President Bush's recent State of the Union address has awakened environmental activists such as they haven't been for some time. They are concerned not by what he said but by the lack of public reaction to what he did not say.

He spoke of the nation's problems and the dangers it faces, particularly in regard to national security, but he gave no indication that he recognizes the dangers of global warming that threaten not just this nation but the lives of all living things on the face of the Earth.

Surely it has been brought to his attention that scientists are increasingly alarmed over the rapidity with which the environment worldwide is being poisoned by the refuse of human endeavor. Climate change and the extinction of species are the focus of their deep concern, and they warn that there is no time to spare if we are to save planet Earth. Some say that unless we begin a major effort by the end of this century, further efforts will be too late.

However, it is not just Bush's failure to express any interest in this crisis that bothers the environmentalists; it is the fact that the news media has made little of the omission and there was no indication that the public in any way was aroused by it.

Now it could be, of course, that the environmentally conscious public simply did not expect more from President Bush than it got in his message. Perhaps there simply was no space for more despair in their reaction.

It must be noted that not only is the Republican leadership not indicating any recognition of the crisis, but the issue has not gotten much attention from the candidates in the Democratic primary race.

Now, concerned environmentalists have been dealt another blow, as Ralph Nader made his announcement that he would again run for president, this time as an independent. Nader decades ago was an early and valiant leader in the environmental battle, but as he tried to explain his ill-conceived candidacy to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, he gave the environment a mere passing reference in his list of the nation's problems.

The environmental issue might well gain importance in the general-election campaign. Judging from the Democratic candidates' brief statements during the primaries, it seems likely that the Democratic victor will at least promise to tackle the deterioration of the world's environment with the same priority, the same urgency that the scientists believe is necessary if humankind is to be saved from the destruction that they predict is imminent -- imminent, that is, in geologic time, perhaps a few centuries, more or less.

And this is one of the problems -- this geologic time frame. Most of us humans have difficulty focusing on what we might be doing a decade hence, let alone a century away when we don't expect to be around anyway. The disappearance of a few species of insects or tumbleweeds hardly excites us, although to scientists they are more benchmarks of our deteriorating environment.

This slow death of our environment is a constant, ongoing threat. Every second of every minute of every day, our Earth is literally wearing out because of our mistreatment of it. Most of the more popular news media report on this piecemeal deterioration only when the environment suffers a dramatic blow -- a major oil spill, for instance, or when a dense smog threatens the health of an entire region.

The politicians seeking office, including the president seeking re-election, are unlikely to give the environment the attention it deserves unless the people demand it. And the people aren't going to demand it unless somebody brings the problem, and particularly its urgency, to their attention.

The media has a responsibility on its shoulders whose importance cannot be exaggerated: to give the story of our deteriorating environment the attention it needs in order to alert the population to action. That action would demand that governments -- city, state and national -- generate and enforce the laws that can at least begin the immense job of cleaning up our lands, our seas and our air so that living things, including humans, shall not perish from the Earth.

© 2004 Walter Cronkite

Distributed by King Features Syndicate