Editorial: Putting Environment Last

NEARLY TWO YEARS INTO BILL CLINTON'S TERM, and with "environmental extremist" Al Gore at his side, it is time for environmentalists to assess the Clinton administration.

The Clinton administration's policies have weakened the already minimal restraints on environmentally destructive corporate behavior, giving corporations an even longer leash to strip the lands, pollute the air and water and poison the citizenry. As Peter Montague of the Environmental Research Foundation noted, "Clinton has shown himself willing to sell out the American public on essentially every important environmental issue, whenever corporate executives tell him to."

 Many of the administration's policy decisions will undermine the ability of citizens and government agencies alike to control corporate polluters.

The administration has displayed a penchant for compromises that elevate mercantile interests over environmental values.

There is very little on the positive side to counterbalance Clinton's sell-out on the environment. Even where the administration has backed pro-environment positions, it has failed to support them with enough vigor to shepherd legislative proposals through Congress in the face of an emboldened business community. A case in point is the administration's failed effort to overturn the Mining Act of 1872, which lets mining companies stake claims to federal lands for $5.00 an acre or less, pay no royalties on the riches they excavate and decimate environmentally sensitive areas.

While many have characterized the administration's policies as incoherent, there is a consistent thread that links Clinton's environmental agenda: The corporate agenda is paramount. Since his election, Clinton has yet to show any commitment to leveling a playing field on which corporations dominate citizens.

Leaders of the Big 15 environmental groups, in an unprecedented urgent appeal issued in July to their members, acknowledged that "even during the Reagan/Watt/Gorsuch years, we have never faced such a serious threat to our environmental laws in Congress." Having a Democrat in the White House has not blunted the corporate assault on environmental policymaking.

While the Big 15 letter outlined three chief threats that the administration has not addressed - risk analysis, unfunded federal mandates and the so-called "takings" movement that claims environmental laws unconstitutionally acquire private property - the letter conveniently ignored the corporate interests that advance these environmental threats.

 It is time for the mainstream environmental movement to recognize that it is significantly responsible for the desperate straits in which it finds itself. After the Clinton election, protest and resistance strategies were traded for political access. Leaders of environmental groups huddled with Clinton officials behind closed doors as business groups mobilized their forces in the public arena. The de- mobilization of the national environmental groups set the stage for corporate polluters to ascend.

The Big 15 letter drew a rapid response from 173 citizens. These people, who included "trade union, religious and electoral activists, as well as survivors of industrial disasters and shareholder rights advocates," acknowledged the Big 15's assertion that "we have never faced such a serious threat to our environmental laws in Congress," and noted that the Big 15 have "not identified those subverting Congress as our real adversaries in the struggle to save our communities and the natural world: the leaders of today's giant corporations, and the powerful corporations they direct."

 The citizens asked leaders of the Big 15 to meet with them to discuss ways to confront the corporate threat to the environment. Thus far, only one - the Wilderness Society - has expressed a willingness to do so.

 Given Clinton's dismal track record, and the fact that the new Congress is likely to be significantly more conservative than the current one, the current strategies of mainstream environmental groups are unlikely to win genuine environmental victories at the national legislative level in the next few years. Environmental groups should join those fighting the battles at the grassroots and work to support them by addressing the problems of corporate power and corporate greed - issues that Clinton and Congress would rather ignore.