Bryan Caplan  

Are Americans Really Getting Less Green?

What Went Wrong?... I Talk...
Steven Hayward says that American environmentalism is in steep decline:
In 1990, according to an ABC News/Gallup survey series, 75 percent of Americans said they considered themselves to be environmentalists, with only 24 percent saying they did not. The numbers have been slowly reversing over the last decade. As of 2008 (the most recent year the question was asked), only 41 percent of Americans identified themselves as environmentalists, with 58 percent now saying they do not. And Gallup's annual environmental survey also finds the public now favors economic growth over environmental protection by a 53-38 margin. For most of the last 25 years, even during previous recessions, the public favored the environment over the economy by as much as a two-to-one margin. In 1991, the beginning of a recession, the margin was 71-20 in favor of environmental protection over the economy. Surveys also show surging support for nuclear power and expanded oil and gas production in the U.S.
Is he right?  I'll check the GSS sometime over the next few days, but I want to test the waters first.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
kebko writes:

I noticed the wide use this year of the slogan "Save the Earth", and it struck me that this parallels the terminology of Evangelical Christians ("Are you saved?", "Saving souls"). The desire to be a savior is strong, and is at the heart of a lot of religious & social movements. Maybe this is a reflection of the maturity of the movement and, like with Christian fundamentalism, there are 3 camps: True believers, people who accept the premise but don't consider themselves dogmatic, and people who reject the premise entirely.
Maybe we are connecting the term "Environmentalist" with True Believers, although I can't think of the name that the non-dogmatic moderates would call themselves in place of it.

anon writes:

I don't know if the GSS will support the result of the Gallup Poll, but one thing that leads me to believe its result is the idea that "we're all environmentalists now". For example, in 1990, only hard core tree-hugger-types brought reusable grocery bags to the store. Now its fairly common for people to bring their own bags. Many actions of an "environmentalist" in 1990 are standard for the general public in 2010.


I would use the term "Gaianists" for the "True Believers".

The juxtaposition created by the quote (and poll) is mostly farcical. What reason is there to assume that economic growth and environmental protection are at odds?

In fact, they're intimately linked! Just focusing on energy: economic growth increases density, and density necessitates the use of more compact, efficient, and cleaner energy. Charles Dickens' London wasn't cleaned by fiat, it was cleaned by necessity.

Brendan writes:

Universal health care was popular before mid-2009, when people realized that expanding coverage actually costs money.

Environmentalism is fun when you're talking about recycling and refusing to buy Exxon's stock- becomes less fun when private-jet owning pols wanna jack up your electricity rates and bankrupt coal industries.

The dem supermajority has resulted in an actual evaluation of the reality of their policy ideas. Less popular in practice than in rhetoric. Directly related to the decline in enviro's and universal health supporters.

Chris T writes:

Not overly surprising considering the increasingly religious trappings of the movement. When its most prominent advocates start talking about stopping growth or basically reverting to a more primitive lifestyle in the name of 'saving the planet', most people become rather loathe to associate themselves with the name.

Yancey Ward writes:

The difference between revealed preference and stated preference is being demonstrated once again.

Incuhed writes:

Shouldn't the observation that people are less sympathetic to 'environmental protection' than economic growth be obvious today? Is this poll controlled for the Great Recession?

Even if it was controlled, the term 'enviromentalist' has to be more pejorative today than it was 20 years ago. The common understanding of the word has changed from a general awareness and a cute, cursory level of involvement, to a narrowly defined ideology that has reached almost religious connotation. It's no suprise that the middle of the bell curve of the population has been turned off by a movement that now resides in an extreme end of the distribution.

Given that our rivers are no longer on fire, drinking water is safe, life span and quality continue to rise, and incomes and leisure time are more abundant, the marginal effort required to further environmental protection closer to 100% is rubbing up harder against rational choices. It may be that people are content with the current level of protection, given the opportunity costs.

Marina writes:

I'm not sure whether a poll like that has much meaning because environmentalist is such a vague term. It would be more helpful to compare with what frequency people engage in behaviors such as recycling, bringing reusable bags shopping, etc. It may be that as certain attitudes become more mainstream, people no longer use a specific term to label that behavior. For example, it seems that there is an analogy to the term feminist. It would be safe to say that most people in the US no longer believe that women should stay in the kitchen all day and devote their life exclusively to childrearing. Yet most people would not call themselves feminists. These ideas became mainstream. What's left under the label are more radical ideas that make feminist such a loaded term now.

agnostic writes:

A trend based on two data-points? That's why we need GRAPHS. (I know that using 1990 as the starting point is rigging the conclusion since that was when everyone was in a panic about the environment, from Jessie on Saved by the Bell to that Captain Planet cartoon.)

In the GSS, check NATENVIR, which asks whether we're spending too much, too little, or just enough on environmental problems. "Too little" would seem to mean environmentalist mindset.

The % answering too little goes in cycles: downward from 1973 to 1980, upward until 1990, downward / flat until 2002, and somewhat up in '04, '06, and '08. Americans in 2008 are more or less where they were in 1973, with around 65% saying we spend too little on the environment -- barely above the historical average of about 62%.

To repeat -- PLOT YOUR DATA.

Dave writes:

In 1992, when people thought about the environment, they thought about recycling, overstuffed landfills, nuclear waste storage, and air/water toxins. While there was and is some argument over the right approach to these problems, most of them are basically state and local issues, and it's not hard to see why even a lot of people who identify as conservative might favor the "environmentalist position" on these.

Today, almost all discussion about environmentalism revolves around global warming, reducing one's carbon footprint, cap-and-trade, etc. Costly federal and international regulations have been promoted (and implemented in some cases) and this has generated substantial lobbying efforts on both sides, which have polarized the electorate. Practically all conservatives oppose the "environmentalist position" on global warming, and hence no longer identify as environmentalist.

Loof writes:

Steven Hayward starts the article: “Environmentalists are used to wallowing in misery--in fact, it makes them happy…”. In observing this opinion presented as a “fact” indicated to me right away that the rest of the article would probably be prejudiced. It was: and his punditry presents as propaganda – though I’d bet he believes otherwise. If a True Believer, he’d believe he’s presenting facts.

Don't know if Americans are getting less green, but the majority once believed they wanted to be greener and cleaner. Now, its 'as if' its ok to pollute and become dirtier as long as the economy grows any which way, with no qualification. As such, Americans appear as suckers: easily deceived. Anyone want increasing environmental problems in their backyard?

Propaganda is prevalent in business, government and environmentalism: in what is hyped for public consumption and how the opposition is degraded as bad; or worse, as evil. And, being susceptible to propaganda isn’t just an American phenomenon, far from it: communists & fascists were good at it; governments are now better, big business is best. This supposedly makes America the world’s #1 sucker society with so much big government, the most big businesses as well as being biggest and best working the two together. And, all three types of organization want to get ever bigger. That sucks!

Chris Koresko writes:

Yancey Ward: "The difference between revealed preference and stated preference is being demonstrated once again."

I don't understand this. It's polling data -- stated preferences in both case, right?

MernaMoose writes:


The dem supermajority has resulted in an actual evaluation of the reality of their policy ideas. Less popular in practice than in rhetoric. Directly related to the decline in enviro's and universal health supporters.

I believe that's probably true, in spite of other debates above. People can get surprisingly smart when you start seriously messing with their standard of living. But I don't think this fact is going to save us from the Religious Left.

I'll be amazed if anybody manages to kill ObamaCare (though it should be killed post haste). And I'll be quite surprised if we don't end up with some form of Carbon Tax or equivalent (along with a VAT) before the Dem supermajority is dead and gone.

Somewhere around 1/3 of the US population is hard core "progressives" (read: Religious Left). Another big swath (size unknown to me) apparently isn't really opposed to their agenda. There's more than enough of them around to derail any serious attempts to roll back whatever they can manage to jam through the system during their super majority days. It would take a decade of concerted effort to undo the damage, if it's undone then.

So are Americans less green? In lots of small ways (stupid ideas about grocery bags for example), they're already converted. But in the Religious Big ways (for example carbon taxes)? I think, they're a lot more skeptical (phew!).

But whatever the mainstream may be, I for one am tired of the Green Hype. Hotels full of no-flow shower heads. Toilets (mandated by law) that don't have enough water to flush. Rest room faucets with water flows so small that you canNOT wash the germs off your hands -- and then, you can't get enough paper to dry them when you're finally done.

This is not improving the environment. You either spend 5X more time washing your hands in public places, or end up running around with more germs on them. All to fulfill the religious vision of the Left.

Always remember, Democrats do it because they love you and Mother Earth more (I mean too).

Troy Camplin writes:

My wife refuses to identify herself as a feminist because she thinks they are all a bunch of radical, man-hating Leftists who spout nothing but ridiculous nonsense. But that doesn't mean she isn't actually a feminist. I suspect the same with msot Americans being environmentalists.

Yancey Ward writes:


Yes, it is polling data, but what is moving the polls away from environmentalism is that to become green is getting closer in time and being seen as much more costly than believed 20 years ago. For example consider Cap and Trade. People see the policies now being debated in Congress, and we are seeing stated preference now starting to convert into revealed preference.

Telnar writes:

On Marina's theme, I don't consider myself an environmentalist even though I favor fairly substantial efforts to reduce environmental externalities. The problem is that at the margin, I think that increasing environmental protection in the ways that get proposed in 2010 is too likely to cause net harm. If the year were 1970, I'd be more comfortable using the label (although I'd be in favor of more effecient alternatives to achieve the goals of the policies chosen around that time).

I wonder if there is data available on what environmental protection policies people who don't consider themselves to be environmentalists favor and how that has changed over the last 20 years.

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