Do We Care About the Environment?

Support for protecting the environment has declined precipitously since 2001, an alarming trend that could have profound implications for the United States in the years ahead.

For more than three decades, Michael Greenberg, associate dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, has tried to keep his finger on the environmental pulse of the nation, and what he has seen lately is disconcerting.

Greenberg has conducted surveys of his own, and has pored over surveys done by others, and he admits now that he was wrong when he postulated in the American Journal of Public Health in 2001 that environmental support was "really strong and not likely to change."

"Three years later it had changed a lot," Greenberg said. "That really shocked me."

What happened? Had the disastrous attack on the World Trade Center and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq forced Americans to rethink their priorities? Had the plunging economy left them so concerned about jobs that nothing else mattered?

Greenberg said he "needed to get to the root of it," so he turned to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which each year asks U.S. residents to rank national priorities from "top priority" to "should not be done." From 1999 to 2004, 3,688 people took part in the surveys.

The surveys were made available to Greenberg, and it didn't take long to find that the public's concern over the environment had taken a nose dive.

"In January 2001, 63 percent of respondents wanted environment to be a top priority," Greenberg wrote in a recent issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

The survey is always conducted in January, and by January 2002 the world had become a very different place. Terrorism, which had always seemed to be somebody else's problem, had moved into the hearts of every American.

And concern over protecting the environment had dropped 19 points to 44 percent. The next year, it dropped to 39 percent, but it rose back up to 49 percent in 2004.

But that's not all that changed during that period. The need to reduce crime, even in the face of terrorism, dropped by 22.5 percent, knocking it off the top spot. Replacing crime as the No. 1 concern was the need to improve the job situation, which rose by 14.4 percent.

Of the seven topics included in the survey, only improving the job market increased in public support. The need to reduce federal income taxes took a big hit, dropping by nearly 20 percent.

Some analysts contend that those changes in priorities resulted from a national shift toward the political right, but Greenberg noted that if that were the case the participants in the Pew surveys would not have lowered their concern about reducing taxes and paying off the national debt.

Others argued that the environmental movement is now dominated by huge organizations that offer little in the way of vision and much in the way of temporary fixes. But during the same period that concern over the environment took a plunge nationally, most of those same organizations added thousands of new members, largely in response to the environmental policies of President Bush.

Personally, I think the movement siffers from fatigue. People are weary of problems they think they can't solve, like global climate change, despite the fact that many scientists believe it is one of the most pressing environmental issues we are likely to face over the course of several centuries.

And, frankly, environmentalists have shot themselves in the foot too many times. Too much negativity, too little in the way of creative solutions and too many lost jobs blamed on environmental regulations have taken their toll.

But, contrary to a divisive debate that has embroiled the environmental community in recent months, the movement isn't dead.

Greenberg said that's clear in the same surveys that show support shrinking.

"The public still feels that the environment is a major issue for the future," Greenberg said, even though some who used to think it should be the 'top' priority now think it is only 'important.'"

"The numbers [in those two categories combined] haven't changed much in the last 20 years," he said. "That remains very strong, and that's why I think this is a temporary fluctuation."

But when and if it does reemerge near the top of the worry list, the movement will be different. It will be less dominated by white, upper-middle class suburbanites. And in a sense, it will return to its roots.

The modern environmental movement wasn't born on the green lawns and in the upscale homes of suburbia. And it didn't come from the wilderness or the countryside or any of the idyllic places that the movement labors so hard to protect.

It came from the urban jungles, where people knew what they had lost. That's why the polls show that the strongest supporters of the environmental movement today are African-Americans, Greenberg said.

"It's a big issue for them," he said. "They are there with the traffic density and the air pollution, and it's an in-your-face issue for them." Their No. 1 environmental concern, he noted, is water quality.

They know what environmental degradation really means. Maybe from their ranks, a new John Muir for the 21st century will emerge.