A Sustainable World

From the Foundation's 1995 Annual Report

In 1995 the American public reaffirmed its commitment to environmental values. What began as a year in which more than two decades of environmental progress seemed in jeopardy, ended with acknowledgments from across the political spectrum that environment matters. This renewal, informed by scientific findings and emboldened by public support, is in turn reinvigorating America’s national commitment to environmental protection.

The principal challenges came from a Congress convinced that dismantling government regulation and bureaucracy was part of a mandate it had received at the polls. As the year unfolded, however, ongoing analyses of public opinion revealed that even if voters had demanded less government intrusion and lowered government expenditures, they emphatically did not want to sacrifice hard-won environmental protections that America had gained since the first Earth Day in 1970. They desired less regulation but not less effective environmental protection; they wanted leaner government but not at the expense of clean air and clean water.

This public sentiment emerged throughout the year, stimulated perhaps by growing recognition of the potential impacts of congressional action. Quiescent at first but intensifying as the year progressed, public concern was confirmed by political research conducted by both Democrats and Republicans as well as by nonpartisan observers. Dramatic results appeared late in the year when internal research by Republican strategists revealed that even Republican voters did not trust their own party on environmental matters.

To varying degrees, our political leaders responded. The most telling shift occurred with the growth of a coalition of moderate Republicans, whose own environmental commitments were strong. Their willingness to challenge their own party leadership proved decisive in slowing, redirecting or stopping actions that would have reversed decades of bipartisan efforts on behalf of environmental protection.

The breadth of public support for environmental protection should not have been surprising. According to anthropologists Willett Kempton, James Boster and Jennifer Hartley in their book Environmental Values in American Culture, "Americans have become significantly more proenvironmental since the sixties, and especially since 1980; their environmentalism goes deeper than just opinion or attitude to core values and fundamental beliefs about the world; and their environmentalism affects market and voting behavior." 1 Kempton et al. cite polls conducted over two decades by the Roper Organization, in which Americans indicate growing acceptance of environmental regulation. When asked whether "environmental regulations have gone too far, or not far enough, or have struck the right balance," the percentage of those answering "not far enough" rose from 34 to 54 percent between 1972 and 1990.

Environmental degradation challenges Americans' sense of fairness. Its impacts disproportionately affect the disadvantaged. Inner city neighborhoods are unable to protect their children from lead poisoning. Poor communities fight corporations over toxic wastes. Rural farm families are seemingly forced to choose between greater risks to their health from pesticides or increased income from their crops. Logging towns in the Pacific Northwest ruin their watersheds and undermine their long-term economic viability to maintain short-term employment.

Nowhere is the challenge to fairness greater or more conspicuous than in its effects on children and generations to come. Contamination created by one generation creates exposures for the next, and erodes their future by posing threats to their well-being. Resources consumed in excess deprive future Americans of economic choices and, ultimately, of their prosperity.

These inequities clash directly with core American values. According to Kempton and his co-authors, Americans profess a sense of stewardship, of responsibility for the future. Children, those now living and those not yet born, are that future. As a people we acknowledge our obligation to make choices that anticipate the risks which our actions create for future generations, choices that protect their opportunities and rights while also fulfilling our needs.

The most difficult of these choices involve competing values—now vs. later, current wealth vs. future well-being, individual opportunity vs. community responsibility. The choices we make must balance our needs with an understanding and acceptance of environmental limits. Over the past three decades, environmental science has considered the global dimensions of human activities and revealed these to be far more threatening to future well-being than once imagined. Where, for generations, the global ecosystem and human biology alike seemed infinitely capable of absorbing the products and byproducts of human action, science now starkly shows this not to be the case. Human action has altered the stratosphere. Industrial chemicals are polluting watersheds and the global food chain. Habitat damage is pushing species to extinction. Contamination is threatening children’s health.

As this science has advanced and as public understanding of its import has developed, the balance struck in the midst of competing values has shifted also – toward more protection instead of less, toward stronger laws instead of weakened policies, toward new approaches that better balance conflicting needs. Some of these new approaches involve more refined applications of economic incentives to encourage environmental measures. Some entail new technologies, especially in energy production, that lessen environmental burdens. Still others involve new methods for product, process and building design that avoid serious environmental problems in the first place.

These trends offer hope that the anti-environmental excesses of 1995 will continue to recede, to fade, and that Americans’ commitment to environmental protection will become even more deeply embedded in the nation’s core values. As that happens, it will encourage choices that will nourish the present and nurture the global future.

1 Willett Kempton, James Boster, and Jennifer Hartley, Environmental Values in American Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995) 4.[Return]

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