I know there is great ideological intensity in our culture today: our attention is constantly drawn to the distinctions between red states and blue states and between conservatives and liberals. While Conservatives often oppose government action to fix problems, most environmental problems are obvious and there is more consensus than you might think on the need to keep our air, our water and our soil free from poisons. We agree that there is a problem, we don’t always agree on the solution.
Throughout the 21st century, Gallup has asked its respondents: How much do you personally care about the quality of the environment? In March 2001, 77% answered “a lot” or “quite a bit” and 22% said “only a little” or “not at all”. In 2021, the response was 75% to 24%, and last March it was 71% to 28%. Given the margin of error of these surveys, these answers are much the same – most Americans worry about the quality of the environment. In 2001, 57% of respondents thought the environment was getting worse and 36% thought it was getting better. Last spring, 59% thought the situation was getting worse and 35% thought the situation was improving. The stability of these perceptions of the environment is striking. 21st century Americans care about the environment, but unlike 20th century Americans, they no longer identify with environmentalism.
Gallup paints a picture of an American electorate that doesn’t consider themselves “environmentalists” – 57% rejected that label in 2022. But at one point, many more Americans considered themselves environmentalists. In 1989, 76% said they were environmentalists and only 20% said they were not. What changed? People still see the problem, but they have come to distrust the solutions offered by “environmentalists”. The image of environmentalism has suffered as environmental advocacy moved out of the political center and became a left-wing issue. But ironically, most Americans care about the quality of the environment and have long feared it will get worse. Environmentalism and the defense of the environment have become the victims of American politics of polarization.
People continue to worry about the environment, but is the quality of the environment really deteriorating? The question is complicated. Some environmental resources, such as America’s air and water, are cleaner today than they were in 1970 when we created the EPA. We have moved millions of people away from toxic waste exposure pathways. But biodiversity is threatened, invasive species have multiplied and the climate has deteriorated. Drinking water and sanitation infrastructure may have deteriorated. I think Americans are right to worry about environmental degradation. Specifically, when we ignore the environment, the situation gets worse; when we apply attention, ingenuity and new technologies to his care, he improves. Despite many more motor vehicles in 2022 than in 1970, air pollution from motor vehicles is lower today than 50 years ago.
But what happened to ecology? What went wrong? In my view, there were two forces at work here. One is corporate and conservative propaganda claiming that regulation is hurting the economy. This is the “job-killing regulation” argument. The fact that regulation tends to create jobs as industry conforms to new standards seems to be overlooked. The second force that has harmed environmentalism is self-inflicted. That’s the arrogant, scolding attitude of some environmentalists: shaming families into buying SUVs. Telling people that their consumer behavior is unethical. The first ecologists were conservationists aiming to preserve forests and lands for posterity but also for hunting and fishing. With more than six million members, the National Wildlife Federation is the largest environmental organization in the United States. It was founded in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. Its founders and many of its members were and still are hunters and fishers. Vegetarian environmentalists came a bit later.
What is needed is a broad-based version of environmentalism made up of rural hunters and fishers, environmental justice advocates and environmentalists willing to work with people who share environmental values but differ on d ‘other questions. This coalition is sitting there, ready to go.
While recent decades have made environmental protection a more partisan issue, there is strong evidence that younger liberals and conservatives are more concerned about the environment than older conservatives. Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy of the Pew Research Center wrote in 2020 that:
“There is a strong consensus among Democrats that the federal government is doing too little on key aspects of the environment, such as protecting water and air quality and reducing environmental impacts. climate change. But among Republicans, there are considerable differences in opinion by generation. Republicans in millennials and younger—adults born in 1981 or later—are more likely than baby-boom Republicans or older generations think government efforts to reduce climate change are insufficient (52% vs. 31%).”
Young conservatives don’t buy the solutions to environmental problems proposed by liberals and supported by young progressives, but they understand the problem. Part of the reason for this growing awareness is that senior executives in the private sector have begun to see both the risk and the opportunity in environmental issues. The opportunity lies in new products and services that find market appeal because they appeal to environmental values. Investors are pouring capital into electric vehicles, sustainable fashion, physical and nutritional well-being, nature excursions and sustainable supply chains. Companies perform life cycle analyzes of their products to identify where to reduce waste, costs and environmental impacts. Agribusinesses like Land O’Lakes use automation, artificial intelligence and satellite data to precisely calibrate the water, fertilizers and pesticides they apply to crops, reducing pollution runoff while saving considerable sums.
Investors began to see the financial risks posed by environmental degradation. They require companies to analyze and disclose these risks, and the US Security and Exchange Commission is proposing a complex rule governing climate risk disclosure requirements that will soon be mandatory. Extreme weather, sea level rise and climate change impact agriculture, manufacturing, shipping and virtually all economic activities. Young conservatives are unlikely to reject a mission from their CEOs to analyze and discuss climate risk. CEOs need to understand this risk as it has started to affect their bottom line and investors need to understand environmental risk to assess the financial risk of their investments.
What we see is that environmental awareness has come full circle. In the 1970s and 1980s, pollution prevention was a consensus issue because pollution was observable and obviously dangerous. It reverts to consensus status for the same reason. At the end of the 20th century, the regulation of air, water and toxic substances stimulated technological innovation by the private sector: water filtration, wastewater treatment, energy recovery technologies waste, catalytic converter and stack scrubber enabled cost-effective compliance with environmental regulations. Climate policy is beginning to do the same in the 21st century. Advances in renewable energy and battery technologies are occurring with increasing frequency. Electric vehicles are no longer visionary prototypes but mass production models.
Anyone who pays attention realizes that we are on a more populated and polluted planet. If we are to continue to grow our economies, we must pay greater attention to the environmental impact of our production and consumption. The field of sustainability management has been developed to ensure that we learn to do this, and the whole field is based on a growing awareness of the needs of environmental sustainability.
Objective conditions have always formed the basis of environmental policy. You could see and smell the polluted air, water and toxic waste. Moreover, the causal link could also be observed: you could see the pipes and chimneys spitting poison. Climate change and biodiversity are more subtle and less easily observable issues and, unlike many 20th century issues, cause and effect are global and beyond the reach of sovereign states. Nonetheless, the impacts predicted by climate modelers decades ago can now be observed, and the risks posed are being internalized by capital markets, driving demand for corporate climate disclosure. Ideological efforts to oppose these disclosures will have the same impact that a decision to end financial accounting might have: no impact. Growing environmental threats have heightened environmental awareness throughout society and heightened the importance of our efforts to ensure that economic growth occurs with the least possible impact on the environment.
Building American political consensus behind environmental sustainability
Provided by State of the Planet
Quote: Growing Awareness and Importance of Environmental Sustainability (September 20, 2022) Retrieved September 20, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-awareness-prominence-environmental-sustainability.html
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