"Now, If I Ruled the World." (Environmental Protection)

Article excerpt

You have absolute power--now tell us what you'd do to ensure our planet's survival for the next 100 years. That's the proposal we put before an array of activists, writers, policymakers, and politicians; a selection of their responses follows. As we expected, not everyone played by our rules, and you will find here scenarios of an ideal world as well as nuts-and-bolts prescriptions for how to attain it. Nevertheless, amid all the suggestions, expansive and humble, wise and otherwise, are the seeds of hope for a livable 21st century.

WALLACE STEGNER is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety, and The American West as Living Space. He served as a Sierra Club director from 1964 to 1966, and was presented with the Sierra Club's John Muir Award in 1982.

I am sorry to tell you that I cannot accept your invitation to be environmental dictator of the world. I fear any dictator, even an environmental one, and even when the dictator is myself. The health of the planet's land, air, and water depends on the development of an environmental conscience in a majority of people, and I doubt that a conscience is ever created by decree.

But if the job of Environmental President of the United States is open, and I see no evidence that it is not, then I would accept appointment to that post. It could be temporary: The essential requirements of the job could be demonstrated within weeks or months by a few policy decisions, reversals of direction, and strategic appointments.

The policy decisions would have to be real ones, not the public-relations capers we have grown used to. When a Clean Air Act is in the works, we won't attempt to stall it with more "studies." When international groups meet to deal with global warming, or pollution of the oceans, or a long-term policy for Antarctica, we will be out in front, setting an example, not dragging our heels and coming aboard, if at all, as the last reluctant, unconvinced member. When some scheme to exploit some resource in the public domain comes up, we will say, "If it comes at the expense of the health, the sustainable health, of the environment, we don't want it."

Sooner or later, with or without an Environmental President, the United States will have to phase out chlorofluorocarbons and reduce automobile emissions and close down polluting smokestack industries. I will, as president, encourage every move in that direction, and not let a public-speaking or photo opportunity go by without a specific lesson. But I will not break my neck trying to get it all done overnight.

Other things I will be more prompt about: I will urge Congress to declare the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a wilderness area, and if Congress won't, I will declare it a national monument under the Antiquities Act, so that our greatest remaining wildlife wilderness will not be destroyed for a week or two of oil. I will lean on Congress to repeal the outdated 1872 Mining Law.

I will appoint a Secretary of the Interior who believes that the earth is, in Aldo Leopold's words, a community to which we belong, not a commodity it is our privilege to exploit. That will mean subordinate appointments in the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management that will ensure enforcement of existing protective laws and the imposition of adequate fees for grazing (the present $1.35 per animal-unit-month is about a fifth of what graziers must pay for privately held land). And if cattlemen in the West can't make a living without all the federal subsidies that they have enjoyed for decades, that may be the market economy telling us that cattle are not a viable industry in that erodible and fragile and depleted region.

I will appoint a Secretary of Agriculture who understands the need to reduce our dependence on poisons and who knows that a forest is not just a bunch of trees, who can think in terms larger than board-feet and getting out the cut. …