The Fourth Wave

Twenty-five years after the first Earth Day, Dowie argues, mainstream environmental groups have failed in most of their goals. But a fourth wave, at the grassroots, is newly energized.

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American environmentalism enjoyed unprecedented growth during the ’80s, a decade in which most of the large national organizations saw their membership more than double. Five years later, solid, fast-growing organizations–from the Natural Resources Defense Council to the Wilderness Society and the Audubon Society–have found that membership has flattened out. Greenpeace U.S.A., the largest environmental group of all, has cut its staff by 40 percent since 1991. Facing a $3.7 million budget shortfall this year, the Sierra Club is downsizing by 40 staff members. They are having a tough time finding new positions, because virtually no environmental organization is creating jobs these days.

Environmental leaders have been quick to blame the recession for their troubles. But the slowdown has lasted too far into our current economic recovery for recession to be the solitary cause. Environmentalists are less eager to talk about the fact that their influence in Washington is diminishing–the only arguably meaningful piece of legislation the Democratic Congress passed during the first two years of the Clinton administration was a watered-down Desert Protection Act. Many believe a movement once touted as the most significant of the 20th century is staring failure square in the face, a failure that is essentially self-induced.

There is no question that our land, air, and water would be in worse shape had thousands of organizations, large and small, not appeared over the past century to fight for wilderness preservation and against pollution. But is that enough?

Consider the movement’s own goals, affirmed in the preambles to federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. These laws, centerpieces of environmental strategy, set out to:

  • Halt environmental degradation before the end of the century.
  • Restore air, water, and soil quality to safe, if not pure, conditions.
  • Develop renewable energy systems.
  • Implement sustainable-yield forestry.

Twenty-five years later, the environmental movement is not even close to these goals. As biologist Barry Commoner points out in his groundbreaking book, “Making Peace With the Planet,” levels of pollutants such as airborne lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs, and strontium 90 have decreased noticeably, but by most measures, “the massive national effort to restore the quality of the environment has failed.”

For example, figures from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory show that U.S. industry emitted slightly less than 37 billion pounds of toxic waste in 1994; the Office of Technology Assessment estimates that the EPA’s figures represent only 5 percent of total toxic chemical releases. The EPA last tested human fatty tissue for 37 toxic compounds in 1986. It found all but four present in about two-thirds of the samples. The same study revealed dioxin at a level of 330 parts per million in human fatty tissue. (The EPA allowable level for any chemical compound–including dioxin–is 1 part per million.)

On another front, a 1991 survey by the American Fisheries Society found that 30 percent of the native freshwater fish species found north of Mexico are endangered; of the endangered fish, 93 percent are affected by habitat loss. Between 1970 and 1985 the number of oil spills in and around U.S. waters increased by 196 percent.

While the environmental movement cannot be held accountable for this breakdown, neither can it claim fundamental success for its goals. The best I can say is that if the movement hadn’t existed, things would be worse.

I divide the history of American environmentalism into three waves. The first and longest began with the natural conservation impulse of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second wave ushered in the era of protective legislation in the early 1970s and was abruptly ended by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. During these years, mainstream environmental organizations dropped their outsider status and became players in the Beltway game, employing lawyers and lobbyists to legislate environmental protection.

Perhaps inevitably, the result has been political compromise and failure. In the third wave, which is still upon us, Beltway environmentalists became indistinguishable from other political players. Their attempts to dovetail their concerns with those of corporate scofflaws are typified by such solutions as marketable pollution credits and the media-ballyhooed accord between the Environmental Defense Fund and McDonald’s. In that 1990 agreement, the fast-food giant, after several months of talks with EDF representatives, switched from polystyrene to paper wraps–the benefit of which is still being debated by toxicologists and economists.

The Clinton election occurred at the pinnacle of the third wave of environmentalism. Mainstream greens had tears in their eyes at the Environmental Ball before the inaugural. The environmental presidency, they believed, had arrived. Vice President Gore had written “Earth in the Balance.” Clinton would soon appoint Bruce Babbitt to Interior and Carol Browner to the EPA, and salt the government with professionals raided from almost every mainstream environmental group. All the money and talent that their leaders had invested in Washington politics seemed to pay off.

A year later, beltway environmentalists were weeping again. But this time, their tears were bitter. In decision after decision Clinton, Gore, and the greenest cabinet in American history betrayed their environmental promise, buckling to the industries and special interests that have commandeered the regulatory bureaucracy and purchased the Congress. One by one, bills dealing with mining, grazing, and pesticide reform, reauthorization of the Clean Water and Superfund acts, and protection of ancient forests, endangered species, and fisheries were squashed in committee–without effective protest from the White House.

The problem runs deep. “The movement has lost support because it has failed to demonstrate convincingly that its goals are compatible with the economic needs of the country,” says Roger Craver, a direct mail consultant. Some movement insiders accept Craver’s view, but some insist that economic growth and environmental health are antagonistic goals. Others think the problem is list fatigue, a direct marketing side effect that results from the overuse of mailing lists–eventually the same old names and same old stories wear out.

While House Speaker Newt Gingrich has selected 15 committee chairs who score less than 15 percent on the League of Conservation Voters environmental scorecard, environmental leaders are still groping for a plan that will restore their movement to its former glory. Hoping the alarm after the elections will scare up supporters, they rely on more direct mail campaigns, this time around demonizing Gingrich and cowboy capitalists. An observer assessing only the actions of third wave national organizations and the federal government might conclude that the entire environmental movement is moribund.

But there is another path, one being traveled by a whole new movement, an angry fourth wave led by 21st century descendants of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Gathering force at the grassroots is a new swell of environmental passion, democratic in origin, populist in style, untrammeled by bureaucracy, and inspired by a host of new ideologies.

Fourth wave leaders, in contrast to the well-bred, properly educated apparatchiks of mainstream environmentalism, are angry and impolite. They are blue-collar suburbanites like Lois Gibbs, the mad mother of Love Canal who has inspired thousands more to fight against the poisoning of their homes and neighborhoods.

The new wave includes small-town residents like Esperanza Maya, who defied the arrogance of the nation’s largest waste processor and the intransigence of the EPA to defeat the construction of a massive hazardous waste incinerator in Kettleman City, Calif. And the fourth wave includes people like Andy Mahler, who founded Heartwood, a small Indiana-based forest preservation group, and who is organizing a nationwide campaign to save the remaining 5 percent of the nation’s ancient forests.

Most fourth wave activists feel that the three previous waves of environmentalism are now irrelevant. They advocate a new nonviolent militancy to remind politicians at every level that the majority of their constituents consider environmental protection a government responsibility.

For the fourth wave to work, however, the mosaic of small organizations that has formed since the first Earth Day in 1970 needs some grout. There are, for example, almost 1,000 groups across the country (175 in Oregon alone) that were founded to protect a nearby stand or two of old-growth timber. Separately, these groups flail away at local offices of the U.S. Forest Service and fight Georgia-Pacific or Weyerhaeuser, timber sale by timber sale. When they gather to plot national strategy, they squabble over tactics, goals, and money. They are, however, beginning to network by computer. Together, they are sharing strategies that work and protecting millions of publicly owned acres of forest from the chain saw.

Meanwhile, if mainstream organizations are to remain a force in the environmental movement, they need to stop imitating each other. It’s time for a Green Mafia meeting in the Adirondacks to divide up the pie. Environmentalists need to agree that, say, the Sierra Club takes book publishing and ecotourism, the Wilderness Society handles Washington lobbying, Audubon gets birds, Greenpeace takes mammals, and Izaak Walton saves fish. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund litigates in state courts, the Natural Resources Defense Council takes the federal cases, and the Environmental Defense Fund negotiates. By deleting redundant programs, the national organizations could more effectively focus scarce resources and their best talent on environmental problems.

And while they’re in the Adirondacks, the nationals might reconsider their Washington obsession. As the federal government abandons its civil authority over environmental protection, the future of environmental activism lies more and more with the grassroots. As Andy Mahler says, “What has become increasingly clear is that local people acting locally to protect local places represent the new civil and moral authority.”

Mark Dowie’s book, “Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century,” will be released by the MIT Press for Earth Day 1995. Additional reporting by Liz Enochs.


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