Concern Over Movement’s Direction : Environmentalists: Three Who Believe

Times Staff Writer

At 67, Barry Commoner, who has been dubbed “the Paul Revere of ecology,” says, “I have not retreated in any sense.” But, he adds, “The movement isn’t quite what it was.”

Over the years a philosophical chasm has developed between Commoner and other early environmentalists. In his view, most of the others have failed to deal with what he perceives as the basic issue: The need “to produce goods with a minimal assault on the environment.”

For the past 12 years, Commoner has spent considerable time in Italy where, he said, “The largely left-wing governments have taken very much to heart the kinds of lessons that I’ve been trying to teach about energy and the environment. I find myself much more in tune there.”

The Italian government, for example, has been trying to persuade farmers to switch from chemical fertilizers to organic nutrients to control pollution of the Adriatic Sea. “We tried to raise the issue in the Midwest,” he said, “but we couldn’t get anyone to budge.”


Why so little interest, he asked, in technology that could maintain food production in the Corn Belt and at the same time, through changing crop patterns, produce significant amounts of alcohol that could, in turn, reduce the nation’s gasoline consumption? Why not simple cogenerators in tenement buildings to cut energy costs?

Director of Center

Commoner, who was a fourth-party candidate for President in 1980 (“I came in fifth”) and is director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, City University of New York, has since 1972 been devoting his energies largely to research on environmentally sound methods of trash disposal and to clean, affordable sources of energy.

“Right now, here in New York,” he said, “we’re in the middle of a big battle over trash incinerators” and the hazards of burning chlorinated plastics. Solar energy, and utilization of photovoltaic cells, are also being explored at his center. Of nuclear energy, Commoner said: “The effort to make it environmentally acceptable has priced it out of the market. And I think it’s a dying industry.”


Reflecting on the environmental movement in its infancy, Commoner said: “What happened in 1970 was a kind of inchoate outburst of people’s feelings that the environment is important and had been neglected. There was damned little organization at first; everybody was sounding off in one direction or another. What really held it together was the very simple moral statement that future generations depend on the environment and we have been blind as to what’s been happening to it.

“It was not structured. It didn’t have a theory, an ideology. What’s happened since then is pretty fascinating. The fundamental moral energy generated in 1970 has been piped off into various ideological and political channels, none of which by and large come close to relating to the basic issue, which is social governance of the means of production.”

That, Commoner explained, means “you have to ask what’s wrong with the way in which we produce cars or the way in which we produce plastics . . . the only sensible way to deal with the problems is to transform the technology of production to make it compatible with the environment.”

It is an economic issue, Commoner said, and his thrust has been to raise questions about decisions “solely governed by corporations’ interest in maximizing profit.” The issue, he added, is one “that 99% of the environmental movement here has shied away from. But this is the heart of the problem. It’s not a matter of lobbying for standards and regulations.”


Commoner considers toxic waste and the petrochemical industry “the cutting edge of environmental issues” and issues with which the large, traditional environmental organizations have been able to cope less successfully than small citizen groups in local communities, such as the Love Canal activists led by Lois Gibbs. “Not ecofreaks, not your backpackers,” Commoner said, “but community groups.”

When the dump is on your doorstep, Commoner said, “you simply have to confront the company. You can’t lobby for new standards. It doesn’t do any good.” Interestingly, he added, this new breed of activists is often low-income people “who sense that if it weren’t for the fact they’re poor and powerless nobody would dump anything in their community. If there were no poor there would be no toxic dumps. They won’t dump it on Park Avenue.”

If Detroit builds a car that produces smog, Commoner pointed out, that is not necessarily a condemnation of all cars; Detroit can stay in the car business even with stiff anti-smog laws. But, he said, “There is no way that you can control the toxic chemicals in the environment without rolling back the petrochemical industry.

Controls on the Industry


“There is no (economically feasible) way of putting controls on the industry as it exists. You have to raise the question, do we need those plastics? Do we need those pesticides?”

Right now, he said, “a kind of superstructure of lobbying organizations has been laid on top of this fundamental political, economic and moral issue. These organizations are far more concerned with maintaining their position in Washington than with confronting the problems.”

Although dismayed and sometimes bemused by much of what he sees, including a new cadre of environmentalists who insist “animals have the same civil rights as people,” Commoner retains an optimism based on the raising of political consciousness, “probably the only real accomplishment of the environmental movement. . . .

“In other words, we haven’t figured out yet how to carry this idea into practice but the idea is permanently imbedded in our culture. That’s a very big accomplishment.”


Barbara Reid Alexander’s introduction to politics following graduation from the University of Michigan was in Robert Kennedy’s campaign in 1968. “After he was assassinated,” she said, “I was determined I was going to get myself to Washington somehow.”

She had opposed the war in Vietnam, and her grief about Kennedy was deep, but Alexander clung to a “basic belief in the political process.” A first job with a government agency in Washington led to another, with the Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization, where she developed her contacts in the environmental network.

When Alexander heard of plans for Earth Day, she called to offer her help.

There was then only a small band of knowledgeable environmentalists in Washington and, she recalled “I was just sort of there” at the right time; soon she’d been assigned duties as coordinator for the Midwest.


It proved to be the beginning of an unplanned career. After Earth Day, Alexander stayed several years with Environmental Action, the name later adopted by the organization that, as Environmental Teach-in, had organized Earth Day. Later, she moved to the National Resources Defense Council where she helped follow through on implementation of 1972 water-pollution control legislation.

At some point, she said, she realized “my skills in Washington were peculiar to that town” in terms of a profession. She was newly married to attorney Donald Alexander and in 1973 they decided to move to suburban Augusta, Me., where today he is a Superior Court judge.

In Maine, it wasn’t long before Alexander, with a law degree from the University of Maine, plunged again into political-environmental issues, representing environmental agencies, doing consulting for state environmental departments, as a League of Women Voters monitor.

A Temporary Retirement


Chosen by the governor to be state director of the consumer protection bureau, she stayed four years; then came 18 months as a legislative analyst for Elizabeth Mitchell, majority leader of the Maine house. And then, said Alexander, “Last summer I gave birth to my second child (Katherine, who has a brother, Philip, 8),” and took temporary retirement.

Earth Day not only helped shape her life, Alexander, now 39, said, but “I think the whole environmental movement has had remarkable staying power. One could reasonably have expected the American people to say ho-hum, but it hasn’t happened.”

Like her colleagues, she sees Earth Day as the event that “sparked public awareness.”

There was a little glitz, of course--"We were doing very flashy things like burying cars. The important thing was what media presence you could attract to your event,” Alexander remembered. But somewhere down the line, the reality of what Alexander called “our lack of ability to understand the bureaucratic imperative of what we started” hit home.


In spite of the laws passed, she said, “I’m not sure too much is happening to change things.” How the key issues of the 1980s such as toxic waste dumping are handled will, she said, be a test of how Congress and government agencies can “get things done when they’re dealing with some of the most powerful corporate interests.”

Putting the issues before the public is no longer the mission. “Now,” Alexander said, “we’re into a stage of looking at how these issues are being handled in the courts, in the administrative arenas, in the legislatures,” determining whether there is any “bending the law” such as extended deadlines for industry cleanups.

Environmental groups know how to go to court “to stop anything really outrageous,” she said, and in view of that she sees the Reagan Administration as less of a threat than “a target, which has been very helpful, a great way to stimulate public awareness of the issues again.”

As he goes about speaking out for the environment, David Brower, chairman of San Francisco-based Friends of the Earth, said, “I notice the audiences seem to be getting older.” Perhaps, he suggested, the time has come to organ--ize Yuppies for Social Responsibility.


He attributes much of the shifting of leadership in the big organizations to “a kind of burnout that has resulted from all the frustrations of the last four years . . . that I haven’t burned out yet as I near 73 is just my good fortune.”

Sitting in his appealingly cluttered office in San Francisco, a silver-haired crusader in tweed and running shoes, Brower admitted he’s puzzled as to exactly what’s happening in the movement. But he is positive about one thing: “The frustration is all caused by Ronald Reagan and his team that have been destroying the gains that have happened since, and including, the Administration of Abraham Lincoln.”

He takes solace in the steady and continuing growth of the organizations (excluding his, Friends of the Earth, he is quick to point out, which has dropped from a peak 35,000 two years ago to 25,000), but he worries that the advent of the age of slick managerial types will drive out the organizations’ greatest asset, their tireless volunteers.

Acknowledging his “prejudice” as a high school dropout who signed on as a novice in the movement’s pioneer years, Brower added: “I think the danger is that environmental professionals could be badly outgunned by non-environmental professionals who have enormous budgets.”


One of the things Friends of the Earth cares a great deal about is what Brower terms “the relationship of conservation to our national security.” FOE employs a disarmament lobbyist and last year initiated a series of conferences nationwide on the fate of the Earth.

Environment to Retreat Into

He hastened to add that this does not mean lagging interest on FOE’s part about wilderness, wildlife, forests or streams. “Assuming that the people who are trying to stave off nuclear war are successful,” Brower reasoned, “it’s quite important that the environmental organizations keep an environment to retreat to.”

In the environmental war, Brower does not count victories because, he said: “We never win. We just get stays of execution,” among which he includes blocking of dam construction in the Grand Canyon, expansion of the national parks system, establishment of national forests and wildlife refuges, action to protect wild rivers.


But “the growth of population and the growth of human desires for more and more resources,” are, Brower said, “running us right off the edge.”

Brower picked up a book with a jacket quote which, he said, rather pleased, had been attributed to him, although “I don’t remember when I said it.” It reads: “We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children.”

He spoke of a need for “lessening the tensions” that he sees as a root cause of war, “environmental tensions, environmental abuses, the insanity of environmental treatment around the world, the gross inequities. There are fewer and fewer resources and more and more people to fight over them. Three Presidents have threatened armed action if anybody gets in the way of our oil in the Middle East--or what we assume must be ours.”

Brower is convinced that “we haven’t looked hard enough at the causes of war. More wars have been caused by religious differences and resource differences than anything else. And possibly resource differences are behind the religious differences, but that would take more time to study than I think I have left.”


For America the superconsumer, a nation with 1/20th of the world’s population using one-third of the world’s resources, “It’s been a nice party,” Brower said, “but now comes the bill.”

Brower points to himself as a living example of over-consumerism, a man “carrying a 35-pound pack around all day which is fat and does me no good whatever.”

Energy, water and land conservation are Brower’s environmental priorities. “Oil is far more important than just a substance to blow out of tall stacks and tailpipes. And we’ve got to stop spoiling the air. Los Angeles needs air as much as it needs water.”

Finally, Brower said, “The development craze has got to be got into hand. Right now you hit the San Fernando Valley and between there and the Mexican border it could be announced as Los Angeles, next 150 exits. Do we want 200, or 250, or what? Does Los Angeles want another Los Angeles built on the mezzanine floor? The development we have, I think, is all we should have for at least this century.”


The “hula-hoop” excitement of the movement is gone, he said, but polls show that two out of three Americans are willing to make sacrifices to save the environment “unless they’re my age, and then it’s only one to one. The movement has to find these people, organize them.” He grinned and said, “I see an opportunity for me to do something with my age group.”