Do you believe environmentalists?
Please, be honest. There's no unacceptable answer. It's a simple question. Do you believe what environmentalists say?
Do you believe environmentalists when they predict disaster if we don't do as they wish?
How much do you trust their word? To your mind, how do environmentalists rank on credibility with teachers, clergymen, doctors, policemen, realtors or even columnists for alternative newspapers?
I am not implying any kind of answer. I'm just asking. This isn't a Bush press conference where only the "right" questions can be asked.
Frankly, I am afraid of what your answers might be. That's precisely why I'm asking. Something is happening out there among the American public that is not good for the environment, and it concerns attitudes towards environmentalists.
Compare the state of the environmental movement today to the first Earth Day. This is an appropriate time to take stock. Earth Day's founder, former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, passed away this month. The Reuters story on Gaylord's death said the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, "attracted an estimated 20 million people. Tens of thousands of people filled New York's Fifth Avenue. Congress adjourned so members could speak across the nation, and at least 2,000 colleges marked the occasion."
I like the cozy and colorful Earth Day observance behind La Montanita Co-op. As far as I know, that's it locally for the anniversary of the mass birth of environmentalism. And instead of adjourning to join festivities, Congress has been looking for ways to unravel the landmark legislation won with the momentum of that first Earth Day 35 years ago.
On one hand, support for environmental protection remains strong, though people don't demonstrate it at the ballot box. The environment was barely an issue in the 2004 presidential election, despite Big Green labeling Bush the worst environmental president of the last 100 years. Some troubling numbers have been creeping up, like the percentage of people willing to accept pollution if it means profit and jobs. But, thankfully, Americans have retained the common sense that their children need clean air and water, safe food and open spaces.
The trend of opinion about environmentalists, however, deserves attention. From highs above 70 percent around 1970, the number of Americans labeling themselves environmentalists has dropped to 44 percent, according to a 2004 Yale University poll. Those numbers may be overstated, because they include the 44 percent of gas guzzling, pollution-emitting SUV owners who insist they are environmentally conscious.
Really troubling are the numbers on the image of environmentalists. A poll by the market research firm Environics showed that 41 percent believe "most of the people involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable." Closer to home, a poll conducted in New Mexico for the Natural Resources Defense Council showed environmentalists enjoy no more credibility on statements concerning the environment than utility companies.
Being perceived as no more trustworthy than the folks running coal-fired power plants cannot be good news for environmentalists.
The environment doesn't need this. Even though they may disappoint us sometimes, and drive us nuts more frequently than that, the Thin Green Line is the only thing between us and alternatives that look and smell like the Houston ship channel.
There's no ignoring the fact that the confluence of American rightwing politics and its financial support from polluting industries has been hammering environmentalists for years. Lamentably, environmentalists have helped make the attacks stick.
Little New Mexico has contributed more than its proportionate share to this problem. Our state was the crucible for EarthFirst!, a group that preached and practiced destruction of private property in defense of "Mother Earth." EarthFirst! was to the environmental movement what the Weathermen were to the anti-Vietnam war movement. (Coincidentally, the cofounders of both groups reside in Albuquerque.) Just as the Weathermen strengthened Nixon and did not stop the war, EarthFirst! created an easy diversionary target, accomplished nothing, and poisoned the image of all environmentalists. It inspired even worse groups like Earth Liberation Front. Further, EarthFirsters currently occupy positions of authority with the Forest Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
Then there's that hype about arsenic in our drinking water. The entire population of New Mexico should be dead or dying according to many enviros. Though we're doing just fine, we're supposed to believe the same groups about airborne mercury or the impending collapse of the global ecosystem if little critters we've never heard of check out. With enviros' track record, we may not believe them this time, even if they're right.
You don't have to look hard to find enviros shooting themselves between the toes with large caliber hyperbole. They might do better recognizing that extremism and exaggeration are toxic forms of pollution. And everyone knows pollution is harmful to the environment. Fighting all forms of pollution would be a good start on returning environmentalism to the broad, enthusiastic appeal it enjoyed at its beginning.