Environmental Lobbies Face Grass-Roots Challenge

<i> Robert Gottlieb is co-author of a chapter on environmental politics in "Winning America: New Ideas and Leadership for the '90s" (South End Press, 1988). His latest book is "A Life of Its Own: The Politics and Power of Water" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)</i>

Environmental policies, if you believe the candidates, will be high on the next President’s agenda. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, when environmental groups found themselves excluded from the corridors of power, both George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis suggest that perhaps this time the welcome mat might be rolled out.

Vice President Bush, for example, talks of acid rain and sewage dumping in the ocean, insisting that he is sensitive to environmental issues to a degree unseen in his boss’ tenure. Gov. Dukakis speaks of a moratorium on coastal oil drilling and declares that in one of his first acts as President he would elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet-level status.

These positions belie somewhat the history of the two men, especially Bush, who, as chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief, helped set the environmental agenda of the Reagan Administration. And Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, though sensitive to environmental concerns, also demonstrated a mixed record on such issues as waste disposal, where he backed the construction of big trash-burning plants, a controversial method that has been fiercely attacked by neighborhood and environmental groups.


This particular issue is significant in that it points to potential divisions between two very different expressions of environmental politics that a Bush or a Dukakis Administration will have to face. On the one side are the conventional environmental organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Audubon Society. All are based in Washington, where their staffs emphasize lobbying, litigation and professional expertise. They helped shape the environmental legislation of the past two decades and reached their peak of influence during the Carter Administration, when a kind of revolving door was established between some key environmental leaders and the environmental bureaucracies.

During the Reagan years these groups were once again in the role of adversary. They grew in numbers and political reach in part because of the bungled counter-offensive against the environmental movement by such Reagan officials as James Watt, Anne Gorsuch McGill Burford and Rita Lavelle. Now, with either Michael Dukakis or even George Bush ready to occupy the White House, many of these environmental figures see a possible reentry to the inner sanctum.

But the conventional groups, while hoping to help reshape the environmental agenda of the next Administration, have increasingly come under attack from the feisty and growing grass-roots community movements that are succeeding in defining another kind of environmental agenda. These local organizations, many of them ad hoc in nature when they began, have developed into a crucial national force, based on networks of various advocacy groups and shared positions and approaches. They are membership-oriented, often led by women, many of whom are housewives and self-taught experts. They deal with issues that directly affect the quality of people’s lives, from clean air and water to transportation, garbage and housing. Perhaps most significant, they tend to cross both class and race lines, and represent both urban and rural communities. Their politics are passionate and not temperate, more likely to involve direct action rather than behind-the-scenes activity favored by the conventional environmental groups.

The solid-waste issue is a key example of the potential fissure between these two kinds of movements. The conventional groups search for the politics of what’s possible and continually set their goals in terms of what can be accomplished with Congress, the courts and the environmental bureaucracies. With the solid-waste issue, that means promoting recycling, as well as a willingness to accept a scaled-down incineration effort, despite significant environmental hazards from air emissions and residue.

The grass-roots groups, which have been in the forefront of confrontation on proposed incinerator and landfill projects, assert that the approach to the garbage issue has to be completely restructured. They insist that a recycling rate of 50%, such as that in Japan, is not only possible but imperative, and that other strategies, such as reducing hazards and wastes at their source, has to be the top priority of any agenda.

When a new Administration takes office in January, the environmental issue, then, will not simply be a question of whether to reaccommodate to the conventional environmental bureaucracies. Rather, it will be a question also of politics and priorities, involving choices that touch the very heart of our heavily urban and industrial society. And even if some groups or leaders buy into the next Administration’s agenda, there will be others, equally laying claim to the environmental politics of the 1990s, whose positions might well shape the public discourse around the issue.