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Selling Out : Are environmentalists in charge of their agenda, or are they in the business of compromise? : FORCING THE SPRING: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, By Robert Gottlieb (Island Press: $27.50; 412 pp.) : NOT IN OUR BACKYARD: The People and Events That Shaped America's Modern Environmental Movement, By Marc Mowrey and Tim Redmond (William Morrow: $28; 352 pp.)

January 09, 1994|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a Times staff writer.

Taken together, "Forcing the Spring" and "Not in Our Backyard" represent a policy junkie's Whole Earth Catalogue: They offer a panoramic compilation of the environmental critique of contemporary American society.

It's a critique of striking breadth. At any given moment, lobbyists, scientists and lawyers marching under the green banner are challenging how we grow and distribute food; heat our homes, power our factories and fuel our cars; use natural lands; dispose of wastes in water, air and land; treat other species; and manage new technologies, from nuclear power to genetic engineering. No other mainstream social movement--not the labor, civil rights, feminist or consumer movements--questions so many distinct aspects of American life.

For both Robert Gottlieb and the team of Marc Mowrey and Tim Redmond, however, that critique isn't broad enough. At a time when environmentalism appears ascendant--with sympathetic ears in the White House and a public profile so unimpeachable that even Hollywood moguls who lumber to work in gas-guzzling limousines write checks for the cause--both of these books portray it as a faltering force. Both see the large environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council as elitist, insular, too quick to compromise, and insensitive to women, workers and "people of color." Both put their sympathies with local organizations that mobilize grass-roots resistance.

Gottlieb, in particular, is frustrated by the course of contemporary green politics. In this perceptive and challenging book, he has chosen a fresh vantage point from which to view the history of environmentalism: its success at linking with other dissident groups, from consumer organizations to labor unions, to challenge what he terms "the dominant urban and industrial order."

In arenas as diverse as urban planning, protection of the wilderness, and the safeguarding of clean drinking water, Gottlieb finds a constant tension between those who would manage specific environmental insults with regulation, and those who view such dangers as manifestations of a broader problem: an imbalance of power in society that gives business too much influence over workers, communities and resources.

Almost always, Gottlieb concludes, those who would narrow environmentalism's prism have prevailed. So by 1914, early activists agitating against the industrial pollution of rivers and streams had lost control of the clean water debate to those promoting filtration and chlorination as the solution; in the 1920s the movement to create "Garden Cities" as planned communities with lands held in public trust shriveled into support for more parklands, and shrubs along the medians of highways.

In Gottlieb's eyes, the same pattern persists today. With their extensive presence in Washington, their close relationships with regulatory and Congressional policy-makers, their reliance on technical experts and litigation, and their distance from grass-roots activists, Gottlieb sees the mainstream environmental organizations as isolated "interest groups" rather than elements of a social movement. By investing so heavily in managing the control of pollution through regulation, Gottlieb contends, the groups have effectively indentured themselves to the government as "the policy system's managers and caretakers." That regulatory approach, he concludes scornfully, represents "a containment strategy at best" that demonstrates "more the breadth, extent and costs of environmental hazards than any effective mechanism to reduce or eliminate them."

What's the alternative? Gottlieb finds inspiration in thinkers and activists such as Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Barry Commoner and labor leader Tony Mazzocchi who situate environmental issues in the broader question of limiting corporate power. Even more, Gottlieb contends that environmentalism's future is heralded by the grass-roots, anti-toxics groups that have emerged around the country, and formed loose networks like the National Toxics Campaign. In these militant neighborhood organizations--often led by women, frequently located in lower middle-income and minority neighborhoods and typically suspicious of government, business and the national conservation organizations--Gottlieb spies "the beginnings of a new social movement" distinct from the overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class constituency of traditional environmentalism.

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