How to be green
Environmental movement is at crossroads(Published April 23, 2001)
For activists passionate about the environment, these are target-rich times.
Dozens of species are under consideration for federal protection. The future of Alaska's untouched arctic north is in play. So are new protections for the roadless forests of Montana and the heavily traveled Sierra.
The nuclear power industry, energized by the electricity crisis, is seeking to make a comeback. And President Bush is in the White House, offering environmentalist fund-raisers their reddest meat since James Watt was interior secretary for President Reagan.
The challenge for the environmental movement isn't in selecting which target to aim for, but to effect real change that improves the health of the planet. The problems and the politics have become more complex. So must the environmental movement.
As Bee investigative reporter Tom Knudson begins to detail today in a five-part series, much has changed since the extractionist philosophies of Reagan and Watt energized environmental groups two decades ago. In the intervening 20 years, the ledgers of environmental groups have become considerably greener, with $3.5 billion in contributions in 1999, up 94 percent from 1992. The groups have become more litigious, accounting for most of the 434 environmental cases against federal agencies during the 1990s, which generated $31.6 million in attorneys' fees.
And the movement has steadily evolved, with organizations carving out their own niches and causes. Some are nearly exclusively built to challenge compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Others employ biologists exploring the needs of plants and animals. Others specialize in habitat purchases, requiring a stable of real estate experts and negotiators to put together deals with private landowners and to secure funds from foundations.
Yet when it comes to engaging the political system on complex questions of resource policy, the movement struggles to elevate its game to match real world environmental issues. As Knudson points out, environmental politics is no longer a comparatively simple matter of fighting the construction of some on-stream dam.
A case in point is the politics surrounding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and how to devise new ways to both stabilize its salmon species and assure necessary water supplies for homes and farms. Lasting solutions will demand a new culture of compromise. For environmentalists, it may mean endorsing a new off-stream water storage project in return for, say, new levee setbacks that provide valuable habitat for fish, and new assurances that more water storage doesn't translate into less flows for the fish.
Yet there seems a reluctance for any given group on any given issue to break from the herd. Maybe it's a culture within the movement that values solidarity over diversity. Or maybe the room for compromise has been constricted by how the groups have fanned the flames of their fund-raising base by depicting their foes as enemies to be defeated, not interests to be engaged.
Regardless, there should be plenty of room for maneuvering inside the nation's big green tent. In the end, the game isn't won in terms of revenues or headlines, but sustainable systems of habitat for both humans and nature.