Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Those Non-Earth Days

As posters for Earth Day 2007 quietly biodegrade, are consumers back to planet-destroying business as usual? People are happy to bemoan the state of the environment, but it’s trickier to gauge how this affects their real-life behavior. Here, we sift through fresh polling to find some clues.

A Washington Post/ABC News/Stanford University poll got at the issue by asking people how willing they are “personally to change some of the things you do in order to improve the environment.” Fifty percent said they’re “very willing” and 44 percent “somewhat willing.” Given that the question provided a free chance to sound virtuous, the “very willing” total seems underwhelming. Other data from the same poll suggest people are most comfortable with environmentalist action when they feel distanced from its costs. Sixty-two percent think the government should require power plants to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, for instance, but just 30 percent think it should mandate “building new homes and offices that use less energy for heating and cooling.” Fewer still—20 percent—favor raising taxes on electricity “so people use less of it.”

Other surveys find people inclined to assign environmental responsibility to business and government. In a Cone LLC poll, 93 percent agreed that “companies have a responsibility to help preserve the environment.” Eighty-five percent would consider switching brands due to “a company’s negative corporate responsibility practices.” On a more tangible level, though, fewer—47 percent—said they bought “environmentally-friendly” goods in the past year. Likewise, 43 percent of adults in a New York Times/CBS News survey said they bought earth-friendly goods in the past year “even though they cost more.” The Washington Post/ ABC/Stanford poll indicates a small minority do so regularly. When people were asked whether they “consider the manufacturer’s environmental record” or “decide mainly on the basis of price and quality” when buying things, the latter beat the former by 79 percent to 11 percent.

Some Gallup polling confirms the impression that consumers are more comfortable bearing higher costs for the sake of the environment when those costs are indirect (if not theoretical). Sixty percent said they favor requiring government office buildings to use renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power, “even if it results in higher taxes.” By contrast, fewer than half (46 percent) back a surcharge on utility bills when usage exceeds a certain level. Seventy-nine percent back higher automotive-emissions standards, but 55 percent oppose banning vehicles that don’t get at least 30 miles per gallon.