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Environmentalists Weigh Achievements, Challenges

It has been 15 years since the birth of the environmental movement in America. With the first Earth Day observance, in April, 1970, as the catalyst, the environmentalists went on to demonstrate their new political clout at the polls that June. Now, with environmental concerns prominent in the American conscience, the early movers and shakers reflect on their progress and challenges ahead. This, the second of three articles, focuses on two early young activists.

May 30, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

"America," Denis Hayes said, "is a society of fits and starts. We have entertainers who become enormously popular one year and disappear the next. Political figures do the same thing. And we have issues that come and go with great regularity and almost with predictability. That's sort of what's happened on the environment.

"Today it's Nicaragua, 'Star Wars,' and South Africa--and the people who are worried about 'Star Wars' probably have this year in order to get something done to stop it or else they've lost their chance. Last year it was the freeze."

But, said Hayes, the former Stanford University student body president who became coordinator of Earth Day 1970, "If there's a domestic Bhopal, and that certainly is technically possible, then suddenly you'll have a wave of this environmental stuff once again."

Backyard Concerns

Hayes, a third-year law student at Stanford, where he teaches human biology, believes this is neither the right time nor is there the proper personality; people are concerned about the environment, yes, but the focus is on their drinking water, toxic dumps nearby, a nuclear plant the local utility wants to build--in short, what's happening in their backyards.

Today, Hayes said, those in the environmental movement are "waiting for a few more chance happenings" like those that ensured success of the Clean Air Act of 1970: a freakish smog episode in New York and the unexpected endorsement of Walter Reuther, then head of the United Auto Workers. He compares the movement, metaphorically, to Gary Cooper, "strong but silent."

But, during its "period in the sun," he pointed out, key regulatory and watchdog agencies were established at federal and state levels and hundreds of universities set up programs in environmental engineering and environmental science and technology. As a result, Hayes said, "We now have hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend upon efforts to enhance and preserve the environment" and the movement has been institutionalized to the point that it no longer has "to rely on occasional outbursts of largely emotional public sentiment."

There is still a role for volunteers, Hayes said, and an important one, but "you cannot do a 30-year epidemiological survey to find out the impact of a certain contaminant on human health acting synergistically with a series of other contaminants over a long time frame with a collection of volunteers. You can't monitor production off the assembly lines in Detroit. You can't clean up ground water pollution with volunteers."

Pool of Professionals

He is talking about staffing key government agency slots, about posts in policy institutions and academic institutions. And the availability of this pool of professionals, Hayes said, is "one of the most important accomplishments of the movement. Now, when somebody picks up a phone and asks a question, someone doesn't just wring their hands and say, 'Oh, that's terrible.' We can now tell them what they ought to do about it, and why this thing is bad, and where to go to get documentation and what lawyer is likely to be willing to pick this up on a pro bono basis."

Conversely, Hayes expressed some concern that recent appointments, including that of former Ford and Nixon appointee Douglas Wheeler, 43, as executive director of the Sierra Club, may signal "a return to the 1950s, the taking over of the major environmental groups by Republican middle managers."

The task, he said, calls for people of "vision, risk takers. But what they've turned to, it seems to me, are the MBAs . . . the kind of folks who can keep U.S. Steel going but not the sorts who build an Apple computer--or effectively put together a public interest organization."

Still, he views this trend as "more boring than ominous."

A movement legend at 40, Hayes grew up in a small Washington state paper mill town and from the time he reached "the age of reason" was concerned about sulfide emissions that gave everyone sore throats 300 days of the year, about wastes that clogged the Columbia River where youngsters once swam.

Hitchhiking around the world for a few years raised his consciousness about world poverty and resource exploitation in developing countries and reinforced his environmentalist leanings.

Looking back over the past 15 years, Hayes speaks of the steps toward an American environmental consciousness: Creation of a vocabulary to talk about the issues, fostering of a climate in which, for politicians, "it's unthinkable to run against the environment;" the growing realization at grass-roots level that "the future is mostly not profound, sweeping decisions by key policy makers but a series of small, incremental shifts and changes . . . discreet choices, things like are you going to spray a deodorant underneath your arm instead of roll it and destroy the ozone layer in the process and maybe wipe out life on earth . . . ."

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