(April 29, 2016) The public no longer buys the view that the economy should play second fiddle to the environment.
“I’m no environmentalist.” That is now the majority view in the U.S., a dramatic change from the early 1990s, when Earth Day first became a global event, according to a survey last week from Gallup.
Where in 1991, 78 per cent of Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — identified themselves as “an environmentalist,” that number has plummeted by almost half, to just 42 per cent today, with even lower percentages applying to Independents (39 per cent) and Republicans (27 per cent). Where environmentalism was once an inspirational mass movement, promoted at the grassroots by earnest environmentalists, it is today seen as tired and tedious, the preserve of professional environmentalists, lobbyists, bureaucrats and politicians.
Gallup timed the release of its survey to coincide with the annual Earth Day, which once sparked young enthusiasts to dream up myriad celebrations around the world. This year’s Earth Day was devoid of sparks or spontaneous celebrations; it was instead marked last Friday by a government-bureaucrat-planned gathering of 175 world leaders at the UN’s New York headquarters for a show-signing of a non-binding document on climate change. To their chagrin, and that of the environmental establishment, the orchestrator of the staged event, President Obama, was a no-show, preferring instead to visit London for a round of golf with his good friend, Prime Minister David Cameron, followed by an Earth Day lunch with the Queen and dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
In part, the public identifies less with environmentalism because it has become politicized and confrontational. But the public also doesn’t buy the notion that the planet is on the brink of mass destruction. Concern over air and water pollution, over the safety of drinking water and the loss of tropical rainforests are all down. Even global warming — touted by the environmental establishment as the No. 1 coming calamity — is greeted with yawns, media hype notwithstanding. The public places global warming at the very bottom of its environmental concerns.
Most of all, the public no longer buys the view that the economy should play second fiddle to the environment. Where once just 19 per cent of Americans believed economic growth should be given priority over environmental protection (compared to the 79 per cent who favoured the environment), in recent years the proportions have been more like 50-50, with the economy and the environment alternating as the public’s priority.
The demise of environmentalism is not only a long-term trend, it also involves a generational and cultural change that is especially pronounced among millennials — the 20-to-35-year-olds who were born after 1980. Although this group is distinguished by being unusually drawn to social justice issues — they strongly support gay rights and racial equality — fewer than one-third of millennials call themselves environmentalists or hew to the environmental mantras followed by previous generations, many of which have become suspect. Nuclear power, once reviled by environmentalists, is now embraced by many; peak oil, once a given, is now seen as a joke; blue-box programs, once believed necessary to save landfills, are often exposed as frauds.
Millennials don’t recycle much — just 33 per cent do, versus more than half of the rest of the population. Millennials are also less likely to bother to turn off lights, worry about wasting water, or put up with the inconvenience of carrying a travel mug or other reusable container. And millennials, now the largest demographic at one-third of the workforce, are more likely to see themselves as suffering financially, and more inclined to balance the virtues of economic growth with those of environmental protection.
Millennials do have interests that intersect with those of traditional environmentalists — they value locally grown food and are likelier to check out companies for their social and environmental bona fides before committing to a purchase. But they aren’t adhering wholesale to a global environmental ideology so much as making limited lifestyle choices as expressions of how they see themselves and want to be seen. Which also helps explain — for them and for others — why broad-brush environmentalism has lost its cachet.
Once niche, edgy and countercultural, environmentalism is now banal, touted by Wal-Mart along with every other mass merchandiser. Once characterized by small-scale alternate technologies like solar and wind power, environmentalism now suffers from gigantism, the mega solar and wind farms typically run by multinationals, often at the expense of locals who fight to prevent these developments in their communities. Once championed by volunteer idealists with visions of a better world, environmentalism now means lucre for those with access to the levers of power, including the top brass at environmental NGOs, whose annual remuneration runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Environmentalism has lost its lustre. That doesn’t mean the public has stopped valuing the environment. It does mean the public has stopped valuing environmentalists.