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If any doubts lingered that the environment was going to be the cause celebre of the 1990s, the ongoing Earth Day celebrations should have put them to rest by now.
Worldwide demonstrations, blanket media coverage and a variety of corporate sponsors all marked the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day.
But all the glitz symbolized what has become a quiet revolution in Americans' consciousness. The environment has risen to the top of many peoples' political agendas--and its influence is increasing.
"Public interest has skyrocketed in recent years," says Robert A. Stavins, an environmental expert at the Kennedy School of Government. "A substantial number of Americans now list the environment as their number-one concern, whereas before it would be second or third or even further down the list."
But problems of ozone depletion, toxic pollution, climatic warming and mass extinction of species--the areas Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has identified as the "four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse" --have existed for many years. It is only recently that they have come to play such a major part in American political and social landscapes.
The sweeping phenomenon can be attributed to a combination of factors, experts say, including a string of highly publicized environmental disasters, an expansion in the amount and quality of hard evidence on environmental problems and a transformation of the international political climate.
"We are entering a new phase of environmental studies and activism," Wilson says. "Conservation is more linked to economic development than opposed to it, focused on biological diversity rather than just individual star species such as the panda and the bald eagle and tilted southward to put increasing emphasis on tropical countries, where by far the most severe environmental problems exist."
According to Wilson, the growth of scientific knowledge has been the major catalyst of the recent explosion in the environmental movement.
"We know the rate at which carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere; we know there is a hole in the ozone layer; we know the rainforests are disappearing; and we know what the consequences are," says Wilson, adding that the days when the environmental movement was fueled by a spiritual devotion to "wholism" are over.
"Its thrust," Wilson says, "has become less ideological and more pragmatic, more scientific and less New Age."
The increasingly rigorous scientific grounding has in turn altered the political context of the debate, blurring the battle lines between liberals and conservatives over environmental policy, Wilson says.
"Two years ago,...environmental issues were regarded as threats of ideological conflict, where champions of Nature battled champions of Progress," says Wilson. "Liberals... blocked dams to save oddly named small fish, while conservatives destroyed the environment for short-term profits."
Today he notes, these stereotypes are disappearing.
"You cannot have real economic progress without careful environmental planning, nor can you have an effective environmental movement without economic stability," Wilson says.
High-profile ecological catastrophes over the past few years provided tangible evidence of the global problem and gave impetus to the growing political movement.
"The news media," says Stavins, "is event-driven, not subject driven. [Catastrophes are] not what makes environmentalists care about these issues, but it is what makes the average American care about them."
Stavins points to three important incidents responsible for the current explosion of environmental consciousness.
In the summer of 1988, untreated human waste and used medical syringes washed up on beaches across the Eastern seaboard.
That same summer, record sizzling temperatures set off warning calls about a coming crisis in global warming.
"Rightly or wrongly, that was portrayed by the news media as tied into the greenhouse effect," Stavins says. When NASA scientist James Hanson testified before Congress in June, 1988, that the ecological phenomenon was at the root of the hot weather, the issue of global warming burst into the mainstream media.
Lastly, the recent Exxon Valdez oil spill spurned concern about the pollution of the oceans and the threat to marine wildlife, as well as drawing attention to the underside of industrial expansion.
"The dramatic nature of the photographs [from the Valdez spill] has had a profound effect on the perceptions of the American public about the severity of environmental issues," Stavins says.
Search for a New Issue
All this happened at a time when the American public was searching for a new cause around which to orient its political views. The end of the Cold War has left a gap in American political life that many think now is being filled by environmental activism.
"One of the things that has spurned this on," says Robert M. Gogan, head of the student environmentalist group at the School of Education, "is the seeming thaw of the Cold War. People ask `so what's left as the big issue?" Many of them, Gogan adds, have concluded that it is saving the planet from ecological collapse.
"We operate in a crisis mentality. U.S. culture seems to be `let's wait until it's really bad and then make a big fanfare of it and give it a lot of attention,'" says Gogan.
And just as Cold War consciousness told Americans that they were responsible for fighting the spread of communism around the world, the ever-strengthening environmental movement calls on them to stop ecological destruction beyond the shores of the United States.
"It would have been unheard of 20 years ago for people [in America] to be concerned about the Amazon River Basin," says Wilson, "Now, it regularly makes the cover of Newsweek and Time magazine."
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