Flying High, Swooping Low

Assessing the Environmental Movement–at the Close of the "E Decade"
© Ted Swem/USFWS

The second issue of E Magazine coincided with Earth Day 1990, the 20th anniversary celebration of the first event and, in its own way, a landmark in environmental history. With its huge turnouts around the world, Earth Day 1990 proved that in the two decades since that first small Washington gathering, the environmental movement had grown enormously and become united in common goals.

Earth Day 1990 was a true watershed event in the environmental decade. Unfortunately, its momentum was not sustained.© Frances M. Roberts

Speaking just before the April 22, 1990 event made world headlines, organizer Denis Hayes cautioned that if Earth Day turned out to be merely another one-day celebration, it would fail. “Unless we have an agenda,” he said then, “we become just one more of those transient phenomena that have become so common: where, for example, nuclear winter is on the front pages of every publication, and a year later nobody can remember what it is…The best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to come out of it with a strengthened, broadened movement, with clear-cut plans for where it wants to go.”

That was 10 years ago, in a more optimistic time. That rising tide of optimism gave birth to E Magazine, and to two other independent environmental magazines that are no longer with us. We were clear about the historical moment. “Nineteen ninety marks the dawn of a new decade during which we’ll be working together to rescue our environment,” wrote publisher Doug Moss in the inaugural issue.

Going For Broke

Now that the 1990s are over and a new millennium is ready to be born, it’s fair to ask, did the Environmental Decade, born with momentum and enthusiasm, achieve its aims? Did the movement evolve into an effective coalition? Are we, as Ronald Reagan once asked, better off than we were 10 years ago?

Debates over disposable and cloth diapers raged through the 1990s.© Elaine K. Osowski

The short answer is, well, not really. Nearly all the issues that loomed large in 1990 loom larger now, with the possible exception of holes in the ozone layer. Despite a leveling off of fertility rates, population has increased dramatically, topping six billion just days before I wrote this story. Despite some important victories by the Rainforest Action Network and others, the logging and burning of our wild forest reserves continues apace—“a massive loss,” according to the World Commission on Forests. Despite good and important work preserving endangered plants and animals, Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard University estimates we are losing 100 species per day around the world, four an hour. Despite the Clean Air Act and strong legislation around the world limiting emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nearly half the American population, and more than two thirds of the people on Earth, breathe unhealthy air. Despite a global economy that grows by $1 trillion a year, 150 million would-be workers are unemployed around the world, and half the world’s people are malnourished.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have concluded that humankind’s “ecological footprint” is already 20 percent greater than the planet’s land base. Writing for the online magazine Grist, Beyond the Limits author and Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows concludes that we’re approaching the end of our ability to mortgage the future. “The only reason we can get away with our overbig impact [on the planet] is there are still stocks of forests, fish, soils and water to draw down. We can’t go on drawing down forever, or even much longer….If we don’t reduce our load on the planet voluntarily, the planet will do it for us.” Faced with massive global problems like these, is the environmental movement to blame for our achingly slow progress, forestalled by many steps backwards?

In that first issue of E, archdruid David Brower, who served as the Sierra Club’s first director and founded both Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, was critical of movement leaders for “trying to negotiate too much…trying to compromise instead of standing up for things.” Mark Dowie, author of the 1995 book Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, echoes Brower’s words today.

The ubiquitous blue bin. Most Americans now take recycling for granted.© Elaine K. Osowski

“I think movement organizers are to blame both for what they did do and what they didn’t do,” he says. “They continue to take accommodating positions, and to put too much faith in the federal and state government to protect the environment. But if you look at the history, you’d see that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and others were created largely to force the federal government to enforce its own laws. The environmental movement built up a force of 100 registered lobbyists, who are still trying to convince legislators to enforce the law, because people care about the issues.”

Dowie would like to see the movement get out of Washington and return to the grassroots, reigniting environmental passions. Even though the majority of Americans self-identify as green, exit polling shows they don’t necessarily vote that way. A shrinking public commitment emboldens politicians to vote the way the campaign cash dictates, and that’s almost always against the environment.

One For Our Side

That’s not to say there haven’t been victories, and significant ones. Pressure from the Sierra Club, Tim Hermach’s Native Forest Council, and many other groups undoubtedly spurred the Clinton Administration’s proposal to ban road-building and logging on more than 40 million acres of American national forest. Ozone Action pressed for—and got—U.S. commitment on an international treaty to ban use of chlorofluorocarbon products that damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Because credible environmental groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Clean Air Trust kept the public informed about air quality and auto emissions, California enacted the world’s most stringent pollution regulations, and now has its cleanest air in 50 years. (Los Angeles has surrendered the title of smoggiest city in the country to Houston.) A combination of EDF and toxics activist Lois Gibbs brought McDonald’s to the table and kept a lot of styrofoam clamshells out of the waste stream. Grassroots activists in a dozen poverty pockets have effectively informed the public about environmental justice issues. The Tulane Environmental Law Clinic was so effective at fighting unfair plant sitings that Louisiana’s governor helped usher through a law limiting their operations.

Paper vs. plastic? True environmentalists bring their own shopping bags© Elaine K. Osowski

And if environmental groups can be compared to gunfighters, San Francisco’s Rainforest Action Network has the most notches in its belt. “We’re interested not in isolated victories, but in changing the way the public, and businesses in particular, value the environment,” says Mark Westlund, RAN’s communications director. In the late 1980s, RAN helped persuade Burger King to cancel $35 million in beef contracts with forest-killing cattlemen in Central America, and Westlund says that victory laid the groundwork for the group’s successful boycott campaign against Mitsubishi Electric and Mitsubishi Motors, persuading them to use tree-free paper. With RAN’s clout firmly established, it took only two years to convince Home Depot, which retails 10 percent of the world’s lumber, to agree to get ou

t of the old-growth business and gradually switch to environmentally certified, sustainably grown wood products. RAN will next set target Lowe’s, another major home improvement retailer.

© Elaine K. Osowski

“The Home Depot decision raises the bar for what it means to be a responsible business,” Westlund says. “We don’t take a ‘we’re good, you’re bad’ approach; we just work for achievable change.”

Bars are being raised, good laws passed, rivers and air getting cleaner. And yet the environment inexorably deteriorates. There is a limit, to be sure, in the achievements environmental groups can reasonably be expected to make, given the press of those six billion people, who bring with them human-induced mega-phenomena like global warming, desertification, ocean pollution, rapidly encroaching development, subsistence hunting and resource depletion, and many more too numerous to mention. As the Worldwatch Institute notes in its 1998 State of the World, “We have overwhelmed the natural systems from which we emerged and created the dangerous illusion that we no longer depend on a healthy environment. As a result, humanity now faces a challenge that rivals any in its history: restoring balance with nature while expanding economic opportunities for the billions of people whose basic needs—for food and clean water, for example—are still not being met.”

The Sky is Falling?

Biosphere II, an oasis of scientific research into a sustainable future.Courtesy of Biosphere 2 Center

Worldwatch’s Lester Brown—like Meadows, population activist Paul Ehrlich and others—has been called an inflammatory Cassandra by critics. But what’s striking about the writings of these environmentalists is how solution-oriented and full of hope they are. There’s no shortage of good, workable plans emerging from the green think tanks. One could fill a good-sized shelf with books about, for instance, how to create the livable city through carless corridors, riverfront parks, bike racks and efficient public transit. The trick is getting these plans implemented by municipal officials more likely to favor new highway projects.

A useful model for environmentalists is the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins. Far from molding in file drawers, Lovins’ concepts for what he calls the lightweight, fuel cell-powered “hypercar” are studied carefully in Detroit, Stuttgart and Tokyo, where he is a frequent and persuasive consultant. Auto companies may not subscribe to all of Lovins’ theories about the car of tomorrow, but they’re incorporating elements of his vision in the aerodynamic, hybrid and fuel cell cars that will begin arriving in dealers’ showrooms this year. “I think the odds are close to 100 percent that we’ll have a hydrogen economy,” he says, with authority based on inside knowledge.

Other influential environmentalists include Sylvia Earle, a popular media figure with her warnings about the effects of ocean pollution; Bill McKibben, whose accessible writings about global warming, population and other topics appear in all the mainstream journals; and actors Ted Danson, Ed Begley, Jr., Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, all of whom effectively use the bully pulpit that fame affords them. It’s a measure of their success that the actors’ work on behalf of consumers and the environment draws fire from special interests like the Guest Choice Network, an arm of the restaurant lobby, and the industry-supported American Committee on Science and Health.

The use of aerosols is on the wane — good news for the environment.© Elaine K. Osowski

The truth is, however, that industry is no longer the anti-environmental monolith it once was, and dinosaurs like the National Association of Manufacturers can’t claim unanimous support on issues like global warming. Toyota and British Petroleum, for instance, have signed on with the educational Pew Center on Global Climate Change, funded with a $5 million startup grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Even a conglomerate as big as General Motors has moved toward acknowledging global warming, going so far as to hold a joint press conference on the subject with the World Resources Institute (though it got hot under the collar when The Detroit News headlined the story, “Global Warming is Real, GM Says”).

Observers looking for environmental progress will find it. As Mark Dowie notes, “There’s clearly measurable progress. People on a broad level are more aware of environmental issues.” But awareness may not be enough. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s all too little, too late. We protect one forest, and lose five. One species is brought back from the brink, but 100 quietly disappear. We control the damage to the ozone layer, but lose ground on global warming. “I approach the next century with some degree of trepidation,” admits Dr. Ken Kimball, director of research at the Appalachian Mountain Club. “The fact of six billion people stands in contradiction to our goal of preserving open space and controlling sprawl.”

Rainforest Crunch — an exercise in fair trade marketing.

Let’s imagine an extremely optimistic scenario. Using the rosiest of three likely United Nations population outcomes, family planning measures are widely adopted, birth rates drop in the developing world, and there are only seven billion people sharing the planet in 2050. There would still be considerably more development pressure on the world’s remaining wild places than there is today. Urban sprawl will likely have filled in the spaces between our cities, turning our coasts into giant megalopoli. A lack of fresh water, which threatens to cut the food supply by 10 percent, will grow more acute.

And that’s under the best set of circumstances. Much more likely is a teeming, shoulder-to-shoulder world of 10 billion. Asked to look forward 100 years, Gar Smith, editor of Earth Island Journal, sees “a completely new and chronically overcrowded planet, one with less land mass because of rising sea levels, more dirty air, more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and more refugees. And a lot of the biotic choir will be silent—the last tigers and hippos will likely have gone. The 1990s were the decade of decision for our species, and we didn’t take the steps necessary to ensure our survival.”

Some environmentalists decry a focus on population numbers, pointing out that consumption matters far more. Who can argue that the U.S., which consumes 19 percent of the world’s resources with four percent of its people, has a disproportionate effect on the planet? Our 270 million people use a quarter of the world’s oil, and 20 percent of its metals. We win the consumer goods sweepstakes year after year. Ask teenage girls in the U.S. about their favorite pastime, and 90 percent will say shopping. “It is not poor people—the major subject of population control programs—who are responsible for environmental degradation; it is the consumers of the rich countries,” argues SUNY Professor Richard Robbins in a recent letter to E.

But high consumption rates are no longer the exclusive playground of the West. Fueled on a diet of American television and its acquisitional value system, the developing world is going on a buying binge. China is leading the ominous Third World rush to “modernize,” which means television and other consumerist trappings in all but the poorest homes. Another symbol of wealth is the private car. Although almost 80 percent of its travel is now either on foot or by bicycle, the world’s most populous and rapidly industrializing country projects

auto sales of 1.6 million a year by 2000, and could have 100 million cars by 2015. Bicycle use there is being discouraged. According to the journal Geophysical Research Letters, if 400 million Chinese drivers hit the road in cars over the next 50 years, the plume of tailpipe exhaust would “bathe the entire western Pacific in ozone,” extending all the way to the United States.

Buy Nothing Day is a chance to reflect on consumer culture.Courtesy of Adbusters

Technocratic Triumphs?

But even if technology has in many ways gotten us into this mess, can it also save us, as conservative technocrats like Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute and Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute insist? By increasing crop yields and producing ever-more efficient extraction techniques, science has been able to confound the doomsayers who were saying that the turn of the century would see widespread famine and universal deprivation. We’ve made huge advances in agricultural mechanization, in fertilization, in soil science. And green technology has flowered, too, with new efficiencies in source reduction, recycling, solid waste management, mobile source pollution, organic agriculture and building construction.

You want a good example of benevolent technology? Talk to Nancy Todd, vice president of the nonprofit Ocean Arks International. She’ll point to the northern California town of Arcata, where water purification is achieved not through budget-busting high-tech machinery, but completely naturally through a large manmade marsh. One recent E story described how a Massachusetts company had built a self-sustaining, self-contained biosystem using fast-growing fish, sprouts and filtered water. Canadian biologist Wolfgang Amelung designs “living walls” that clean the air in the heart of downtown. “If we can tap into the organizational ability of the natural world by, say, studying the extraordinary efficiency of a plant’s root system, and apply that efficiency to human problems on a sufficient scale, then we can reduce the footprint on the Earth by 90 percent,” says Todd. “It could be an extraordinary turnaround.”

Ocean Arks is now helping introduce bioremediation technology around the world. “The once-radical ideas we had about creating a sustainable future are now considered mainstream,” Todd says. “It’s moving much faster than we can keep up with.” Complementing Ocean Arks’ work are efforts to save the seeds of crop plants that would otherwise pass out of existence; remove dams from once-wild rivers to restore historic fish populations; reclaim land that erosion has turned into desert; and replace chemical-intensive farming with equally productive high-yield organic methods. Wind energy enjoyed its best year ever in 1999, adding $1 billion in new generating equipment. But is this progressive tide moving fast enough?

Looking at the future, Todd calls herself “intellectually pessimistic, but a glandular optimist.” We’re trying to maintain that stance, too, in the face of mounting bad news about the planet’s prospects. Unfortunately, the many positive programs underway around the world are dwarfed in scale by the ruinous effects of both large-scale and subsistence agriculture (particularly when it involves raising livestock), by population-fueled land-clearing, and by massively destructive “development” projects like China’s Three Gorges Dam, funded in part by the techno-friendly World Bank. (For another example of the Bank’s baleful global reach, see the “Currents” section this issue.)

The spotted owl was a catalyst for the forest debate.© Greg Vaughn / Tom Stack & Associates

Sandra Steingraber, the scientist/author who was interviewed in last issue’s E, does a brilliant job in her book Living Downstream of personalizing the toxic fallout from our technological society. Herself a cancer survivor, she shows the dark side of the dream. Lives that were supposed to have been lived better through chemistry, caught up in a worldwide “green revolution,” are instead foreshortened by it.

McDonald© Richard B. Levine

In April, we’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, again with Denis Hayes at the helm. There is indeed much to celebrate, and much to get done. We should turn the event into a clarion call for action, a redoubling of efforts to motivate the American people to support green initiatives. And it should be an occasion to focus on our lack of political leadership, from either party. (The jury’s still out on the Reform Party, but most of the visible indicators are negative.)

There’s something fundamentally wrong when eight years of an environmentally friendly administration in Washington can produce such limited results. Obviously, Congress is getting the message that the voters fundamentally don’t care about the issues. The chilling Senate vote against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, surely a bedrock environmental goal, is just one example. In a warmer climate, Clinton’s protective action on national forests would have come much earlier in his administration. Al Gore, with all the trappings of a genuine environmentalist, has simply been absent from the debate.

What is E‘s role in all this? It’s certainly not to simply accentuate the positive, though we’ve had people tell us they can’t read the magazine because of all the bad environmental news. But we think most of our readers want to get their medicine straight, not coated in a sugar pill. There are plenty of uplifting stories to report, though, and you’ll often read them here first.

Like the twin towers of Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez became a symbol of corporate hubris.© Ken Graham Agency

As environmentalists, a title most of our readers share, I think we can go into the 21st century with a sense of renewed purpose, knowing that our work is more important than ever. And for those of you sitting on the fence, wondering which way to jump on these issues, there’s never been a more crucial time to paint yourself green.