Environmentalists Weigh Achievements, Challenges
“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.”
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 . . . .”
More . . . and Less
In short, Hayes said, “We’ve accomplished a whole lot more than I expected us to and a whole lot less than I had hoped that we would. There are some impressive interests that are happiest without change. They’re willing to invest a fair amount of money in high-priced Washington lawyers to stop you.”
Further, Hayes said, “You can make a compelling case that what we’ve fought have been the easy fights.” Visibly dirty air has been cleaned up but, he pointed out, “if it’s big and ugly that means it’s fairly large particles and the most dangerous particles to health are the sub-micron size . . . we haven’t done much to clean that up at all.”
Another of the “hard things ahead,” Hayes said, is creating a sustainable society, one with “an energy system that is renewable and efficient (and is non-nuclear and does not burn fossil fuels). We need a policy that products don’t leave the mine, go to the store and then get deposited in the dump. Once you’ve taken the stuff out of the ground and invested the energy (in refining it) you’ve got to repair and reuse and then recycle. We’ve made very little substantive progress in that.
“We need to have an agricultural system that isn’t mining the soil. We are creating an agricultural system that doesn’t have a future, doesn’t even have a short-term future.”
The average freshman at Stanford, he noted, was three years old on Earth Day, 1970. Unlike Hayes’ generation of protesters, they have, until the recent campus protests about university investments in South Africa, been a rather passive student generation.
Sense of Ideals
“Looking back,” Hayes said, “I’d like to think that I and all my friends were motivated by what we all thought we were motivated by, a strong sense of ideals” but there were other factors--the draft, the activist climate created by the civil rights and anti-war movements, economic prosperity. Today, he said, “there’s a genuine gut level fear, even in a place like this (Stanford), that there might not be something out there” after graduation. If all of this had been true in the late ‘60s, he acknowledged, “I don’t know if we’d have behaved any differently (than they are today). My hunch is that we wouldn’t.”
Still, there is a pervasive materialism that Hayes finds disquieting. He said, “If somebody had said in coffeehouse conversation in 1969, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here so I can buy myself a Cadillac,’ an embarrassed pall would have spread through the room. You knew maybe that that sort of person existed, but you didn’t think you knew any of them.”
Hayes’ career was sidetracked in 1970 when, after a few weeks at Harvard Law School, he dropped out to join the environmental crusade. “Regrets? No. I know a lot of people who are profoundly unhappy and have a sense that they’ve wasted the last 15 years shuffling paper.” He has accepted a job with the San Francisco law firm, Cooley, Godward, Castro, Huddleson and Tatum, whose clients, he said, are “pretty much good guys.”
Are the good guys going to win the environmental war? “That’s a big one,” Hayes replied. “I guess the flip answer is that I got an awful lot more optimistic when I became the father of a daughter (Lisa, now 10). Once I had 15 well-developed, elaborate, inescapable scenarios to explain why the world was going to come to an end in a fairly tragic kind of way.”
Some of his newfound optimism may be irrational, Hayes said, some is rational--"We know more than we did” technologically when the doomsday predictions were made, “and, I hope, we have a better spiritual and aesthetic understanding about what’s transpiring in our planet, and a reasonably educated population.” In short, society may be ready for “when the wave comes in the next time and provides us with an opportunity to proceed with change.”
“Second, I think the wave is coming in. If it would be possible in a modern democratic polity to have a more anti-environmental Administration than we currently have, I can’t imagine what it would look like . . .
“But the marvelous thing about America is that that sets up in almost clear, predictable fashion that we’re going to have that pendulum come back . . . suddenly there will be a pivotal event that ignites the spark and there’s another period when we can do things.”
Acknowledging burnout as well as the wisdom today of hiring a professional manager, Marion Edey, 39, has stepped down as the (by choice) unsalaried executive director of the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters, which she founded in March, 1970.
She turns over leadership of the league, with its $1.25 million annual budget and its philosophy that the polling place is the front line of the environmental war, to Alden Meyer, who formerly headed Environmental Action.
To Edey’s way of thinking, environmental action has always been keyed to “electing the best, defeating the worst.” She spoke of a “growing breed” of politician, the “environmental liars,” such as the congressman who boasted to voters about his vote for a bill to control toxic waste--"That’s motherhood,” she noted--but neglected to mention “that he’d been working very hard to weaken the bill before it got to final passage.”
It is not unusual, she noted, for legislators to “scream bloody murder” about being issued poor report cards by the League of Conservation Voters, to protest that they voted for creation of a certain program, but to forget rather conveniently that “they then refused to fund it.”
An Electoral Issue
In 15 years, Edey said, “We’ve made the environment a significant electoral issue. Increasingly, I see us as being an arbiter rather than somebody who jumps up and down and says look at this issue. We don’t have to do that anymore.”
Edey was a legislative assistant to Rep. Lester Wolff, a New York Democrat, before founding the league just a month before Earth Day. “Yes, Virginia,” she likes to say, “there was a conservation movement before Earth Day.”
Few of the leaders of the environmental movement in its infancy were women but, Edey pointed out, “the overwhelming preponderance of the muscle power was women. There were a lot of well-educated, enormously frustrated housewives interested in volunteering.”
Edey claims a lifelong empathy for the environment--"When I was 10 I was convinced that car exhaust was poisonous. My parents thought it was neurotic of me. I felt very alone with these concerns then.”
Inheriting a “modest amount” of money enabled Edey to devote herself full time to the league without pay and to see it through a big growth spurt in the late ‘70s during which it made a dramatic jump from its 1978 budget of $150,000.
It has evolved, too, from an organization that simply endorsed candidates having good environmental positions to one capitalizing on its nonpartisan credibility to produce media spots for candidates. And, Edey said, “We want to take an active role in recruiting candidates, both Republican and Democrat, although it’s become increasingly difficult to find Republican candidates concerned about planetary survival.”
League Report Cards
Canvassers working out of six field offices go door to door showing league report cards on who’s good, bad and indifferent on environmental issues and, between now and the 1986 election, expect to reach 4-million voters personally.
On an ongoing basis, the league calls hometown newspapers to say, “Hey, guess what your congressman did yesterday . . . .”
Today, Edey said, “The issue that personally frightens me a lot is acid rain. Five or ten years ago in Germany they didn’t see all that obvious a damage to the Black Forest . . . now you see it, now you don’t.” She mentioned, too, the plight of the small farmer, threats to the ocean, toxic waste and ground contamination and the “nightmare” of pesticides, the use of which she compares with drug addiction--insects’ immunity to ever larger doses, growing dependency by farmers, whose advice in turn “is coming from the pusher.”
Edey tends to think of victories and defeats in terms of now-familiar or no-longer-familiar political names. She ticks off a list that includes the defeat in 1972 of Rep. Wayne Aspinall, a Colorado Democrat and onetime head of the House Interior Committee, for many years a stumbling block to passage of the Wilderness Bill. Victories include election to Congress of Democrat Tom Harkin in Iowa this year, with a boost from Robert Redford’s commercials about toxic waste.
Last year, the league issued a report card on the President which, Edey said, “did not serve certainly to turn the race around” but did point out that “his policies on the environment were bloody awful.”
Edey sees the degree of public concern about the environment fluctuating from “a basic gut level core” according to how scared people get. “When Ronald Reagan appointed Watt and Burford to guard Americans, they got really scared. My God, they thought, my drinking water might be poisoned. Now Ronald Reagan is trying very hard to put everybody back to sleep. Our job is to keep them awake.”
For $5 anyone can get from the league the voting records of any senator or congressman on all key environmental issues in a given year. The consistently highest scores go to those from New England states.
Now, the league is gearing up for 1986, a year in which goals will include reelection of Sen. Alan Cranston in California, Edey said, and the defeat of Republican Sen. Steven Symms of Idaho.
Edey, recognizing that “there’s a time to let go,” will not be at the helm.
She senses a “generational shift” in the environmental movement--"the real veterans are only a few now.” Most of the large organizations, such as Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund have recently changed leadership. “I think,” Edey said, “it’s in part the fact these organizations have gotten so big and so powerful that they need a different kind of head, or they think they do, which is someone with greater management skills.”
Then she added, “I think the challenge to the environmental movement is, is it going to be able to keep its soul? I insisted that we find somebody (Alden Meyer) whose values I believe are very deep and very abiding, as well as someone who can manage.”
And Edey? She’ll not be taking a full-time job right away, but she’s thinking about “international issues. I’d like to help save the tropical rain forest.” And she wants to “go after the chemical lawn care companies.”
She no longer feels alone with these concerns.