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Original Issue


Here and abroad grass roots environmentalism is growing

Tip O'Neill, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, used to say, "All politics is local." Given that the future of the global environment hinges on political decisions, it's no surprise that grass roots environmentalism is gaining strength in the U.S. and abroad. Bil Gilbert's story, Of Time and the River (page 76), recounts how persistent citizens transformed the Kalamazoo River from a stream of sludge into a pleasant waterway for boating. That is one example among thousands of the way "pests"—an affectionate term for locally organized folks who simply refuse to be deterred—can have a positive impact on environmental issues. Local activists with specific agendas have preserved wetlands in Iowa, stopped an illegal seabird egg harvest in Quebec and given Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pause by winning impressive support for various environmental causes in Great Britain.

The National Wildlife Federation's Conservation Directory lists nearly 700 citizens' groups in the U.S. The Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes in Arlington, Va., works with 4,687 local organizations, up from 1,300 in 1987. And the trend toward local solutions to environmental ills is being encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which offers grants of as much as $50,000 to local groups that monitor the handling of toxic substances in 1,163 "national priority" areas. "We need to work with those people who are most affected," says Margie Fehrenbach of the EPA. "They are excellent sources, because they see the problems firsthand."

Grass roots environmentalists are a determined lot. For example, California's Proposition 65, a toxic-substances control measure that passed overwhelmingly in 1986, was a citizens' initiative bitterly opposed by the oil and chemical industries. Some other environmentally-minded citizens are suspected of resorting to more extreme measures. For instance, members of Earth First!, a Tucson-based organization, were recently arrested in Arizona for allegedly trying to topple an electrical transmission tower. Disruptive actions, which practictioners call ecotage, are useful in attracting attention, but fortunately most environmentalists find more peaceable ways to accomplish their objectives.

Increasingly, concern for the environment has become a worldwide phenomenon. In Western Europe, conservationist Green parties, which typically began as grass roots movements, have gained seats in national and local legislatures and have also flexed their muscle in the European Parliament. To the dismay of Thatcher's Conservative Party, the Greens received 2.3 million votes—15% of the total—in last month's European Parliament election in Britain. Reflecting increased awareness in their countries, the leaders of the seven leading industrialized democracies meeting in Paris last week produced unprecedented—if still vague—commitments to address the big environmental issues.

Even Iron Curtain countries have gone greener, if not actually Green. One reason is that people are more concerned than ever about the high incidence of environment-related health problems. Amos Eno, director of conservation programs for the Washington-based National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, was recently part of an official U.S. delegation to Poland and the U.S.S.R. "After decades of state-run industry causing horrible pollution, the people are demanding change." says Eno.

In the U.S., the current rise of grass roots environmentalism is to a large degree a response to the Reagan Administration's environmental policies, which amounted to benign neglect. Although they are attracting new members at a swift pace, the big, established conservation groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation (5,800,000 members), Sierra Club (500,000) and National Audubon Society (550,000), also find themselves under attack for having become red-tape bureaucracies. Most of the newest groups—Earth Island Institute, for instance, which was formed by David Brower, ex-head of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth—were started by activists who wanted more, and more direct, action. Says Eno, whose foundation last year doled out $11.5 million, much of it to local conservation groups, "The grass roots is where it's happening today."

But there's as much need for action in the corridors of the Capitol as there is in the hinterland. The national organizations should encourage the environmentalist ground swell, while they continue to devote their scientific and legal resources to the big-picture issues—acid rain, ozone depletion, deforestation—that have local and global components. Thus the national organization can lobby for stronger endangered-species laws, while the grass roots organization can work to protect the habitat of an endangered species. Quite a one-two punch.