Still Friends of the Earth, of Course, But Maybe Not Such Close Friends

Nothing drastic, please

Talk is cheap, but talk about the environment has always seemed especially cheap. Nothing is easier than paying lip service to Mother Nature as you drive an SUV from your oversized house to the mall. As such, it’s a surprise when growing numbers of Americans confess they don’t view the fate of the Earth with utter urgency.

That’s what we find in a new Gallup poll. It’s not that people think environmental conditions are improving. In this year’s poll, 41 percent of adults rated the “overall quality of the environment in this country” as excellent or good—down from 47 percent last year. At the same time, the number saying the environment is getting better fell from 40 percent last year to 33 percent this year. Given such data, you’d expect to see an increase in the number of people who advocate dramatic action to improve matters. Instead, Gallup found fewer respondents saying “immediate, drastic action” is needed to solve environmental problems—23 percent this year vs. 26 percent last year and 35 percent as recently as 1995. Fourteen percent of Americans now describe themselves as “active participants” in the environmental movement, vs. 19 percent a year ago. There’s been similar slippage in the number who say they’re “sympathetic towards the movement, but not active” (47 percent this year vs. 51 percent last year). And fewer people claim to have made major changes in their own “shopping and living habits over the last five years” to protect the environment—23 percent this year vs. 31 percent in 2000.

In analyzing the polls’ data, Gallup plausibly suggests that worries about the economy have cut into Americans’ environmentalist sentiment. When people were asked whether they’d give higher priority to environmental protection or economic growth, the environment won by the narrowest margin (47 percent vs. 42 percent) since Gallup first asked that question in 1984. Last year, the environment beat the economy by 54 percent to 36 percent; in 2000, the margin was 67 percent to 28 percent. Still, some of the shift predates the recession, which suggests that some other factor is at work. Here’s one candidate: With the passage of time, perhaps people have come to view tree-hugger alarmism with the sort of critical eye they bring to consumer-goods advertising. Much of marketing proceeds from the premise that consumers can’t distinguish between a problem (which must be resolved at some point) and a crisis (which must be dealt with this minute). Environmentalist activism has shared that spirit. The catch is, when people notice that the sky hasn’t fallen—even if it looks a bit moth-eaten—they’re less inclined to favor drastic action. And if they’ve reduced their own emissions of enviro-piety, they’ll likely be less impressed by companies’ earth-friendly gestures.