Like most of you, I'm thrilled to see Newsweek report that environmentalism is on the ascendancy in America.

But I can't help recalling a comment made years ago by Jacques Cousteau to the effect that Americans' embrace of the easy task of recycling would actually undermine what was harder and really required, as he saw it a dramatic politicization of the environmental issue that would cause Americans to get outraged, demand environmentally sound policies from their elected officials, and hold them accountable if they didn't deliver.

Here we are about twenty years after that comment, and too often we find ourselves still fighting rear-guard assaults on too many issues like Congressman Pombo's dismantling of the Endangered Species Act or the perennial attack on the Arctic Refuge, while other forward-looking policies like appropriate pricing of energy use or serious auto efficiency standards are considered “too hot” to even get a decent hearing.

Sure, Americans “worry” about the environment, as polls consistently tell us, but they almost never cite the environment as an issue they would go to bat for in the voting booth. In fact, “the environment” has a bad rap among politicians as a “non-lever” (as in voting booth) issue. In other words, one they can ignore whenever necessary to satisfy special interests.

My question to Carl Pope of the Sierra Club and Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense, both quoted in the Newsweek coverage: After many decades of environmental proselytizing, isn't there still a disturbing gap between the claimed “environmental consciousness” of Americans and their will to back it up politically? And what can we do to close that gap? Or am I just being an overly pessimistic grump head?

(Disclosure: Author is a consultant to Environmental Defense and accepts his share of responsibility for the gap.)

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