November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

California Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp felt edgy as he walked into the Sierra Club library in Los Angeles last month. True, Van de Kamp, a passionate environmentalist, was entering friendly territory, surrounded as he was by playing toddlers, shelves of John Muir and Edward Abbey titles and pictures of Yosemite National Park. And there was no question about where his audience stood regarding Big Green, the sprawling environmental initiative Van de Kamp helped originate last summer. His unease stemmed from the fact that the ballot measure, which once seemed as formidable as a giant sequoia, was suddenly on shaky ground, and Van de Kamp’s audience was frustrated by the lack of leadership in the Big Green camp. “Where are the big environmental groups?” griped Carla Howard, a documentary-film producer who helped organize a Big Green concert. “I’d like to see some heavy hitters behind us so this isn’t just perceived as some flakeball California initiative.” Van de Kamp could only nod in agreement. “We have to do a better job,” he conceded.

The test will come next Tuesday, when California voters decide the fate of the most far-reaching environmental referendum ever put before the American people. Two weeks before Election Day, polls indicated that Big Green’s supporters still outnumbered its opponents, but voters were voicing concerns about its economic repercussions. If Proposition 128, also known as the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, passes, Californians will impose stringent new controls on government, agriculture and industry. The complex 39-page, 16,000-word initiative calls for the ban of at least 19 carcinogen-containing pesticides, a 20 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2000 (40 percent by 2010), curtailment of offshore oil drilling and private clear-cutting of timber and the creation of a state-elected Environmental Advocate who would have power to override the Governor and legislature in enforcing environmental laws.

How Big Green would affect the lives of ordinary citizens is being hotly debated. Opponents claim that the cost of gasoline would skyrocket, food prices would rise 30 percent and car air conditioners would become unavailable. In addition, they say, produce, formerly treated by banned pesticides, would be harder to find and afford. Counters Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been active in the Big Green cause, in a TV commercial: “We banned Alar on our apples…. The chemical companies told us to expect shriveled apples at higher prices. In fact, the only thing that shriveled were the chemical companies’ profits.”

With stakes so high, both sides have done their utmost to woo voters. Proponents of Big Green have called heavily on Hollywood. Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Madonna and Spike Lee have all contributed to the cause. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, Chevy Chase and other stars appeared in a half-hour TV commercial supporting Big Green. “I want my son to dive into a clean ocean without thinking of toxic waste,” says director Oliver Stone, “to see the San Gabriel mountains more than once a year, to walk in the woods, not on a parched landscape, and to bite into an apple without worrying about cancer-today and 50 years from now. Is that asking too much?”

Maybe not, but according to opponents of Big Green, the current asking price is too high. Their coalition—pesticide manufacturers, chemical companies, foresters, farmers, power companies and oil interests—reportedly raised a $16 million war chest to fight the measure. “They’re making billions of dollars in profit,” Cybill Shepherd has said. “They say we can’t afford to clean up California. Well, look around. Because we can’t afford not to.”

As fast as pro-Big Green celebrities speak out, opponents attempt to discredit them. “It’s amazing that the promoters of Proposition 128 believe the California voter is so ignorant as to accept expertise about scientific and food safety from the Hollywood community,” says Don Schrack, a political consultant hired by the opponents who call themselves No on 128. To emphasize the point, No on 128 forces have enlisted former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. “I’ve spent my whole life admonishing Americans to do things to protect and enhance their health.” Koop says. “I’m not convinced that Proposition 128 will do anything to protect Californians’ health.”

No on 128 originally designed its radio and TV campaign to focus on the man conservative Californians love to hate, Tom Hayden, co-sponsor of the initiative. Says Hayden: “They used to call it the Van de Kamp-Hayden Initiative, but after John lost the Democratic primary [to Dianne Feinstein], they deleted him.”

In fact it was Van de Kamp who dreamed up the idea for the initiative after numerous environmental bills stalled in the State Assembly. Van de Kamp, who grew up camping in the Sierra Nevada mountains, enlisted Hayden’s help, as well as the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and Pesticide Watch. Together they gathered about 800,000 signatures last summer, putting the initiative on the ballot.

One immediate result was a flurry of confusing counterinitiatives. One group, calling itself Californians for Responsible Food Laws (CAREFUL)—but backed by agriculture interests—has introduced its own weaker Proposition 135, which environmentalists are calling Big Brown. Another group, the Timber Association of California, is sponsoring a watered-down proposition (138), derisively known as Big Stump. Singer Bonnie Raitt dismisses the whole lot of them as “Big Fraud.”

Realistically, Big Green’s biggest hurdle may come not from organized opposition but from voters’ fears about its costs in a faltering economy. The nonpartisan California Chief Legislative Analyst’s office estimates that the initiative’s direct costs to state and local government may add up to $90 million a year. “People don’t think about what alternatives have to be used,” says Dr. Katy Wolf, a toxicologist and ozone-depletion expert. “They just want to get rid of the things they believe to be evil. I’ve become persuaded that [Big Green proponents] are a bunch of elitists who don’t know anything about the real world.”

Historically, Americans have perceived California to be on the cutting edge of political and popular trends. “If we lose, it will look as if the environmental movement has been unable to translate the energy and enthusiasm of Earth Day into the reality of politics in California,” warns Bob Hattoy, regional director of the Sierra Club. Jane Fonda, Hayden’s ex-wife but co-campaigner, put it differently in a TV spot: “We’re Californians,” she says. “We’re the most health-conscious people in the world. We work out, we jog and we swim. We play tennis. We eat sensibly. We watch our cholesterol. We don’t smoke as much. When you think about it, it’s kind of ironic. Because if you can’t breathe the air or swim in the ocean, if you can’t eat the food or drink the water, what are we fit for?”

—Susan Reed, Lorenzo Benet and John Hannah in Los Angeles

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