It’s Earth Day month – and that means a focus on environmental and eco-friendly issues. That, however, begs the question, “Do Americans even care about environmental issues anymore?” Despite the scientific evidence of the need to tackle climate change and carbon footprint issues, you may be discouraged by the data that we’re about to share with you. Don’t let it get you too down though. We’re going to close with ideas on how to reinvigorate enthusiasm. But this is fair warning that if you’re passionate about environmental issues, you may not love what you are about to read.
The Hard Numbers: Americans Aren’t Passionate About the Environment
Unfortunately and grossly, that’s just the way the numbers work out. According to a relatively recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll, Americans actually care less about the environment than they did in 1971 (which was the commemorative year of Earth Day). Ouch. We’re nearing half a century since the first Earth Day, and not only has the issue popularity not progressed Americans actually care about it less. There certainly may be some truth to the speculation that the hippie generation grew out of their idealism.
An even more recent Gallup poll reveals an even more alarming trend. This poll shows that environmental concern peaked in the eighties and early nineties but then dropped off in early 2000. Since then, tracked concern about the environment has been at historic lows, and while climate change is charging forward and disrupting the world we live in, Americans are actually no more worried than they were in 1989.
Why Aren’t Americans Worried? Reason Number One is “Lots of Reasons.”
So why don’t Americans feel a sense of urgency about environmental issues? According to Pew Research, one of the predominant reasons is that there simply are so many other things to worry about. The most current available Pew poll regarding what Americans consider to be the biggest priority for the government puts environmental concerns at number eleven. That number could certainly be worse (honestly we were a little surprised it was even that high). However, given the urgency with which climate change absolutely needs to be addressed, eleventh place isn’t good enough. So what are Americans worried about? The short answer is “Things with a more immediate need and a more tangible benefit.” Here’s the list of the top ten concerns above climate change.
- The economy
- Improving the job situation
- Reducing budget deficit
- Defending against terrorism
- Securing Social Security
- Improving education
- Securing Medicare
- Reducing health care costs
- Helping the poor and needy
- Reducing crime
So a quick scan of that list reveals that half of it pertains to money or benefits. So, again, short term fixes with tangible results. But another takeaway from this list is that Americans aren’t caring about environmental issues because there truly are other issues that are causing them stress and distress. There’s certainly an argument that there isn’t brain space to care about global warming if you’re worried about how to feed your family (though the former is part of what’s making the latter more challenging and none of it will matter anyway without a sustainable human future).
Why Aren’t Americans Worried? Reason Number Two is a Sense of Powerlessness
While we don’t have any fancy poll data to support this, we know what we hear when we talk to people about environmental issues. And what we hear is that it’s not worth getting upset about something when you have no power to change it and it’s already too late anyway. We understand that. We do, of course, think that people have an enormous power to change anything that they want to change. Voting with your dollar is much more powerful than voting for a politician. But we also understand the incredible sense of powerlessness and cynicism that most people feel regarding this and other issues.
One Small Glimmer of Excitement
While most of the news that we’ve shared here can best be described as “a bummer” for passionate environmentalists, there is one glimmer of good news. Remember that Huffington Post/YouGov poll that we referenced earlier? While the poll showed that people were less concerned with the environment now than in the past, it also showed that more people today make an active effort to recycle, conserve energy and eat organic foods.
So How Do We Reinvigorate People About the Environment?
We obviously can’t wait for climate change to reach a point where it’s a short term goal with a tangible fix, because by then it will be too far gone to salvage. And regardless of that point, we never want to encourage people to act out of fear. What we can do, however, is restore people’s belief that they can make a difference for the causes that they believe in. Most importantly, fall in love with your own idea of enough consumerism for today. We also talk about voting with your dollar frequently, but it really is true. If individuals put their money into buying products that only support environmental goals. If they only donate to campaigns of politicians that support environmental goals. If they understand the power that they truly have, then we’ll be able to get people excited about moving forward with the environment as a top priority.
And, of course, a good music festival doesn’t hurt , either J
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Photo Credit: John LeGear via Flickr