SANTA BARBARA — The defeat of two initiatives sponsored by environmental groups does not signify, as their supporters seem to believe, the demise of environmentalism or increasing voter hostility toward the environment. More important, their campaigns revealed a surprising and disturbing lack of faith in democracy among proponents of a good environment.
Before Tuesday's election, champions of Big Green, Proposition 128, arrogantly claimed that the fate of the environment lay with the measure's success, that its defeat would signal to the rest of the nation that environmentalism was losing its political potency.
But Big Green was never the whole of the environment nor all of environmentalism.
Environmentalism became a popular political issue in the 1960s, its chief impetus Rachel Carlson's 1962 "Silent Spring," which warned of the dangers of pesticides. In California, the environmental movement got a major push from the 1970 Santa Barbara oil spill.
The 1960s was a decade of confrontation, of good guys (environmentalists) vs. bad guys (industrialists), of environmentalists having to prove that the environment presented a serious set of unresolved issues. Confrontation helped to establish public awareness of the problems, setting the stage for the 1970s, when a series of landmark environmental laws were enacted, among them the National Environmental Policy Act, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Contrary to the emotional rhetoric swirling in the wake of Big Green's and Forests Forever's defeat--as well as losing Propositions 135 and 138, both industry antidotes--some aspects of the environment have gotten better.
The air is cleaner. Sulphur-dioxide emissions, for example, declined from 26 million metric tons, in 1973-75, to 21 million, in 1982-84, according to the World Resources Institute, a nongovernmental organization with a solid reputation on the side of the environment.
By the 1980s, we seemed to be making great progress. But in the second half of the decade, we discovered that many environmental problems transcended boundaries--global warming, the ozone hole, deforestation and the worldwide loss of biological diversity. Alarms went off.
Unlike the '60s, environmentalists did not have to persuade the public of the importance of these concerns. Eighty-two percent of all voters rate the environment as one of the top three or four issues, according to an August, 1990, study.
But environmentalists have yet to win the battle of individual action. Although 81% of the respondents said they would be willing to make some inconvenient adjustments, only 17% reported they would be ready to make major sacrifices to clean up the environment. Only 41% said they had reduced or would reduce driving.
The 1990s, then, should be the decade when environmentalism completes its rise from the emotionalism of the '60s to become thoroughly professional; a time when we begin to understand the roles of citizen, politician and expert in environmental issues; a time when we manage the environment, not just emote over it.
The central question is not: Do we have the technical and scientific expertise to solve environmental problems?
We lack answers to many specific environmental problems, of course, and we know little about ecological systems our survival depends on. But there is much we can do to formulate practical and safe policies.
Instead, the key question is: Can we solve environmental problems within a democratic form of government?
The environmental initiatives on last Tuesday's ballot raised some issues about democracy and environmentalism in America. They surfaced during the campaign, but nobody talked about them directly.
They are: a surprisingly cynical distrust of democracy among some environmentalists; confusion about the role of science and expertise in environmental law, and a willingness to substitute rhetoric for progress. This is ironic, because information flowing from a more open Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has shown non-democratic governments more likely to despoil the environment.
The residual danger from the Big Green campaign is that it re-politicized the environment, unnecessarily returning the issue to the confrontational emotionalism of the 1960s. The initiative itself--39 single-spaced pages of complex and confusing assertions--was certainly not something voters would avidly read. Filling the intellectual vacuum was the old emotionalism revived by advertising that embraced the Bogey Man theory of politics--vote against the person or industry you love to hate.