During the past five years, the nation has witnessed the rise of environmentalism as a social priority. Forceful new leadership in environmental organizations and vigorous grass-roots actions have pushed ecology into something more than a junior high school study unit. Environmentalism is filling local, national and global agendas and forcing changes in regulatory and industrial practices.
Yet at all levels--family, community, government--budgets are being squeezed by a host of other factors. At the family level alone, disposable income is beset by the growing costs of health care, auto insurance, property taxes, mortgages and education.
The result is a conflict between demand for action on the environmental front and dwindling resources to pay for it. Bluntly, environmentalism is facing a gut check.
A fundamental test of environmentalism is in the offing. It is a test of the social and business communities' commitment to environmentalism, and their willingness to make financial sacrifices to see so-called green issues through to completion.
As costs for environmental remediation and protection rise, demands upon consumers and voters will also rise--in the form of price increases and tax assessments. The gut check focuses on the breaking point--the point below which everyone will pay and beyond which no one will pay.
Everyone wants to save the environment, rightly cast as an underdog, since without society's help it is virtually defenseless. But it also has a price tag. And is the environment really an underdog if it always comes out on top?
In the area of government participation, the huge national debt has already forced some rethinking. Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan touched off a furor among environmentalists by saying Congress should weaken the Endangered Species Act because the 17-year-old law is threatening jobs and economic development. Although species are disappearing at an alarming rate, Lujan urged Congress to weigh the threat of job loss against the need to "save every subspecies." That very dynamic currently enlivens the debate over logging in the Northwest, where a depressed regional economy has hopes of revitalization through trade agreements allowing more exports to Japan. More logging, on the other hand, endangers certain birds and other wildlife.
In the local arena, grass-roots sentiments which have, up to now, increasingly influenced environ mental priority decisions, may soon run into the environmental gut check. When tougher California clean air regulations went into effect, four Los Angeles furniture manufacturers using solvent-based paints and lacquers bolted to Mexico and Louisiana, taking 4,000 jobs with them.
Whereas the environmental agenda is nearly limitless, the financial wherewithal to effect an environmental cure is not. The new clean air act currently wending its way through Congress would cost industry at least $21 billion annually, above and beyond the $32 billion it already spends each year to curtail air pollution.
These costs would ultimately trickle down to the consumer. Cleaner air could add $500 to the cost of a new car. Electricity rates in Missouri, which is not a major contributor to acid rain, could increase an average of 22% as utilities install stack-gas scrubbers. Proposed small-business regulations would increase the operating costs of dry cleaners, restaurants, bakeries and auto-body paint shops.
How will the real-world costs of such actions suit the people ultimately stuck with the bill? If they face diminishing financial resources themselves, how long can they sustain their positive attitude toward environmental issues when those issues demand more from their monthly budgets?
More and more proposed environmental projects will face the environmental gut check: How important is the project? How badly do we need it? What will we sacrifice to get it? How much will we pay? These questions will persist after the next Earth Day and the good feeling of helping the underdog have faded.