WHITHER THE EARTH?

The Environmental Decade is past, but is environmentalism passè? A status report
May 04, 1980

One might well wonder what William Wordsworth could possibly have had in mind when he claimed that he had "walk'd with Nature" and found its "Divinity revolts offended at the ways of men." When Wordsworth was moved to pen those words in the 19th century, the natural world provided a refuge for highwaymen and posed barriers to travel and communication that were surmounted only with the greatest of difficulty. The sensibilities of a Wordsworth may have been wounded by the inroads of civilization, but for his less romantic contemporaries nature was something to be feared, not worshiped.

As we now know, when it comes to taking a beating at the hands of man, nature in Wordsworth's time hadn't seen anything yet. By the start of this century, the spread of the factory system had so defiled the English countryside that the naturalist W. Warde Fowler wrote of his yearning for "pure air, for the sight of growing grass, for the footpath across the meadow...." At about the same time, President Theodore Roosevelt found it urgently necessary to take action to preserve the U.S.' already dwindling natural resources. And by the 1960s the natural world had become so blighted by pollution, plastic and pavement that an unprecedented consensus was developing among Americans that the taming of the environment had, in many cases, gone too far. This conviction was strengthened by publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring, by the first photographs from space of the whole earth, which struck beholders as small and oddly vulnerable; and by widely publicized oil spills, notably an offshore blowout that fouled beaches in Santa Barbara, Calif. With opinion polls signaling public approval. Congress and state legislatures enacted tough laws to combat pollution and protect endangered species. Books and magazine stories bore such titles as Our Precarious Habitat, This Endangered Planet and The Ravaged Environment. Environmentalists, previously dismissed as so many kooks, cut their hair, carried briefcases and assumed high government positions. To instant historians, the '70s were the Environmental Decade.

Yet now, as the 1980s begin, jubilation over these successes is muted. Last week communities across the U.S. commemorated the 10th anniversary of Earth Day 1970, when throngs of Americans ushered in the Environmental Decade by demonstrating their support for cleaning up the land, air and water. It was clear on this year's Earth Day that some of the fresh appeal the movement enjoyed during the early 1970s had worn off. Environmental organizations are having more difficulty raising funds, and newspapermen who write about ecological problems are not getting their stories on Page One as readily as they once did. With the U.S. beset by galloping inflation and lagging productivity, not to mention an incipient recession, an energy crisis and various international embroilments, environmentalists suddenly find themselves on the defensive. Increasingly, they are depicted as obstructionists who stand in the way of profits and progress and push grandiose programs that increase the cost of living, eliminate jobs and stifle good old Yankee ingenuity.

Environmentalists are alarmed by this backlash. As all but the most unyielding of them recognize, environmental quality is not an absolute. The first shelter built in the wilderness was a compromise, and because man himself is part of the environment, compromise has continued to be necessary. The National Environmental Policy Act, the most influential law of the Environmental Decade—it took effect, tidily enough, on Jan. 1, 1970—doesn't outlaw anything but merely requires that before a project is undertaken, its "environmental impact" be assessed. The issue isn't whether steel mills will be built—of course they will—but how to keep them as clean as possible.

In practice, however, some environmentalists, emboldened by their new clout, are accused of being notably slow to compromise, even in the face of the nation's urgent energy imperatives. In the process, it is said, they have helped create a climate in which even their most legitimate achievements may well be jeopardized. Washington Congressman Allan B. Swift, a supporter of the environmental movement, gives voice to this fear by saying, "The economic interests lost to the environmentalists a decade ago because they refused to give at all. I think the reverse can now be true. If it turns out to be holy war, somebody will win it all. If that happens, we all lose in the long run."

So far, according to public-opinion polls, the citizenry's support for environmental objectives has weakened only slightly, if at all. Still, environmentalist groups are finding the national mood much less hospitable. "Environmentalists are against everything—period," says Utah Senator Orrin D. Hatch, voicing a familiar complaint. In a similar vein, The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized that economic growth had been impeded by the "fanaticism of a few environmentalists" imbued with a "Walden Pond vision of nature." The Journal has also accused environmentalists of "exploitation of the American legal system" and inveighed against what it calls "safety and health fascists." A number of large corporations have waged advertising campaigns advocating similar views.

The backlash takes other forms, too. On Capitol Hill it emerges as a Senate-passed bill to water down strip-mining laws and a House-backed measure to weaken pesticide controls. In the West it surfaces as the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement to switch control of federal lands to the states and, ultimately, to the loggers and mining companies. In the Midwest, it rears its head in a federal suit in which Dow Chemical Company has accused the Environmental Protection Agency of using satellites, U-2 aircraft and converted B-26 bombers to spy on Dow's operations in Midland, Mich., thereby uncovering information that could be of value to competitors. The EPA acknowledges using aerial surveillance, but only for monitoring air-pollution levels. Of the suit, one EPA official, John Connor, says, "How does an octopus defend itself? It lets go with a cloud of ink."

Environmentalists are also unhappy about actions taken by Jimmy Carter, who pleased them early in his presidency by saving the Redwoods, withdrawing Alaskan lands from development and making favorable appointments. More recently the President has disappointed them by giving the timber industry the go-ahead to cut trees faster than they can be replenished and by accepting Forest Service recommendations to set aside as wilderness only one-fourth of the 61 million acres under consideration for that purpose. Notwithstanding Dow Chemical's laments, environmentalists also accuse the EPA of giving too much ground in its fight against pollution, for which they blame Carter. Then there is the President's surrender on Tennessee's Tellico Dam, which conservationists denounced as a boondoggle and which was seriously questioned even by then-TVA Director S. David Stroud. Carter said he opposed the dam, too, but when Congress passed legislation to complete construction, he signed it with "regret."

None of which is more striking than the President's evolving energy policy. During the 1976 campaign Jimmy Carter promised that in the event of a conflict between energy and environment, he would "go for beauty, clean air, water and landscape." He promised that conservation would be the cornerstone of his energy program and pledged opposition to synthetic fuels, which pose serious environmental questions. But turmoil in the Persian Gulf and soaring oil prices have forced the U.S. to attach new urgency to reducing its alarming dependence on imported oil. Accordingly, Carter now calls every domestic energy source "critical." He continues to support nuclear power and has pledged his backing for both synfuel development and the conversion of utilities from oil to coal, a changeover that could exacerbate air-pollution problems. The Carter Administration has also approved oil exploration off Cape Cod and in Alaska's Beaufort Sea and is preparing to open bids for leases to drill along the entire California coast. Over objections of environmentalists and the Interior and Commerce Departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, it has approved construction of an oil refinery on Chesapeake Bay. The President also proposed creation of an Energy Mobilization Board to cut through environmental and other regulatory red tape, of which, to be sure, there is plenty; last week a House-Senate conference committee endorsed a procedure by which this board, the Congress and the President could speedily waive environmental laws for "priority" projects, an action environmental groups called a major setback. Most of this Carter professes to put in the category of necessary evils, strongly implying that environmentalists are guilty of shortsightedness.

Environmentalists reply that it is Carter, Congress and certain business interests that are being shortsighted—or worse. Russell Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society, tells of having attended a meeting at the White House last November at which the President defended his energy policies by saying, "If you were in my seat, Russell, you'd make the same decisions." Carter misjudged his listener. "Businessmen and politicians are interested only in making a buck and winning elections," fumes Peterson, who may have some license to talk this way, having been both a DuPont executive and a Republican governor of Delaware.

In their unhappiness over the backlash, environmentalists point out that they have been warning for years about the dangers of U.S. reliance on Mideast oil. Now that the gravity of the problem finally is widely recognized, they consider it unfair that they're being blamed for it. "We've been so right it hurts," says David Brower, the founder of the influential environmental organization, Friends of the Earth. But environmentalists don't dare spend too much time gloating; they must marshal their forces to preserve the triumphs they scored in the '70s.

That could be quite a struggle. Environmentalists as a group tend to see doomsday lurking around every bend, and they are capable of scare tactics just as egregious as those their foes have sometimes used against them. Yet it is a source of understandable anxiety that for all the gains of the '70s, about the most environmentalists can bring themselves to say is that conditions would be even worse today had those advances not occurred. They argue that their recent string of defeats—"It makes us feel like the 49ers," says the San Francisco-based Brower—has occurred just when another Environmental Decade, or better still, a succession of them, is urgently needed. To be sure, the air is cleaner today in dozens of U.S. cities than it was in 1970, and fewer fish are found floating belly up in the Hudson River, the Potomac, Washington's Bellingham Bay and other waterways. And, granted, neighbors of a coffee processing plant in Houston no longer suffer the indignity of having hot Java rain on them, which used to happen when coffee dust from a plant chimney mingled in the wind with steam from a nearby vent. Still, air pollution remains a major problem in Los Angeles and Philadelphia as well as in such former clean-air havens as Denver and Salt Lake City; Phoenix, once a mecca for asthmatics, suffered a five-day smog alert last winter.

There are also newer, more complex problems, many of them potentially more far-reaching and insidious than the "conventional" pollution with which the laws of the 1970s dealt. One is the gradual depletion of the atmosphere's ozone layer, caused partly by fluorocarbons released by aerosol cans (such cans with fluorocarbon propellants are banned in the U.S. but are still widely used elsewhere) and automobile air conditioners. Ozone depletion allows more ultraviolet rays to reach the earth, increasing the incidence of skin cancer and the danger of climatic changes that could play havoc with agriculture. Another problem is the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide that results from, among other things, the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests; this buildup, scientists warn, traps heat close to the earth, creating a "greenhouse" effect that could dry up croplands and melt polar ice caps, flooding populated coastal areas. Then there is acid rain, which is thought to occur when pollutants from the towering smokestacks of coal-fired plants are borne by winds to points hundreds of miles distant. Acid rain apparently generated by industry from the Ohio Valley has corroded buildings, blistered crops and killed fish as far away as New England. According to a Library of Congress report, airborne chemicals have eliminated fish in 90% of the Alpine lakes in the Adirondacks.

There is also reason for alarm in the spread of toxic substances, many of which have come into use since World War II and are believed to cause cancer and other diseases. The reckless dumping of poisonous wastes in vacant lots, sewers and waterways has forced the evacuation of homes, the closing of rivers to fishing, the shutdown of municipal sewage plants and the contamination of drinking water. Noting that such deadly chemicals as PCBs and Kepone can persist in the environment for decades, if not centuries, a House Commerce subcommittee declared last fall that "industry has shown laxity not infrequently to the point of criminal negligence, in soiling the land and adulterating the water with its toxins."

Most of these problems are aggravated by a global population explosion that William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA and now an executive of Weyerhaeuser Company, calls "the single most overriding cause of environmental stress in the world." After taking the whole of human history to reach a population of one billion in 1813, mankind has required just 167 additional years to hit 4.5 billion. A population of more than 6 billion is likely by the year 2000. In a frantic attempt to feed these masses—according to the President's Commission on World Hunger, there may now be as many as 800 million people with too little to eat—rain forests are being cleared at a breakneck pace, resulting in decomposed vegetation that contributes to the buildup of carbon dioxide. This also results in the rapid loss of plant and animal species, violating naturalist Aldo Leopold's dictum: the test of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. It further increases the chances of biological disaster by diminishing possibilities for development of plant strains resistant to pests and disease.

In the U.S., population growth is compounded by the squandering of once-abundant resources. American industrial expansion changed the face of a seemingly boundless and amazingly resilient land, creating a prosperity based on yearly model changes, forced obsolescence and throw-away containers. To keep the economy humming, vast tracts of trees have been leveled, wild rivers dammed, mountainsides disemboweled. Waterways, the air and human lungs have been used as sewers. Americans have merrily driven their automobiles, fouling the atmosphere and creating an unseemly urban sprawl while leaving behind decaying central cities. Signs of exhaustion are discernible even in Alaska, the last frontier, where citizens fret about post-pipeline population growth and air pollution. Other parts of the West are plagued by severe water shortages; in Houston the extraction of oil and water has so eroded the ground that flooding occurs at practically the hint of rain. Because of the relentless construction of shopping malls, highways and housing, the U.S. is losing three million acres of farmland a year. And that doesn't include arable tracts lost to erosion and runoff. The disappearance of croplands could reduce the U.S.' food-exporting capacity, further limiting its ability to purchase imported energy—not to mention to feed an increasingly hungry world.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. It now seems laughably ironic that early in this century, fears that city streets would become buried under horse dung prompted many people to innocently welcome the arrival of the automobile as a godsend that would unfoul the air. Similarly, advances in the control of disease, an environmental boon, have had the paradoxical effect of stimulating population growth. Russell E. Train, former administrator of the EPA and now president of the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., notes that decisions on whether to ban carcinogenic pesticides turn on the sort of question that would tax a Solomon: How many bushels of corn are worth how many cases of cancer?

Balancing environmental and economic objectives is tricky. Earlier conservationists compromised to the point of abdication, confining themselves largely to the creation of wilderness preserves. Environmentalists say they continue to exercise restraint. They claim that long before Three Mile Island they could have mounted a solid legal challenge to nuclear-waste-storage practices on the grounds that no impact studies had been made but refrained from doing so for fear of appearing even more obstructionist than they already did.

Not that environmentalists are exactly bashful about making such challenges. Far from being the homogeneous, single-issue bunch it is sometimes depicted to be, the environmental "movement" is, in fact, a vast coalition whose membership shifts from issue to issue, a characteristic that accounts for much of its vociferousness. Thus, an oil company executive who fights environmentalists tooth and nail on the job became an improbable but enthusiastic ally of many of his sometime foes in opposing the construction of an ammonia plant near his California home, a clear case of one's own nest being fouled. Incongruous, too, are the disparate forces battling the Central Arizona Project, a proposed complex of dams intended to bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. Besides the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, which are worried about threats to the bald eagle and flooding of natural landscape, the project has been opposed by the Young Americans for Freedom, a right-wing group that objects to Washington's deep involvement, and the Young Republicans, which finds the project fiscally irresponsible.

As these examples indicate, environmentalists of some kind or other can be counted on to challenge practically any undertaking. In Oregon they are fighting the timber companies to save the habitat of the Northern spotted owl. In Texas they are trying to prevent construction of supertanker terminals, which pose the danger of oil spills. In Maine they are challenging the St. Regis Paper Company's pesticide-spraying practices. There is hardly a square foot of California that is not under dispute. Environmentalists in that state are trying to close down nuclear plants, clean up hazardous wastes, protect deserts from recreation vehicles, halt the spread of neon on the shores of Lake Tahoe and limit municipal growth. A decade-long battle between an organization called GOO (Get Oil Out) and offshore oil-drilling interests over petroleum production near Santa Barbara rages on, having already produced 21 public hearings, 50 consultant studies and a dozen lawsuits.

It can be argued that such challenges, numerous though they may be, merely oblige businesses to justify their activities environmentally, an objective that surely seems reasonable enough. Yet Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, whose state is a major battleground in the war between environmentalists and developers, complains that some environmentalists seem to expect to win all the challenges, which is an altogether different thing. Lamm is not unsympathetic to environmentalism and as a state legislator raised environmental objections in leading a successful campaign to scratch Denver as the site of the 1976 Winter Olympics. Yet he complains, "Some environmentalists have unreal expectations. They demand total allegiance to their viewpoint. They fail to appreciate that people who build things in this world have done some good, too."

In the face of the current backlash, environmentalists are wisely reexamining some of their tactics. A case in point is their well-publicized protest that Tellico Dam threatened the habitat of the snail darter, a tiny perch entitled to protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Stating the case for such protection, David Brower says, "People say we can survive without the snail darter, and maybe we can. But we can't survive with the mindset that says we can. At some point the destruction of other species will result in our own destruction, and the trouble is that nobody knows what that point is." Nevertheless, National Audubon Society Communications Director Dick Beamish allows that defense of the snail darter may have been a public-relations mistake. "Environmentalists have been made to look generally ridiculous because of the snail darter," he says. "There are reasons for opposing the Tellico and other boondoggles apart from obscure, funny-sounding endangered species. We're better off stressing the economic folly of such projects."

Environmentalists can become more flexible in other ways. Thanks largely to laws passed in the '70s, corporations now invest considerable manpower and money in protecting the environment. These laws have forced some businesses to pare profits, lay off workers and experience costly delays in their plans. On occasion they have forced, or at least hastened, the closing of inefficient plants. These environmental constraints may have been justified in some cases, in others not. One wonders, for example, why the Wyoming Environmental Quality Department found it necessary to request that a coal company go to the bother and expense of planting sagebrush on the sites of worked-out strip mines even as federal authorities were spraying large areas of the West to eradicate sagebrush. It is possible to muster a dollop of sympathy even for mighty Standard Oil of California, which spent $61 million last year to comply with environmental laws. Measured against Standard Oil's 1979 sales of $32 billion, this was the equivalent of a $38 outlay by a family earning $20,000, but the company's domestic production subsidiary. Chevron USA, also has to tiptoe through a maze of dozens of ever-changing, frequently conflicting federal, state and local pollution standards while, along with the rest of the oil industry, finding environmentalists at every turn blocking its efforts to put up refineries, pipelines and drilling rigs. It is with some justification that Bruce Beyaert, Chevron's manager of environmental affairs, complains, "We're being whipsawed by the environmental extremists."

Some environmentalists concede that their movement must become less strident and less negative, or as Henry Richmond, director of an environmental organization known as 1,000 Friends of Oregon, puts it, "Solution-rather than ambush-oriented." This makes sense not only because of the worsening economy but also because of the changing nature of environmental problems. "Ten years ago the problems were very obvious ones, like dirty air," says Jackson B. Browning, director of health, safety and environmental affairs at Union Carbide. "The problems today are toxins, carcinogens and other things that are more subtle and not as easily measured. And it will cost as much to do the next 5% of the cleanup job as it did for the first 95%. Is it worth it? The relationship between risks and cost is now the crucial issue."

One innovation that may help ease environmental rigidity is the EPA's adoption of a "bubble" approach that allows companies to decide for themselves where and how to reduce air pollution in a plant or area—so long as the total from all sources is within specified limits. Environmentalists can also come up with alternatives to projects they oppose; in Maine environmentalists fighting the proposed Dickey-Lincoln Dam, an Aswan-sized project that would despoil the scenic St. John River, have suggested constructing several smaller dams instead. And wherever possible environmentalists should follow the already growing practice of subjecting projects to strict cost-benefit analyses.

Yet there is such a thing as compromising too much. Useful though cost-benefit studies may be, trying to put a precise dollar value on saving a human life or a wetlands seems as ignoble as it is impossible. The sobering fact is that, like a rich uncle, the environment elicits expressions of deep concern from some of the very people who would hasten its demise. They include businessmen who all too often had to be shamed, pressured and legislated into protecting the environment. They also include plenty of private citizens. Such people seem to consider it perfectly all right to pollute so long as it's done:

1) A little. This seems to be the rationale of Californians who rig their cars to avoid burning costlier—but cleaner—unleaded gasoline. It is also the justification for businessmen who insist that environmental hazards posed by their activities are either (the words seldom vary) "insignificant" or "acceptable."

2) In somebody else's backyard. Or so say those Westerners who argue that their abundant coal reserves should be mined—provided that they are burned elsewhere. The category also includes industry whose pollution causes acid rain many miles away as well as "midnight movers" who make a practice of dumping toxic wastes into marshes, sewers, creeks and under the nearest highway overpass.

3) When it is too costly to stop. This is the battle cry of business leaders who seize every downtick in the Dow Jones Industrials as an excuse to plead for exceptions, delays, waivers or revocation of environmental laws.

It is obvious that if all attempts to avoid environmental constraints succeeded, the cumulative effect would be calamitous. This prospect prompts California Congressman Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, to warn that the U.S. "must not be stampeded by a handful of special-interest lobbyists into turning the clock backwards in the fight to protect the environment." What makes Waxman's counsel all the more persuasive is that the supposed economic stakes against which environmental quality is balanced are often illusory. When Silent Spring first detailed the ecological damage caused by DDT, the chemical industry played on the tensions of Cold War I by warning that the pesticide was essential lest U.S. farms be outproduced by those in the Soviet Union. DDT was banned—without anything of the kind happening. When U.S. Steel announced the full or partial closing of 16 plants last November, Cold War II had not yet begun, but that didn't prevent the company from placing an ample share of the blame on expensive environmental laws. U.S. Steel neglected to mention that those laws were proving costly partly because of its slowness in complying with them. Nor did it mention that the Japanese companies that have outhustled American firms on world steel markets are subject to even more stringent environmental restrictions.

A study by the National Resources Defense Council of one batch of environmental lawsuits reveals that industry brought virtually as many of them as environmentalists did. Indeed, Michael McCloskey, executive director of the Sierra Club, suggests that the true obstructionists are not environmentalists but companies that seek to delay or avoid compliance with the law—and are thus responsible themselves for much of the regulatory confusion they complain about. The case of Minnesota's Reserve Mining Company is instructive. Pressed for nearly a quarter of a century to stop polluting Lake Superior with ore wastes of a type believed to cause cancer, the company refused, arguing that ceasing the practice would force it to shut its doors. Reserve Mining finally ended the controversial dumping this March—and remains in business. A lot of costly litigation could have been avoided had it acted years earlier.

Even when environmental laws injure a particular company, or indeed, an entire industry, it doesn't necessarily follow that they harm the U.S. economy as a whole. Consider inflation. President Carter has said that pollution control causes less inflation than commonly supposed—his Council on Environmental Quality has estimated the figure to be, at the very most, 0.4% a year—and results in a net gain in employment: jobs created by construction of sewage plants and manufacture of antipollution equipment more than compensated for those lost to environmental crackdowns.

Next, take productivity. Although the higher costs and regulatory paper shuffling caused by environmental laws have in some cases hurt productivity, environmentalists contend that this is offset by productivity gains attributable to those same laws. The idea that protecting the environment can yield benefits was advanced 200 years ago when the Benthamites pointed out that the output of English factories would increase if the cholera and smallpox afflicting workers could be eradicated. Last week the President's Council on Environmental Quality reported that while the cost of complying with federal air-pollution standards in 1978 was an estimated $16 billion, the resulting benefits—in reduced crop damage, savings in industrial cleanup costs and the like—amounted to at least $21.4 billion. And this doesn't consider possible savings in medical expenses, wages lost to illness or the likelihood that if money isn't spent to protect the environment today, far more will have to be spent to save it tomorrow.

Environmentalists maintain that curbing pollution may involve a redistribution of wealth, but not necessarily a reduction in that wealth. It is frequently claimed that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world, and this, environmentalists say, is unquestionably true of growth based on waste and go-for-broke production. Growth geared to recycling and maintenance is another matter. As David Brower says, "I'd like to see the auto industry get behind making products last longer, not just keep on producing. And can you imagine the oil companies applying their managerial skills to cleaning up toxic wastes?"

Rechanneling growth into the areas Brower suggests would probably involve adoption of hefty tax incentives and other inducements, a requirement that seems less startling when one remembers that over the years government, in effect, has underwritten pollution by means of generous highway-construction budgets and oil-depletion allowances and by granting tax writeoffs for even the most profligate economic expansion. In some sectors of the economy, such a change would require more regulation, but Gus Speth, chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, says unflinchingly, "That's what regulation is. It slows down certain segments of the economy while speeding up others."

The dream of an environmentally benign economy depends in large measure on how the raging battle over national energy policy is resolved. Given the political and economic realities now confronting them, environmentalists may be deluding themselves when it comes to energy. Barring new technological breakthroughs in developing alternative energy sources or a dramatic reduction in America's traditional high-energy diet, the scramble to replace foreign oil will probably, for the foreseeable future, require tapping virtually all possible domestic sources, including existing nuclear plants and substantial quantities of coal and domestic oil. The nation simply dares not risk running out of the energy needed to provide electricity to cities and to maintain its industrial and military capacity. "It's like Tarzan," says former Oregon Governor Tom McCall. "He better make damn sure that if he lets loose from one branch, he has another to swing to." Yet this need not be an excuse for ignoring environmental considerations; on the contrary, the necessity of using nuclear power is all the more reason to do everything possible to make it safer. Similarly, coal can be produced and burned as cleanly as possible. The same goes for synthetic fuels and oil.

At the same time, the U.S. can turn, wherever possible, to energy alternatives that are already safer and cleaner. It is a clichè these days that all energy inevitably involves risk, a truism that obscures the fact that some choices are riskier than others. Just as some environmentalists may overestimate the hazards inherent in conventional energy, so the utilities, oil companies and nuclear interests frequently underestimate them. An obvious example: the nuclear industry's longstanding assurances that there was no possibility of the kind of frightening accident that subsequently occurred at Three Mile Island. Another: a study by an organization largely financed by the oil industry, the impressively named Gulf Universities Research Consortium, purporting to show that the seepage routinely caused by offshore drilling does no harm to marine life. But a number of prominent marine biologists dispute that conclusion. One of them, Dr. Howard Sanders of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institute, has painstakingly reviewed the study and found methodological inadequacies, including the fact that the "control site" was itself affected by years of oil drilling. Research by Sanders and other biologists suggests that drilling invariably causes chronic, low-level damage to marine life.

The inescapable fact is this: to the extent that the U.S. seeks to satisfy its energy needs with conventional fuels, the environment will suffer. In the case of domestic oil, reserves are dwindling and further exploration may have dire ecological results. Most remaining onshore oil is heavy crude, extractable only by steam-injection processes that severely pollute the air. And offshore deposits tend to be on the outer continental shelves, a forbidding environment in which drilling is arduous, increasing the chances not only of low-level damage, but also of blowouts. Coal is plentiful, especially in the West, but producing it on the scale foreseen by the President would involve strip-mining some of the country's most breathtaking landscapes. Burning it would likely increase acid rain and exacerbate the greenhouse effect; it could cast a pall that an alarmed Peter Grove, legislative director of the National Park Service, likens to "pulling a curtain across nature's stage." Synthetic fuel, derived largely from coal and oil shale, is troubling, too. Processing it threatens to turn canyons into rubble, deplete water supplies and leach carcinogens into groundwater. And synfuels would, in most cases, be even dirtier to burn than coal. Finally, there is nuclear power, whose potential for devastation, in case of accident, was dramatically underscored at Three Mile Island, and whose increasingly plentiful wastes are difficult, if not impossible, to dispose of safely.

As alternatives to conventional energy, environmentalists generally favor development of renewable sources—wood, wind power, the sun and the animal and vegetable wastes known as biomass. To be sure, renewables can exact a high environmental toll of their own. The harvesting and burning of wood causes pollution, while the use of grain and other crops to produce automobile fuel can exact enormous social cost by reducing quantities available for food. But because they replenish themselves relatively quickly, as a general rule renewables are environmentally less disruptive than fossils or nuclear power.

Those who beat the drums for conventional energy try to convey the impression that their fortunes are inextricably tied up with the well-being of the U.S. economy. In a recent study of California's energy options, the San Diego Gas and Electric Company warned that heavy reliance on renewables could lead to "social and economic dislocation and disintegration." Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray, former chairwoman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a staunch nuclear advocate known to political rivals as "Madame Nuke," says, witheringly, that the U.S. doesn't run on "sunshine, sweet breezes, moonbeams and butterfly wings."

But the big energy producers may not be as neatly in lockstep with the economy as they imply. Although both energy consumption and the gross national product have leveled off recently, there may or may not be a cause-and-effect relationship. As environmentalists like to point out, during the five-year period starting in 1973, energy use increased by only 5% a year while the GNP grew, after adjustment for inflation, by 12% a year. And this doesn't consider the economic slack that might have been taken up by large-scale production of solar equipment. Because the distribution of renewable energy would generally be less centralized, oil companies and utilities may well have something to lose by switching to renewables; the U.S. as a whole, environmentalists argue, doesn't.

In fact, environmentalists insist, conventional energy poses very nearly as many economic problems as environmental ones. In the case of domestic oil, the U.S. is putting its faith in a dwindling geologic commodity being sold off in what amounts to a fabulously lucrative liquidation sale. In nuclear power, the country is relying on an energy source that has turned out to be far more expensive than promised, is partly financed by Washington—through subsidies for uranium production and government-approved limits on insurer liability for nuclear accidents—and, in the event of another Three Mile Island, would probably be shut down by public demand, leaving the U.S. in the lurch. With synthetic fuels, the country is gambling on processes that are technologically risky and will require massive government spending. That leaves coal, which is far cheaper to burn than oil but will require, in many cases, the costly conversion of oil-burning plants. To encourage such conversion, the Carter Administration has proposed generous, and possibly inflationary, federal subsidies.

All parties to the energy debate agree that renewables will take on far greater importance during the coming "postpetroleum" age. As John W. Hanley, president and board chairman of Monsanto Company, who is no flower child, notes, "We have tremendous scientific capabilities for developing new energy sources. Windmills for electrical generation and solar energy for heat are both feasible technologies." Indeed, there is already a mini-boom in solar installations for home heating, although nothing seems feasible now for industrial heating.

But the timetable for phasing in renewables is subject to fierce debate. President Carter estimates that renewables, including hydroelectric power, now provide 7% of U.S. energy and says that this figure can reach 20% by 2000. Assuming an increase in existing tax credits for geothermal, wind-driven power and solar-heating systems, and assuming increased conservation, Carter's goal would appear to be attainable.

Environmentalists argue, however, that renewables can satisfy 30% or even more of America's energy needs by 2000. This highly optimistic projection may depend at least partly on a breakthrough in solar energy for producing electricity, which poses a Catch 22 predicament: because its cost is at the moment prohibitive, the government has been reluctant to invest heavily in the development of solar electricity. Yet it is just such government development that might bring down the cost to the point where large-scale solar electricity would be practicable. In the absence of vigorous action by Washington, there are a number of private companies, including Texas Instruments, IBM and Motorola, engaged in solar electricity research. It is possible that one or more of them, spurred by the prospect of a huge payoff, might achieve the necessary breakthrough.

Until then, however, the surest bet for easing both the energy crisis and the strain on the environment remains conservation. It is in recognition of this that the Carter Administration has imposed restrictions on heating and cooling buildings and tougher standards for automobiles. The President also proposed more money for mass transit and pushed for tax credits for the installation of home insulation. But the Administration has been cool to imposing higher gasoline taxes, which could dampen consumption, and both the White House and Congress often seem more interested in increasing production than conservation. "We're into a John Wayne mode," says Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas. "Decentralized, dull, nitty-gritty programs that will save us a lot of oil are not regarded as dramatic enough."

With the public already reeling because of soaring fuel costs, political opposition to increased gasoline taxes is understandable. But resistance to higher fuel prices, whatever form the increases take, is wishful thinking. Prices have risen largely for the classic reason that conventional energy is scarce, demand high. Although, in truth, environmentalists are not entirely unhappy about this—energy, they feel, should bear a high price because it exacts a high price—efforts to make environmentalists the scapegoats won't alter the unpleasant realities. Neither, for that matter, will efforts to make whipping boys out of the oil companies. What will change the situation is the realization that with Americans comprising 5% of the world's population but consuming 30% of its energy, the country could use far less conventional fuel without appreciably lowering its standard of living. Sweden and West Germany both enjoy standards of living comparable to that of the U.S. while consuming barely half the energy per capita.

While conservation is often discussed in terms of public "sacrifice," many environmentalists shun the word. They agree with John P. Holdren, professor of energy and resources at the University of California and a strong advocate of renewable energy, who says, "I'd rather think in terms of 'efficiency' than 'sacrifice.' There are tremendous opportunities for providing the same goods and services while using less energy. For example, it's possible for air conditioners and refrigerators to deliver the same cool for one third of the energy they now use."

Encouragingly, Americans may be more receptive to conservation than their leaders believe, an inclination that could, by itself, assure a more benign energy mix and a cleaner environment. In growing numbers, they are saving fuel by turning off lights, insulating their homes and taking their foot off the gas pedal. Despite continued population growth, demand for electricity has softened to the point that some utilities have scrapped plans both for nuclear and coal-burning plants. Similarly, consumption of all petroleum products in the U.S. declined by 2% in 1979 and of gasoline by even more—5%. So great is the call for fuel-efficient cars that the sagging auto industry is now talking about going beyond federal gas-mileage standards—and hoping for an eventual upsurge in profits in the process. The Sierra Club's McCloskey believes that the impetus to save energy, until now dictated mainly by pocketbook considerations, will grow once people fully grasp that energy conserved is energy not taken out of the hide of the environment. "People don't want to freeze in the dark," McCloskey says ominously. "Well, they don't want to choke on smog, either."

Recent events lend urgency to such forebodings of doom. Three Mile Island. The Gulf of Mexico oil blowout. The evacuation of 250,000 Canadians because of a chlorine spill. Discovery of toxic wastes in the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. On top of these incidents, each the most serious of its kind in history, came last September's smog siege in Los Angeles, the city's worst in nearly 25 years. It was a mocking coincidence that even as Earth Day '80 was being observed last week, fires at chemical-storage facilities sent 40 people to hospitals in Elizabeth, N.J.—and for a time menaced part of New York City—and injured 29 people and forced the evacuation of 300 residents of an Indian reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho. Such occurrences signal an environment under strain, a situation prompting Governor Lamm, for all his misgivings about environmental intransigence, to warn, "As a society we're careening recklessly into the future. I think we're going to have more Love Canals and more carbon dioxide buildup, and I'm afraid there will be famine in India. When the history of these times is written, I believe the environmentalists will be shown to have raised the right issues."

It is the very nature of the environmentalists' struggles that while most of their victories are temporary, their defeats—and there have been enough of these lately—are often permanent. Bucking the momentum of two centuries of industrial expansion, they needed what amounted to a revolution just to slow environmental degradation, and now even that revolution appears to be stalling. The achievements of the Environmental Decade, which occurred because people became justifiably alarmed about pollution, are being treated as a luxury that can be cast aside when times get tough.

Even in the hardest times, however, industrial society must heed the warning of the 16th-century philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon that "We cannot command nature except by obeying her." Otherwise, for the sake of immediate economic gain for some, all will suffer in the long run. If environmentalists are obliged to accommodate themselves more to economic and energy interests, it is equally essential that those interests, like it or not, submit to the demands of the environment. The fact that environmental problems happen to be increasingly complex is an argument for more, not less, vigilance.

If only for the sake of their peace of mind, environmentalists seem to be able to remain upbeat even while forecasting the apocalypse. Accordingly, they promise not to rest on their oars. As McCloskey says, almost jauntily, "Things aren't going well for us right now, but the environmental movement has proved it has staying power. Every year people say we're dead or on the run. But most of what we accomplished during the '70s has become institutionalized. Those things are pretty well cast in concrete."

Unless he is right, nature will have more reason than ever to revolt offended at the ways of men.

ILLUSTRATIONTOMMY SOLOSKI ILLUSTRATIONTOMMY SOLOSKIAcid rain, heavy with toxins spewed from coal-fired furnaces, poisons fields, rivers and lakes hundreds of miles away. ILLUSTRATIONTOMMY SOLOSKISolar energy is a solution—at least for heating some homes.

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