The s The Pendulum Swings

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Just as the protests of the 1960s gave way to a more orderly environmental agenda in the 1970s, this agenda took a decidedly different turn in the 1980s. The decade opened with Congress introducing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), known as

Greenpeace members handcuffed together and sitting on steel drums similar to toxic waste drums outside of the Mexican Office of Environmental Protection, calling attention to the toxic waste disposal facility at Guadalcazar, San Luis Potosi, owned by the U.S. company Metalclad Corporation, Mexico City, Mexico, July 19, 1995. (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.)

Greenpeace members handcuffed together and sitting on steel drums similar to toxic waste drums outside of the Mexican Office of Environmental Protection, calling attention to the toxic waste disposal facility at Guadalcazar, San Luis Potosi, owned by the U.S. company Metalclad Corporation, Mexico City, Mexico, July 19, 1995. (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.)

Julia Hill Redwood
Julia "Butterfly" Hill examining damage done to an ancient redwood, called Luna by activists, from a chainsaw. Supports were bolted into the tree. (Shaun Walker/ OtterMedia.com. Reproduced by permission.)

Superfund. This law created a tax on industries that would be dedicated to cleaning up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances in the environment. Over the next five years CERCLA brought in some $1.6 billion for this purpose, creating a trust fund to deal with abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

This kind of genuine environmental progress, resulting in well-defined, well-enforced, and well-funded rules, had stemmed from a combination of grassroots activism and political pressure. Individuals were encouraged to "think globally, act locally" (i.e., interpret a general environment topic through actions they could take immediately, such as tackling water pollution by lobbying factory owners to clean up industrial runoff that was being dumped into a nearby river). At the same time, political leaders were eager to take action to address the dire warnings of pessimistic groups such as the Club of Rome. Harsh pollution rules, for example, often raised the operating costs and lowered the profits of the industries that were doing the polluting. Many politicians were taking a long-term view of the environment, but it was costing them political support in the short term.

In 1980 much of that support disappeared. In the wake of economic recessions throughout much of the 1970s, voters mounted a conservative backlash. Led by President Ronald Reagan, political figures stated bluntly that too much attention had been paid to environmental matters that affected few people at any time, while too little attention was being paid to economic problems that affected far more people on a day-to-day basis. The environment would not necessarily be ignored, but the needs of industry would be given much more weight. Little environmental legislation moved forward during Reagan's definitive eight-year term, and a great deal of existing legislation was weakened or set aside.

Grassroots support fared little better, as the focus in many communities became ever narrower. Where people were formerly being asked to reject water pollution in principle, local protests were increasingly premised exclusively on what was happening locally. Known as the "not in my backyard syndrome," these actions might keep a polluting industry out of a particular region that could organize opposition to it, but they did not muster the broader political will to keep that industry from polluting anywhere at all. This fragmentation of protest ensured that environmental legislation would not move forward.

Moreover, environmental science—which had given the initial push to the entire movement—was becoming bogged down in controversy. Qualified experts began sparring publicly with the pessimistic conclusions of the Club of Rome. These opponents maintained that the carrying capacity of our planet is much greater than The Limits to Growth suggested. And, they added, our own capacity for technological innovation is even more profound. Even were we to "run out" of some key resource, we are inventive enough to find a way around this shortcoming. As for the damage we are inflicting on the earth's ecology, some researchers began to compare it with the damage done by the earth itself. These investigations noted that a natural phenomenon like a volcano emits far more air pollution than any number of smokestacks, and that subtle climatic changes could alter water temperature enough to kill off far more aquatic species than any industrial waste.

Even a decade-long $600 million study of acid rain, which drew on the work of some 2,000 scientists, proved to be inconclusive. The physical process appeared to be simple enough: human activities were emitting large amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere, which subsequently came down in highly acidic raindrops, which in turn led to the acidification of lakes and rivers. Yet the research incorporated a great deal of competing evidence to show that these bodies of water often went acidic without any human influence, and had been doing so for thousands of years. When the final report was presented in 1990, its conclusions were objective but so thorough and multifaceted that they failed to form the basis for any concrete action on the problem.

Other major environmental matters met the same fate in public forums. Scientists wrangled over the meaning of huge "holes" that had been discovered in some parts of the earth's atmosphere. The holes were defined by the absence of ozone—airborne oxygen molecules that normally screen out harsh radiation from space. Some observers linked the holes with the use of chemicals that were being used in refrigeration and spray-can technology. Others countered that the holes came and went at random, implying that they were merely natural occurrences that we had finally discovered. The chemicals were eventually banned, but there is still no firm consensus on ozone holes. In contrast, a similar scientific controversy over global warming emerged in the 1990s. While doubters continued to be heard, enough of a consensus was established to draft an agenda for concerted international action that was enacted in several nations.

Such muddles, combined with the conservative tenor of the times, vexed environmental activists. They wanted their issues back on the public agenda, even if truly radical action were required.

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