Time for a New Environmentalism

By Sampson, Neil | American Forests, January-February 1989 | Go to article overview

Time for a New Environmentalism


Sampson, Neil, American Forests


We need a new environmentalism in the 1990s, different in some ways from the environmentalism of the 1970s. Rather than concentrating on pollution cleanup, it needs to focus more on waste and pollution prevention. There's a lesson to be learned in the leaking toxic dumps, bulging nuclear waste storage areas, and dirty air. The lesson is this: when toxic materials are released into the environment they can be very expensive, if not impossible, to remove. Wastes must be recycled into resources where possible. The notion of "use-it-once-and-throw-it-away" has run its course.

In the area of land conservation, more attention needs to be focused on the productivity and sustainability of ecosystems, both natural and managed, and on production activities that depend on a productive natural resource base, such as fishing, agriculture, and forestry. In the 1970s, conservation efforts concentrated on protecting environmentally sensitive and special areas. We set aside parks, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, wildlife preserves, and national monuments. That agenda is probably never finished, but most of the crown jewels" have been identified, and many have been protected.

We must beware, however, of using land preservation as an "environmental icon." We can't point to a few preserves and brag about our stewardship if we are still abusing or destroying croplands or forests through exploitive use or unwise management. Preserving special areas is important, but keeping farm and forest lands productive for generations is imperative.

There won't be many easy choices ahead. Air pollution is damaging human health, crops, forests, water systems, even artwork and buildings. But when we look for culprits, we find the power plants, factories, and automobiles that are an essential part of everyday life.

Water pollution affects the drinking water of millions, and one source of trouble may be the farm and forest technologies that produce the food and fiber we depend upon. Much of the problem with water is, in fact, a problem with watersheds and watershed management. It is what we do on the land that determines, in large measure, what happens to the water.

We are warned about the possibility of global climate changes fueled by industrial pollution, excessive fossil fuel use, and massive deforestation. When we examine the possible consequences of letting these processes continue to drive temperatures and sea levels higher, we are appalled at the potential for human and environmental tragedy. But when we confront the basic changes required on a global scale to begin to reverse this trend, we are struck by the immensity of the task, and the difficulty of getting so many diverse nations and peoples to agree upon and work toward a common goal. …

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