What explains the many setbacks for the environmental movement in last week's election?After all, the results were these: Big Green and Forests Forever failed in California. (California ballot initiatives acquire names because almost as much money is spent on them as on the human candidates.) Oregon, pioneer among the states in much environmental legislation, defeated a recycling initiative that would have sparked a revolution in packaging design. Washington turned down a land-use planning provision similar to Oregon's popular 20-year-old law. Missouri's stream protection initiative went down. So did a $2 billion environmental bond proposal in New York. Only two initiatives, both involving lottery revenues, survived the trend.

Oddly, given all this, Democratic and Republican pollsters agree that the returns do not reflect a lessening of support for the environment. Fred Steeper, an associate of President Bush's pollster Robert Teeter, says categorically, "I see no evidence of any decline whatsoever." And the Roper poll reports that when voters are asked to name the issues that would matter most in deciding whom to vote for, environment -- though not among the top priorities -- registered the largest increase between 1988 and 1990.

I have a few ideas to account for the discrepancy. First, of course, is voters' natural reluctance to spend money with a recession looming. In part, also, the defeats reflect the difficulty of passing a ballot initiative on any subject. Ordinarily, the burden of proof rests so heavily on the Yes vote that three-fourths of all propositions fail.

This year, Californians went further. According to Mark DiCamillo of California's respected Field Poll, the No vote on ballot propositions was 10 to 15 points higher than preelection polls had indicated. Considering that the state's handbook explaining the ballot reached 142 pages, so that the conscientious voter faced a task uncomfortably reminiscent of a college entrance exam, the reaction is not surprising. The ballot was also riddled with counter-initiatives. By confusing voters as to which forest proposition, for example, was written by environmentalists and which by the timber industry, counter-initiatives turned positive votes into negatives.

Asked to draw lessons from the defeat of the recycling initiative, Andrew Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council adds some key points. "Environmentalists," he says, "have to get richer and smarter." Richer, because trying to do something new (as opposed to trying to stop something), requires far greater resources than they can command. Whether or not trying to raise so much money is a sensible future strategy, there is no doubt that the huge disparity in campaign funds this year was as big a factor in defeating environmental initiatives as it was in reelecting congressional incumbents. The opposition to Big Green, to cite the extreme case, spent a staggering $16.5 million -- about what each candidate spent in the hotly contested gubernatorial race in the nation's largest state. The sum was about four times what proponents raised.

As for smarter, the clear lesson is, next time, keep it simple. Big Green dealt with agriculture, timber, air pollution, global warming and offshore drilling in one impenetrable 16,000-word mass. The New York bond issue touched half a dozen issues. The recycling initiative was much more focused but almost as complex. All of them overreached. The reason Big Green was defeated, says DiCamillo, "was not the Green, it was the Big."

Moreover, Big Green's authors ignored the basic rule of diplomacy, which warns that when you pick your issues, you pick your enemies. By uniting so many well-funded industries against a single measure, they sealed its fate. Add to that the Tom Hayden-Jane Fonda factor, and it's surprising that the proposition ended up with as many votes as it did.

The environmental message from the candidate races is also hard to discern. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was reelected after garnering Environmental Action's first lifetime achievement award for longest residence among the Dirty Dozen. But in Minnesota Paul Wellstone (D) harped on environmental issues in his upset of Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R), as did Harry Lonsdale in Oregon, giving Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) the scare of his political life. Most significant, in the House races, among the tiny band of 15 incumbents who were defeated, five were top environmental targets, all of them with League of Conservation Voter ratings near the bottom of the barrel.

In California preelection polls, one in three voters described themselves as a "strong environmentalist." This does not mean that they are in fact what a Sierra Club member would recognize as an environmentalist, but that environmental protection has become such a universally accepted goal, like education or civil rights, that it has acquired what pollsters call the halo effect. This represents no small change in American society in a decade or two.

But as advocates of educational reform or civil rights know, such support does not translate into political victories. It is easy to overstep its bounds, as environmentalists did with several of the initiatives on this year's ballots.

On the other hand, a poor environmental record has become a severe campaign liability; judging from the House races, perhaps one of the most serious drawbacks a candidate can carry. That, too, is no small thing. It is, however, a long way from giving politicians a decisive political reason for exercising environmental leadership.