospects for a rail and bus renaissance aren't great. America has poured $329 billion into new highway construction in the last 40 years without raising much public indignation, but the halls of Congress are full of cries for the elimination of Amtrak subsidies, which have cost us all of $20 billion since 1971. In his book Future Drive, Daniel Sperling notes, “Even a herculean doubling of transit ridership would lessen vehicle trips in the United States by only four percent, resulting in much less than a four percent reduction in emissions and energy use.” Obviously, he adds, we could do more by cleaning up car technology.

Fortunately, that cleanup is underway, if only in fits and starts. Driven by air pollution legislation, the threat of global warming, and a suddenly animated international competition, carmakers are making quantum leaps forward in technology. The new vehicles, with both hybrid (gas and electric) and fuel cell drivetrains, promise to not only greatly reduce pollution, but also to perform better, be more reliable, cruise farther, and last much longer than anything the public has ever seen. This could be, in short, a whole new evolution of the automobile, at a time when such progress is desperately needed.

The first hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, will arrive this year. Both get more than 60 miles to the gallon. Fuel cell cars, which promise to liberate us from internal combustion altogether, will take longer, but Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota and Honda have all made commitments to produce them by 2004. Fuel cells may soon power our watches, our laptop computers and our homes.

Most environmentalists don't love cars, and they shouldn't. But as urban sprawl continues apace in the new century, we're only adding to our auto addiction. Cleaner cars are worth at least a loose salute.

Green Energy: Power to the People

Because the long-distance telephone industry was deregulated, most Americans can call their Aunt Bertha for a fraction of what it cost when the phone giants enjoyed regional monopolies. Reducing the monthly bill is also the main idea behind deregulation of the electric power industry, now underway in more than 20 states. Whether the shakeup in Big Electricity achieves that worthy goal remains to be seen, but deregulation provides important side benefits for environmentalists. Because the law allows consumers to buy electricity from small, startup companies, “green power” is going from dream to reality.

Short of stringing private wires, it's impossible to guarantee that a homeowner can plug directly into renewable electricity generated by wind, geothermal or solar power. Even under deregulation, generated electricity will continue to be combined in a one-size-fits-all utility grid, so “nuclear electrons” will freely combine with “photovoltaic ions.” The idea instead is that allowing freedom of choice will slowly change the electricity mix, and provide vital support for alternative energy generators, who aren't otherwise price-competitive (and now provide only one percent of the country's energy needs). Scott Denman, executive director of the Safe Energy Communication Council, worries that the taxpayer cost of bailing utilities out of bad nuclear power investments, estimated at over $100 billion in just 11 states, will make new investment in green power difficult.

In a 1997 E piece published when most deregulation legislation was still being written, the Natural Resource Defense Council's Ralph Cavanagh warned that “it matters enormously how the restructuring is done.” Environmentalists say that protections for green power have to be included in the enabling legislation. But despite significant flaws in California's energy bill, state consumers can now buy green power from a number of competing companies. According to the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, about one percent of California's consumers have switched to new suppliers, and 95 percent of those (105,000 residents) have chosen green power suppliers, despite the $12 monthly premium.

Some corporations (including Toyota) are buying into clean power by affiliating with Green-e, a program of the nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions. Green-e certifies electric products that are at least 50 percent generated by renewable sources.

Ecotourism: The Challenge of Traveling Light

In 1990, when E first wrote about ecotourism, it was “the latest buzzword in organized travel.” By 1995, when we published our first major feature on the subject, the buzzword had become a “seismic shift.” Ecotourism is a maturing industry, with many green vacation packagers reporting phenomenal 25 percent growth.

“The whole idea of ecotourism has become more and more mainstream,” says Linda Pearson, sales and operations manager at REI Adventures. “There are a lot of baby boomers involved now, and they don't want to just bake in the sun. They want a m

ore active vacation, but they also want a comfortable lodge, maybe with outside showers and recycled dishware.”

One of the new trends is the “multisport” vacation. Instead of just cycling for 10 days, ecotourists are buying into combinations of mountain biking, hiking and sea kayaking. And animal watching is as popular as ever. Dan Crandall is a trip consultant with Natural Habitat Adventures, and he reports that business is growing 20 percent a year, fueled by a strong interest in southern Africa. Ecotourism could become too popular: Crandall's company takes visitors to Canada's Hudson Bay, and he says some uncaring tour operators roar their tundra buggies to within 50 feet of the polar bears. Pearson adds that sensitivity to local cultures should be a watchword for the emerging ecotourism industry. “When we're planning meals, we try not to buy all the chickens in a village,” she says, “because that would mean no eggs for the local people.”

Globalization: Fighting to be Heard

Faced with the environmental ramifications of free trade, as spelled out in the sweeping General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), green groups are attempting to pull up chairs at what have traditionally been closed-door negotiations. As late as six months ago, environmentalists wouldn't even have been able to find the table, but thousands turned out for the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle.

A result of all products being forced into the same global market, attracting the same global capital, producing profits for the same investors, increased globalization has squeezed every nation into one-size-fits-all environmental policies. “The promise that protection for the environment would increase as trade expands hasn't been delivered,” says Victor Menotti, director of the environment program at the International Forum on Globalization. “The opposite is true.”

A prime example is the 134-nation WTO, set up five years ago. Thus far, every environmental or public health law challenged by a multinational corporation has been ruled illegal. Commercial interests have already won out over dolphins and sea turtles, small-scale Caribbean banana producers, U.S. clean gasoline rules, and a European Union ban on hormone-treated beef. The very concept of the environmental precautionary principle contradicts WTO rules, which dictate conclusive science is necessary to justify a trade measure.

Despite stacked odds, environmentalists can claim to have defeated two potentially disastrous free trade proposals. If implemented, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) would have allowed foreign investors to sue taxpayers in an international court for compensation for any law that hurts their profits (essentially turning the “polluter pays” principle on its head to “pay the polluter”). A bid for fast track, which would have required Congress to give only minimal scrutiny to any agreement put before it by the President, has been defeated twice.

Fair Trade: Good Business and the Living Wage

In 1998, stores in North America offering fairly traded goods posted some $35 to $40 million in sales, some claiming as much as a 40 percent yearly growth. Worldwide, annual sales total $400 million, a small but culturally and environmentally significant drop in the $3.6 trillion bucket of globally exchanged goods.

Fair trade organizations (FTOs) skip exploitative middlemen, returning a greater percentage of the retail price to the actual workers, usually from developing nations—and guaranteeing these producers a living wage for their work. They partner with small businesses or worker-owned cooperatives, which ultimately benefit the community. They develop long-term relationships with artisans or farmers, providing financial assistance through loans or prepayment, ensuring future business. And, says Deborah James, director of the Fair Trade Program at Global Exchange, which educates consumers, “Fair trade encourages people to become good stewards of their community and their land.”

Organizations like Ten Thousand Villages, SERRV International and Global Exchange bring hand-crafted items, including musical instruments and jewelry, to the First World from developing nations. But while the American market has so far concentrated mainly on crafts and artisan work, European consumers already buy many fairly traded food commodities, including bananas, sugar, tea, honey and cocoa.

The American consumer's global perspective has lagged well behind that of Europeans, Mimi Stephens, the then-director of the Fair Trade Federation told E back in July of 1998. But with the establishment of the first U.S. fair trade certifying agency this past summer, we may soon be catching up. The new label will start with coffee, “monitoring it from tree to cup,” says Seth Petchers, program associate of TransFair USA. “And that's important in a world where we can't always take the claims on packaging as gospel.”

Species Reintroduction: Bringing 'Em Back Alive

The conservation community has attempted hundreds of different species reintroductions, from trumpeter swans and prairie dogs to elk and thick-billed parrots. Several have garnered the media spotlight, but most have slipped back into their native habitats almost unnoticed. Reintroduction of the swift fox took only about six months, from conception of the plan to breeding, transport and release in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, where they had been declared extinct in 1969. On the other hand, naturalist Aldo Leopold first suggested the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in the 1940s, but when E first reported on it in 1992, they still hadn't been returned to roam the Lamar Valley. By the time of “Troubled Homecoming” (E's March/April 1998 cover story), the hotly debated reintroductions remained “clouded by legal complications,” and, in fact, they still are.

“You have to look at every species differently,” says Rob Hazlewood senior staff biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Montana. “In some cases reintroduction is a powerful tool, but for others, it's really not a factor.” The reintroduction of Canadian lynx into southern Colorado stirred controversy when 10 of the 41 lynx released this past year died from such causes as starvation and speeding vehicles. But in the case of the reborn peregrine falcon, Hazlewood says, “reintroduction played a key role.” Six thousand falcons have been released into the wild since 1974 (some of them in urban areas, after the discovery that they successfully adapted to nesting on skyscrapers). The falcon's population soared back from a low of 324 nesting pairs in North America to at least 1,650 today, earning its removal from the endangered species list this past August.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Allergic to Modern Society

As far back as 1987 (around the time the Environmental Protection Agency remodeled its Washington, D.C. headquarters and 200 employees developed symptoms of “sick building symptom”) the National Research Council indicated that 15 to 30 percent of the population may be especially sensitive to latent chemicals at work and in the home. That statistic only hints at th

e potential victims of an illness called “total allergy syndrome,” “20th century disease,” “chemical AIDS,” or most recognizably, “multiple chemical sensitivity” (MCS).

Often first provoked by a repeated moderate- or high-level chemical exposure, a person developing MCS becomes unusually sensitive to low levels of chemicals—even those commonly found in detergents, perfumes, pharmaceuticals and foods. Objects as seemingly innocuous as the daily paper or an electric blanket become potential triggers, causing the body to overreact with symptoms ranging from mental confusion and severe headaches to muscle pain and constant fatigue. With no clear cause or diagnostic test (the first consensus definition was only published this past summer), MCS remains a relatively exotic phenomenon. People with this illness have been likened to canaries in the coal mine, warning us all of toxins pervasive in our environment.

Many sufferers are forced to become nomadic, always searching for a more tolerable location, as Rhonda Zwillinger showed in a 1998 E photo essay entitled “No Safe Haven.” But recognition of MCS is gaining momentum, Zwillinger says, and sufferers may soon have somewhere to go. Marin County, California has built the first permanent housing units specifically designed for people with MCS, and Arizona may soon follow. Even some Habitat for Humanity groups have changed their policy, offering to build houses with special materials. Internationally, Holland, Germany and Canada are about to become the first to acknowledge that MCS is a serious illness. Unfortunately, says Zwillinger, “the illness itself is also gaining momentum.” Those housing units in California have a three-year waiting list.

Livable Communities: Building Cities That Work

According to the Census Bureau, by 2050, U.S. population will exceed 390 million people. Population density is projected to increase from 76 people per square mile to 111. Faced with these facts, communities are beginning to take a hard look at where all of these people are going to live, and the quality of life that will come with them.

Problems like storm water management (combined sewer overflows discharge 1.2 trillion gallons into American streams, lakes and estuaries every year), threatened agriculture (the U.S. loses an estimated one million acres of farmland annually to urban and suburban sprawl), and air pollution (117 million Americans live in areas where the air is unhealthy to breathe) are being rethought in the process.

“Communities are trying to reconcile the need for environmental protection and sustainable development with traditional land use and development tools,” says Christopher Juniper, managing director of Natural Capitalism Practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute. To grow sustainably, cities are combining residential and retail areas, “infilling” abandoned industrial properties and developing around public transit. These initiatives also serve to promote economic growth and preserve unique regional identity.

A classic example is Chattanooga, Tennessee, which in 1969 the EPA awarded the dubious distinction of being “the dirtiest city in America.” By the time E wrote about it in a March 1998 Current redevelopment of the downtown included a leaf-lined river walk, electric bus shuttles, the world's longest pedestrian bridge, and a freshwater aquarium surrounded by renovated shopping malls, affordable housing and restaurants.

“One of the really positive things developing in the last few years is the realization that the goals of good urban planning and design further the goals of the environmental movement as well,” points out Paul Zykofsky, director of the Center for Livable Communities at the Local Government Commission. “If we build good quality cities in which people want to live, we protect open space and natural resources.”

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