Focus on Environment : Green Wave Surging Over West Europe

Times Staff Writer

Volunteer garbage sorters in Stockholm and dolphins cavorting at Rome's Colosseum are continental symbols this spring of an unprecedented tide of environmental concern sweeping Western Europe.

The giant green wave is the work of Europeans emerging from the Cold War with the recognition that their historic levels of prosperity have been achieved at savage cost to the world around them. In one country after another, Europeans now rank saving the environment among their principal national preoccupations. More people belong to environmental groups in Denmark today than there are Danes, thanks to duplicate memberships.

Like U.S. in the '70s

"Environmental concern is higher than it's ever been in Europe, but we haven't hit the top yet," said Harvey Yankowitz, an American who is senior environmental consultant at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. "I get the same feeling here as I did in the U.S. in the mid-'70s. American legislation is well-known to the Europeans, and they are determined to learn from our mistakes."

Clawing for a piece of the green are mainstream political parties around the Continent who are latecomers to a cause once championed principally by small, usually left-wing groupings. Parties that focus mainly on ecology are still small, but from the Arctic Circle to the Apennines, there are votes in the environment.

Voters across Europe say a party's environmental position will be important in deciding whom to elect to the European Parliament in June. Italian Communists, French Socialists and British Conservatives are among the Establishment parties belatedly acting green to compete for the green vote. Not everyone thinks the fervor is real.

"What is happening is more followship than leadership," said Stanley Clinton Davis, European Community minister for the environment until January and now chairman of an environmental group called Pollution of the Seas. "Green is the flavor of the month for some. The real test will come when short-term commercial interests collide with environmental gains."

To the heightened continental consciousness, American environmental examples, from whale rescues to oil spills, are as vivid to Europeans as the evening news.

Europeans also increasingly share concerns for global dilemmas like dirty oceans, disappearing rain forests and the greenhouse effect. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a former research chemist, summoned eight Cabinet ministers to a daylong seminar last month to consider climatic change. Environmental conferences march across the European calendar from capital to capital.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is appalled: "The Earth is slowly dying, and the inconceivable--the end of life itself--is actually becoming conceivable," she said recently. And Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is cooperating: Buckingham Palace's fleet of Rolls-Royces is being converted to run on unleaded gas.

Devastation of Rivers

Better scientific monitoring and better communications have underscored Europe's own ecological horrors to its people. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Ukraine three years ago shook all of the Continent. Chemical spills have helped focus concern on devastation threatening rivers like the Rhine, the Rhone and Italy's Po, which is so badly polluted that it poisons drinking water of northern industrial and agricultural heartlands.

As security tensions ease, Europe dwells less on the fear of invading tanks and more on the filth invading its seas: the dying Adriatic, the ailing Mediterranean, the sick North Sea, where decimation of the seal population last year was followed this spring by the accidental sinking of a Soviet nuclear submarine.

Europe worries over its gridlocked and polluted cities, such as grimy Manchester and befouled Milan. It frets for its dwindling forests and its overburdened mountains. "Tourism could be the Attila of the 20th Century," snapped the Italian news magazine Europeo over pictures of too-full ski slopes and mountains of rubbish jettisoned by nature lovers. "It is turning the Alps into a giant amusement park."

Across the Continent, the crisis is increasingly transnational. "Pollution does not respect political divisions," noted Yankowitz of the OECD.

"We have reached an extreme situation where we all have to interfere in each other's internal affairs because the environment doesn't known any borders any more," Otto Schily, a member of West Germany's environmentalist Greens party, told an election rally for Italian Greens in Bologna. That was in 1987, on the eve of national elections that made 13 Greens candidates the first unabashed environmentalists ever to sit in the Italian Parliament.

By American standards, Europe is a very small place, and the telescoped geography here has painful environmental effects. Acid rain spawned in England kills forests in West Germany and Scandinavia. Eighteen nations on three continents help pollute the Mediterranean Basin. Chemicals spilled into the Rhine in Switzerland kill fish in the Netherlands. Mercury contamination from a plant in West Germany fouls drinking water behind barbed wire fences 20 miles away in East Germany.

"There's only one issue that can unite us now, and that's the environment," said Gianni De Michelis, who is Italy's deputy prime minister and president of Aspen Italia, the Italian branch of the U.S.-based Aspen Institute, which studies social problems. "Everybody agrees we have to do something about the environment. It's the only rallying point we have, the one issue public opinion can use to force politicians to act."

Indeed, from their small, left-wing beginnings a decade ago, the political power of the environmentalists is now impossible to ignore. The so-called Greens--known by that or other names--have been elected to national parliaments in Switzerland, Belgium, West Germany, Finland, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Portugal and Iceland.

There is even a fledgling green movement today in Athens, whose smog is as monumental as the Greek government's well-known indifference to the environment.

"In every one of the 12 European Community countries the environment is a major issue, and in every one it is growing," said Raymond Van Ermen, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels. The bureau, which lobbies Common Market agencies, represents 120 environmental organizations with a membership of 20 million.

Over the past decade, the number of the bureau's supporting organizations in a dozen countries has tripled. The growth mirrors a search for consensus apparent at such recent ecological spectaculars as an international conference in Britain to discuss threats to the ozone, and one underwritten by France, Norway and the Netherlands three days later to seek strengthened international authority to protect the global environment.

An April poll of 1,094 people in Sweden, where the environment has been the No. 1 public concern for more than a year, could not have been more emphatic: 67% said they considered pollution life-threatening; 84% said they would be willing to sort their own garbage in the interests of a better environment; 51% were prepared to leave their cars at home; 67% would pay more for environmentally sound goods, and 41% said they would live with lower indoor temperatures to save energy.

By now, Europe's green grass roots are clear to every politician on the Continent.

More than 3,000 Greens sit in federal, state and local law-making bodies in West Germany, which like so many of its wealthy neighbors seeks an elusive balance between a sound environment and a strong, export-oriented industrial economy. Greens have recently become members of ruling coalitions with Social Democrats in Frankfurt and West Berlin, and the Greens' decision to participate in government, after a long period in which they preferred to remain in opposition, may increase electoral support for the movement.

At the same time, the German Greens confront new ecological initiatives from the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, all trying to preempt green turf.

In England, the Conservative Thatcher went green in an address last September that was so powerfully--and atypically--environmentalist that a spokesman at 10 Downing St. hastily assured inquiring reporters that it was not the result of a sudden conversion.

Speaking to an audience of 180 scientists, doctors, diplomats and senior government officials, Thatcher warned that people may have "unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself." Of particular concern, she said, are the greenhouse effect, the shrinking ozone layer and acid rain. Some British observers see Thatcher's new concern as an attempt to outflank Labor and Social and Liberal Democrats, all of whom are increasingly environmentalist with an eye on concerned young voters.

Thatcher's "late in the day" conversion, observed the Daily Telegraph, "may be said to smack of political opportunism. . . . But the cynical view ought not to diminish the importance of this speech: Mrs. Thatcher has used her grasp of a former research scientist and her high international standing to deliver, in the right company, a warning to all humankind."

The theme is replayed with ideological variation in Italy. Italian Communists, drubbed in local elections in Trentino-Alto Adige by Greens last fall, are now publicly greener than they are red. Italian Socialists, who hope to profit from Communist decline, seek to leave no doubt of their environmental purity. To advertise a regional party meeting, they have papered the city with posters--"The Socialists Love Rome"--showing dolphins improbably splashing inside a Colosseum that hasn't been so clean since the days of the Caesars.

Even the French government, four years after its secret agents blew up a ship belonging to the radical Greenpeace environmentalist group in the South Pacific, has discovered a vert tinge. On the face of it, France is one of the last places in Europe that could be expected to produce an ecological movement with political clout.

France, after all, has one of the world's largest nuclear power programs; an independent nuclear arsenal; an automobile industry that has consistently opposed installing pollution control devices on cars, and a state tobacco monopoly. The French government spends more money promoting smoking than trying to curb it.

Problem Child

Given France's long lethargy toward environmental issues, its ecology movement has been perceived as the problem child of Europe's green family. In March, though, the French greens--formally known as the Ecologists Party--scored surprisingly well in municipal elections.

Suddenly, the French greens, who attribute their March success to a new, moderate political stance to match the centrist French political system, are fashionable. And mainstream French parties are themselves looking green, polishing a new image launched when Socialist President Francois Mitterrand named Brice Lelonde, a defeated environmentalist presidential candidate, secretary of state for the environment.

"Governments today find it irresistible not to talk green. But there is a world of difference between that and aligning policies to environmental realities," said British environmental crusader Davis.

As Americans learned long since, cleaning up the mess is expensive. In Europe, where the state is often the owner of polluting heavy industries, political costs loom potentially even greater. In Italy, for instance, more than half of industrial production--and at least that much pollution--is in state hands.

Still, throughout the 12 nations of the European Community and hard-line Scandinavia, the green momentum seems irreversible, if somewhat disorderly. In the past year the European Commission has approved 15 environmental issues, ranging from higher standards for dealing with municipal waste to a ban on chlorofluorocarbons.

The Dutch, for one, want to move quicker, promising tax incentives to those who buy cars with catalytic converters as part of a plan to reduce all forms of pollution by at least 70% over the next 20 years. Last week the center-right Dutch government of Premier Ruud Lubbers fell after complaints by a right-wing coalition partner over the scope and cost of environmental spending.

In a remarkable victory for environmentalists last month, the European Commission and the European Parliament voted 309-5 to dramatically speed up the imposition of stiff U.S.-style auto emission standards in Common Market countries. The action would reduce auto pollution by 75% by 1993.

Perhaps the surest sign that environmental concerns are not just a European spring fancy is that in a number of countries, including West Germany, Britain, Sweden and Finland, aggressive young industries are already exporting anti-pollution technology. "Green capitalism" is becoming popular as environment-friendly products are offered European consumers like the "green (unleaded) gas" and cereals grown without artificial fertilizers.

Yankowitz of the OECD tells of a colleague who went to talk to students at a provincial French university about the imperiled environment. The students knew all about the problems, he quickly learned. What they most wanted to know from him was how to make money fixing them.

Times staff writers William Tuohy, in Bonn; Dan Fisher, in London, and Rone Tempest, in Paris, contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°