The State of Environmentalism in the U.S. – Diagnosis: Neither dead nor rejuvenated

Gallup_2
by Riley E. Dunlap
Gallup Scholar for the Environment

The environmental movement in the United States appears to have
experienced hard times in recent years. It failed to get the United
States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol aimed at reducing global warming,
and has had little success in mounting an effective backlash against
what it regards as the anti-environmental policies of the current Bush
Administration. Indeed, in the post-9/11 era, it seems to some
observers that environmental issues have been pushed to the periphery
of the public agenda.

               
                  

One indicator of concern for the health of the environmental
movement within the movement itself is a 2004 report entitled "The
Death of Environmentalism" (available online from The Breakthrough
Institute), which received enormous visibility and generated a
tremendous amount of debate (see, e.g, the symposium published in American Prospect, October, 2005).

On
the other hand, according to a recent analysis of Gallup’s 2007
Environment Poll, overall public concern for environmental quality has
gradually increased since the onset of the post-9/11 era. (See
"Environmental Concern Holds Firm During Past Year" in Related Items.)
Furthermore, the recent attention given to global warming, stimulated
by Al Gore’s participation in the film "An Inconvenient Truth" and
recent reports from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, may be raising the salience of environmental issues
more generally. (See "Did Hollywood’s Glare Heat Up Pubic Concern About
Global Warming?" in Related Items.)

Perhaps more importantly, in
the absence of U.S. leadership in combating global warming,
environmentalists have successfully lobbied several state and local
governments to take action. And strikingly, a sector of evangelical
Christians has recently become active in combating global warming, and
promoting Christian stewardship of the environment more generally,
creating the potential for a significant broadening of
environmentalism’s constituency.

Given these competing and
conflicting indicators of the state of contemporary environmentalism,
what does this year’s Gallup Environment Poll, conducted Mar. 11-14,
2007, reveal about the public’s view of the environmental movement and
reported behavior on behalf of environmental protection? In particular,
how do this year’s results compare to those from Gallup’s 2000
Environment Poll, conducted shortly before the 30th anniversary of
"Earth Day" when environmental concern was relatively high?

Views of the Environmental Movement

In
each of Gallup’s annual Environment polls since 2000, respondents have
been asked to report their relationship with the environmental movement
as either an "active participant," "sympathetic, but not active,"
"neutral," or "unsympathetic."

In 2000, 71% of Americans reported
being either an active participant in the movement or sympathetic
toward it. Roughly 7 in 10 Americans continued to express this level of
affinity for the movement each year until 2003, when the figure
declined to 61%. It remained in the mid to low 60s until this year when
it returned to 70%.

Although
roughly the same percentage of Americans as in 2000 report being active
in or sympathetic toward the environmental movement, the percentage
indicating active participation has increased to 21%, slightly higher
than has been recorded in previous years this decade, and 5 points
higher than in 2000. Compared to 2000, this increase in the overall
percentage of those who are "active" in the environmental movement
appears to come from the ranks of the "sympathetics," as the
percentages reporting being "neutral" or "unsympathetic" are about the
same as the 2000 baseline.

(This
noticeable rise in reported activism is reinforced by results
concerning changes in Americans’ specific environmental behaviors,
discussed below.)

In contrast to these data that show Americans
about as active in or sympathetic toward the environmental movement as
in 2000, a different measure asking for Americans’ assessment of the
environmental movement’s impact is more negative now than in 2000,
though still strongly positive. Gallup asked respondents whether the
environmental movement has done "more good than harm" or "more harm
than good." This year 66% of Americans say the environmental movement
has "definitely" or "probably" done more good than harm, 9 percentage
points lower than in 2000.

These results suggest that the goals
of the movement have become, as many have argued, increasingly
contentious in recent years as reflected in political debates about
global warming.

Environmental Behaviors

This
year’s poll also asked respondents to indicate whether, during the past
year, they had engaged in each of a number of behaviors aimed at
protecting environmental quality.

Two household behaviors,
recycling and reducing energy use, are the two most popular actions,
with the former reported by 89% and the latter by 85% of Americans.
Their popularity likely reflects the growing ease of recycling (more
curbside recycling programs and easier access to recycling centers in
many communities) and a desire to save on utility bills.

The
third most popular — buying a product because it is seen as being
better for the environment (70% ) — would seem to reflect the
continuing appeal of "green" consumerism. A much more activist
orientation toward such consumerism — complaining to a business about
its environmentally harmful products — is far less popular, and in
fact comes in last on the list (only 9% of Americans say they have done
this in the past year).

In between the two green consumerism
items fall four behaviors that tap traditional environmental activism:
support for environmental organizations and political actions. A large
minority of Americans (43%) report contributing money to an
environmental, conservation, or wildlife preservation group, while 19%
report being active in a group or organization that works to protect
the environment — the latter lending credibility to the above-noted
finding that 21% report being active participants in the environmental
movement.

Which of these, if any, have you, yourself, done in the past year?

April 2000

March 2007

Pct. Pt.
change

%

%

 

Voluntarily recycled newspapers, glass, aluminum, motor oil, or other items

90

89

-1

Reduced your household’s use of energy

83

85

+2

Bought product specifically because you thought it was better for the environment

73

70

-3

Contributed money to an environmental, conservation, or wildlife preservation group

40

43

+3

Voted for/worked for candidates because of their position on environmental issues

28

35

+7

Been active in a group or organization that works to protect the environment

15

19

+4

Contacted a public official about an environmental issue

18

17

-1

Contacted business to complain about its products because they harm the environment

13

9

-4

Of
the two explicitly political behaviors, voting and/or working for
candidates because of their environmental records is the most popular,
with 35% of Americans reporting having done so in the past year. About
half as many Americans (17%) report contacting a public official about
an environmental issue.

In combination, responses to the items
most directly tapping environmental activism reveal that a substantial
minority of Americans engage in such activism. But has there been an
increase since 2000? The percentage reporting voting/working for
political candidates since 2000 increased 7 points (from 28% to 35%),
while the percentage reporting being active in a group or organization
rose 4 points (15% to 19%). Those contributing money to environmental
groups may also have increased, although the 3 point increase (from 40%
to 43%) is within the margin of error for comparing the two surveys.
The percentage contacting a public official remained virtually
unchanged (18% versus 17%). While modest, the three behaviors showing
increases from 2000 to 2007 lend credence to the reported increase in
active participation in the environmental movement (from 16% to 21%)
noted above.

In contrast, the two household behaviors (recycling
and energy reduction) remained virtually unchanged, while the two green
consumerism behaviors (buying environmentally friendly products and
complaining to businesses about harmful products) showed slight
declines, from 73% to 70% for the former and 13% to 9% for the latter.

While
some of the changes noted above are within the range of sampling error,
the overall pattern suggests a slight increase in traditional forms of
environmental activism since 2000, while hinting at the possibility of
a decline in green consumerism. More broadly, there is no indication of
a substantial increase in environmentally related behavior since 2000,
a finding that may be surprising to many who assume that there has been
a major increase in environmental activism in recent years.

Conclusion

The
annual Gallup Environment Poll focuses only on the general public, and
thus cannot judge the overall state of the environmental movement.
However, taken in conjunction with reports of growing membership in
many environmental organizations and increased participation in
local/state campaigns to combat global warming, this year’s results
suggest that pronouncements of the "death of environmentalism" have
been premature.

Although Americans are somewhat less likely to
see the environmental movement as doing more good than harm than in
2000, they are a bit more likely to report being active on behalf of
the movement than was true at the 30th anniversary of Earth Day.

At
the same time, it is apparent that despite their intense displeasure
with the policies of the current Bush Administration, environmentalists
have not been able to generate a widespread backlash and significantly
increased public activism akin to what they stimulated in the early
years of the Reagan administration — which they also saw as trying to
weaken environmental protection policies. (See "No Environmental
Backlash Against the Bush Administration" in Related Items.) It is
clearly proving harder to rejuvenate environmentalism in post-9/11
America than it was in the early 1980s.

In sum, this year’s
Environment Poll suggests that the environmental movement is
experiencing a slight rebound since 9/11 and the Iraq war presumably
distracted Americans from domestic issues such as environmental
quality. Whether the movement will continue to garner support, and once
again become a potent force influencing national policy-making, remains
to be seen.

Riley E. Dunlap, Gallup Scholar for the
Environment, is currently Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State
University. He contributed an essay to a "Death of Environmentalism"
symposium published in the March 2006 issue of Organization & Environment.

Survey Methods

Results
are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18
and older, conducted Mar. 11-14, 2007. For results based on the total
sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the
maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition
to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in
conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of
public opinion polls.

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