Earth Day and the Polling of America, 2010: Me First, Planet Later

It's April. The flowers are bursting with color, trees are coming back to life, people are smiling, walking a bit more jauntily; hope abounds. It can mean only one thing: Baseball season has begun. That, and the latest crop of pre-Earth Day surveys has invaded my in-box.

The news this year is not encouraging. The Great Recession has taken its toll, as has the "controversy" created by climate deniers -- those advocating that climate change either isn't real, or that it isn't caused by human activity, or if it is, the "fix" is too costly, especially during tough times. Interest in and commitment to environmental problems and solutions has dropped among Americans. With the exception of committed environmentalists -- a relative sliver of the populace -- the mood has switched from "What can I do to be helpful?" to "What's in it for me?"

Suffice to say, that self-centeredness makes it a tad tough to save the commons.

Herewith is the 2010 edition of what has become a (mostly annual) tradition: My assessment of what market researchers, academics, and others are finding out about Americans' desire to shop -- and live and vote -- with the environment in mind. (See previous installments here, here, and here.)

Spoiler alert: It's not a pretty picture.

"Americans are today no more environmentally friendly in their actions than they were at the turn of the century," begin the findings of a new poll from Gallup. And even the things Americans are claiming to do seem suspect. Example: A whopping 90 percent of Americans in 2010 say they are more likely to recycle household waste than any of the other environmentally friendly actions Gallup tests, the same percentage as in 2000. Frankly, I'm more than a little skeptical that nine out of ten Americans "voluntarily recycled newspapers, glass, aluminum, motor oil, or other items" in the past year, but that's what they're telling Gallup. On the other hand, if putting the plastic bottle in the right slot in a recycling bin from time to time qualifies someone to answer "yes," perhaps Gallup's finding is technically true. But talk about greenwash!

Similarly, Americans also say they're no more likely now than in the past "to engage in activist behavior to promote environmentally friendly actions by organizations, politicians, or companies," says Gallup. "Far less than half report engaging in any such actions, and again, those numbers have hardly changed over the past decade."

So, too, with those who say they have "voted for/worked for candidates because of their position on environmental issues" (28 percent in 2010); "been active in a group or organization that works to protect the environment (17 percent); or "contacted a public official about an environmental issue" (17 percent). The only appreciable change came in the number of Americans who "contacted a business to complain about its products because they harm the environment" -- they declined 39 percent since 2000.

Gallup also found that, over the past two years, Americans have "become less worried about the threat of global warming, less convinced that its effects are already happening, and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence." Said Gallup:

The percentage of Americans who now say reports of global warming are generally exaggerated is by a significant margin the highest such reading in the 13-year history of asking the question. In 1997, 31 percent said global warming's effects had been exaggerated; last year, 41 percent said the same, and this year the number is 48 percent.

All of which syncs with yet another Gallup finding: that Americans grew more content over the past year with the overall quality of the environment in the country. Their "excellent" or "good" ratings now total 46 percent, up from 39 percent a year earlier. Reports Gallup:

There has been a 25-point drop since 1989 in the percentage worried a great deal about air pollution, and an equal drop in worry about contamination of soil and water by toxic waste. The decline in worry over time has been rather dramatic for some of these threats. For example, in 1989, 72 percent of Americans said they worried a great deal about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Worry about this environmental issue averaged 62 percent in the 1990s, 54 percent in the 2000s, and is 46 percent today.

 

Those findings concur with the latest findings by the Green Confidence Index, the monthly tracking service published by GreenBiz.com. In March, it found American consumers pulling back from their earlier optimism on environmental issues, reversing a four-month trend. "The leveling off of unemployment has not translated into increased green confidence,” according to Chief Research Officer Amy Hebard of Earthsense, whose company creates the Index.

What about today's youth -- specifically, the Millennials, a.k.a. Generation Y, the 80 million or so Americans born during the last two decades of the 20th century? They've been dubbed the green generation, having come of age in an era of recycling, energy conservation, Al Gore, and Kermit the Frog. But according to the latest Eco Pulse survey, produced by the Shelton Group, "Millennials are only just starting to put their money where their mouths are," writes Shelton's Karen Barnes. She adds:

Across the board, Millennials are more likely to be talking about energy and water conservation, preservatives and chemicals in food, global warming and VOCs, but those conversations aren't producing change -- yet. Millennials are 23 percent less likely to have changed behaviors or made green purchases than the overall population.

So much for the power of youth.