Much of Russell Peterson's career has been built on the proposition that citizen activism counts. Mr. Peterson, president emeritus of the National Audubon Society and one of the deans of the American environmental movement, remembers his early efforts of 20 years ago to organize people to back a coastal zone protection bill in Delaware. ``Every big interest fought us,'' he says. ``It was a knockdown, drag-out battle, and without citizen support we couldn't have had a chance.''
That was a battle he pursued into the political arena: He was elected governor of Delaware in 1969 and served until 1973. The coastal-zone law passed, but there have been repeated efforts to ``undo'' it, he says. Each time, he adds with a grim smile, citizens ``have rallied to block them.''
In such matters ``you can never win permanently,'' observes this square-jawed, sparkly-eyed man. ``Eternal vigilance'' is the need, he intones.
Currently, Peterson is a visiting professor of environmental studies here at Dartmouth College. The course he's teaching is titled ``Prospects for the Global Environment.'' It deals with the international issues -- nuclear war, population growth, energy use -- which have become his major concerns in recent years.
Peterson has helped weld together such groups as the Global Tomorrow Coalition and the Better World Society, groups designed to apply grass-roots activism to the world scene.
He has some notable allies in this effort -- broadcasting magnate Ted Turner, for instance, who is chairman of the Better World Society and has thrown his financial might behind it. But Peterson is quick to admit that it's much more difficult to generate public support for drives to curtail nuclear weaponry than for efforts to clean up local water supplies.
The Global Tomorrow Coalition ``peaked at 14,000 members,'' he says. Most people are simply ``not willing to put out $25 a year to join a group dealing with global issues.''
Peterson calls this ``a myopia that bothers all of us.'' The purpose of his class at Dartmouth, as well as his work in forming citizens' organizations with global objectives, is to combat short-sightedness. The leaders of industry ``focus on making a buck this year,'' he says. And politicians? ``Their time horizon changes as election day approaches.''