The Culture of Environmentalism and Sustainability
People like to breathe. Rich people, poor people, Tea Party Republicans, progressive Democrats, old people, young people, Americans, people from other countries--all are united in the biological necessities of being human. Water, food and air are all better when they are not filled with toxic substances. The political support for environmental protection is derived from this fundamental fact, along with the equally-fundamental awareness that all of these resources are at risk on a crowded and increasingly interconnected planet.
In a piece analyzing Gallup's most recent polling on America's attitudes toward the environment, I observed that:
Those under 30 favor environmental protection over economic growth by 60% to 30%. In contrast, those over 65 years old favor economic growth over environmental protection by 50% to 39%. Since there is no evidence that someone ages out of environmentalism, it is likely that environmentalism will become a stronger force in American politics in the next several decades.
While there are aspects of Gallup's approach to measuring environmental attitudes that need improvement, they remain one of the best sources of longitudinal (comparing today to the past) data on American attitudes. With the exception of the Great Recession, Americans have consistently valued environmental protection over economic growth. Even during the Great Recession, young people continued to support environmental protection over economic growth.
Nevertheless, Gallup's data on youth environmentalism is countered by more in-depth academic research that indicates that growing materialism and faith in technology has resulted in declining environmentalism among young Americans. Laura Wray-Lake, Constance A. Flanagan and D. Wayne Osgood published a superb study in 2010 of the environmental attitudes of young people. The very careful and rigorous surveys that this article is based on were focused on measuring specific attitudes and behaviors over time, and indicate that young people do not act the way that scholars think environmentalists should behave. They don't conserve energy as much as they might or express pro-environmental views. I do not doubt the findings, or question Gallup's seemingly contradictory findings; a close look at the data indicates that the surveys are measuring different things. However, all of these data support my view that today's young people are more aware of sustainability than young people were fifty years ago and these issues help frame their view of how the world works. Their views of the environment may be inconsistent and difficult to explain, but young people are deeply aware of the issue. The have well-formulated views--that is how they differ from the kids I grew up with.
Americans born after 1970 have grown up in the "environmental era." They have been witnesses to an effort to protect the planet against the assaults of modern economic development. They've heard their parents and grandparents describe development of open spaces in their hometowns and in places they've visited. Congested roads, environmentally-induced illness and images of endangered nature are normal components of the world they understand. This has been part of their perception of the world since childhood. Our growing awareness of nutrition, health, and exercise is part of a widespread understanding of the interconnection between the environment and individual wellness, and these perceptions have created a change in our culture.
Environmentalism is less a political perspective than a way of understanding how the world works. I frequently compare it to the changing views of gender, race, homosexuality and what we have come to term "parenting." When I was growing up, being a parent described a stage of your life cycle. Today it is a verb describing the actions involved in raising your children. While racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia remain strong forces in American society, they are less tolerated than they once were. Social and cultural changes during the last half-century have created a profound change in how we live and how we interact with each other. This, in turn, has had a deep impact on politics and public policy. The drive for a renewable economy housed on a sustainable and not-deteriorating planet is a key part of the cultural shift I am describing.
In my view, these social changes create a nearly irresistible force for political change. It may take decades to manifest itself, and the forces opposing these views can often remain in power through the use of economic and military power, but the current of history and social change are difficult to overcome. That is because these social trends are based on technological changes that have transformed our lives and are incredibly seductive.
The technology of transportation, information, and communication has helped create a global, interconnected economy. The way many people in the developed world live today would have seemed dream-like to people a century ago. My grandparents lived through changes that resulted in a world they could barely imagine when they were chased out of Eastern Europe at the start of the 20th century. Ideas, images, goods, services, and everything humans can imagine are transmitted and shipped throughout the world. These technologies bring enormous benefits, but also carry significant costs. Traditional community life is endangered, as is a sense of place, replaced by a homogeneous world culture. And of course, the natural resource base of the world economy is also threatened by the wanton destruction of relentless, non-renewable material production.
While few people think about the transformation underway, it forms the backdrop for our worldview. For young Americans, the influence of these new facts is greater, since it is all they have ever known. All have been exposed to the view of a single fragile earth photographed from outer space. Most were not exposed to the casual, unthinking racial and social biases America began to confront in the second half of the 20th century. Today everyone knows people from different places with different lifestyles. One needs to willfully go off the grid and disconnect the Internet to grow up isolated and parochial--although I recognize that the web also empowers fact-free, delusional discussion. Nevertheless, as I often say, our TV images of family have changed from Ozzie and Harriet to the Cosbys to Modern Family. This is happening at the same time when distinct identities and communities are struggling to survive and absorb the unifying, but sometimes empty, values created by the global economy.
These technological, social, and economic changes influence politics and public policy. While there are many feedback loops and interactive effects, the basic chain of causality is this: Technological change results in economic change that in turn causes social change. Social change forms the boundaries for political legitimacy and the political agenda and that creates the context for political change.
In the final analysis, people in the developed world like their lifestyles and do not want to lose them. The notion of progress and improvement is being replaced by the more conservative sentiment to retain or sustain what we have. If we achieve some success in transitioning to a renewable economy, we may see a return to the ideology of improvement. The politics of sustainability will have an ideological component--no different from other political dialogues. But the facts of global interconnectivity are increasingly hard-wired into our culture and values. The importance of environmental quality and sustainability is an inescapable part of our shared understanding of how the world works. The political manifestation of that understanding has begun, even though its specific trajectory is difficult to predict.
We do know that people like to breathe, drink water and eat. Preserving the resources needed to ensure sustenance is a requirement of all political processes and governing regimes. You can't have a Tea Party without clean water to brew tea.
Photo Credit: Environmentalism, Culture, and Opinion/shutterstock
Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is also Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Director of the
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