Forty years after the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, the environment as a policy issue has retained an ambiguous political quality. On one hand, nearly everyone recycles and is more aware of conserving energy than 40 years ago; on the other hand, there is a scab that can be picked about the severity of global warming or how much environment protection should be sacrificed for economic growth.
Part of the reason is the nature of environmental issues — they usually do not immediately, directly affect people’s lives as the economy, health care and even crime do. Many environmental issues are like home maintenance issues — easy to put off another year. A recent Gallup poll found the environment ranks only in the middle of a list of "problems facing the country" that Americans worry about. Forty percent say they worry "a great deal" about "the quality of the environment," ranking far below the 60 percent who worry about the economy and the 58 percent who worry about the availability and affordability of health care.
Public concern about reducing air and water pollution had received majority support since the mid-1960s but the number of those who “worry” about it has slipped. In 1989, 72 percent of Americans said they worried a great deal about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Worry about these environmental issue averaged 62 percent in the 1990s, 54 percent in the 2000s, and was 46 percent this past March.
Currently, Americans are split roughly into thirds, according to the degree to which they worry about environmental quality: 34 percent say they worry a great deal, 34 percent worry a fair amount, and 31 percent worry only a little or not at all. However, the highly worried group is down from 40 percent in 2008, and from a high of 43 percent in 2007.
About 80 percent of Americans say they have made changes in their lives in order to be more environmentally friendly but only 28 percent classified it as major change — and this has been steady for the past decade. Interestingly, 34 percent of women but only 21 percent of men say they have made major changes in their lifestyles. Also, 32 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents have altered their habits in an environmentally friendly manner, but only 20 percent of Republicans have.
For the first time in Gallup's 25-year history of asking Americans about the trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth, a majority of Americans say economic growth should be given the priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent. Gallup first asked Americans about this trade-off in 1984, at which time over 60 percent chose the environmental option. Support for the environment was particularly high in 1990 and 1991, and in the late 1990s and 2000, when the dot-com boom perhaps made economic growth more of a foregone conclusion.
While there has been fluctuation in public opinion over four decades environmental concern has received majority support for over a generation. An April 2000 Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Americans agree with the broad goals of environmentalism with 48 percent claiming to be “strong environmentalist.” Sharing the “goals of the environmental movement,” however, does not translate into membership in environmental organizations, trust in environmental organizations, or a strongly positive view of the impact of the environmental movement. Support for environmental policy 40 years after Earth Day is still stronger among Democrats and liberals than among Republicans and conservatives. What often appears as a broad consensus has a liberal slant, especially regarding specific environmental regulations, increased spending for environmental programs and identification with the environmental movements.
I contend that 40 years later, Earth Day still provokes the conflicting tensions of public awakening, citizen activism, political ineffectiveness, and counter-culture sentiment. An illustrative statement of all these attitudes is a May 5, 2009, Washington Times editorial: “Arbor Day vs. Earth Day” After recounting Julius Sterling Morton’s campaign to encourage tree planting in the Midwest in the 1870s and comparing it to Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s founding of Earth Day, the editorial observes:
“What a contrast to the preachy Earth Day with its anti-business overtones and message of guilt and limits."
As a result, the holidays have different philosophies. Arbor Day is a celebration of human productivity and hope for the future; Earth Day is a global guilt-fest that views the future with a sense of dread. Where Arbor Day celebrates humanity’s productive capabilities, Earth Day condemns them. Arbor Day is pointedly nonpartisan, while Earth Day divides and lectures. Earth Day is a global public relations move, seeking to mobilize people to change government policy and increase the regulation of daily life.
While Arbor Day stands in Earth Day’s shade, it is still thriving. Those planted Arbor Day trees will stand as taller monuments in time than the mound of press releases put out for Earth Day.
There are no reputable polls about Earth Day, but if there were, I bet the above sentiment would receive at least 33 percent.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.