|View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
A new Gallup Poll shows that while Americans believe that the environment is not in great shape, and is getting worse, they don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about it, and are now more likely than ever to place economic considerations above environmental ones. In fact, given the known tendency of people to shade their answers towards what they believe the pollster wants to hear, I wouldn't be surprised if the swing were even larger than shown.
Note the difference between the effect of the 1990-91 recession and the latest one, as well. Possibly, the brevity and relative mildness of the 1990-91 recession kept it from having much effect on this question. The later recession may have lasted long enough for people to begin to consider these sorts of tradeoffs. Still, there was enough anger there to dump Bush 41 from office. A more politically attuned president might have been able to draw these connections more vividly for people.
It's also possible that people better understand the job and economic costs of delaying and rerouting major highways to avoid wiping out rare mosquitos. If that's the case, it's going to take a prolonged recovery before the pendulum swings back.
It's not surprising that people believe that the environment is in bad shape. Certainly the media work hard enough to create that impression. Everyone knows that cyanide is bad for you. Bill Clinton can pose for pictures all day in front of the only scenic vista in the entire 1/4 of Southern Utah he turned into a national monument, and no one will ever know about the people who've suddenly, and without their consent or even input, lost the use of their land for anything but and postcard stands. That magic transformation from economically viable energy source into pretty-but-undistinguished-but-politically-popular-protected-"environment" has costs that are as camouflaged as that wild turkey you can't shoot any more. (I've driven through that land - twice - and I promise you that what's interesting about it could fit in about 1/10 of the land they set aside. And the rest of it wasn't exactly in imminent danger from either WalMart or urban sprawl.)
The other problem here is that the word "environment" can mean just about anything. The air is cleaner, the water safer to drink, species are coming off the endangered species list, and not from extinction, but "the environment" is threatened. Some people think clean water, other people think National Parks, and still others think "global warming," or, if you're behind or ahead of the curve, "ice age." So to ask people about "the environment" is to ask them about everything or nothing.
What this says to me is that people may be getting to the point where they think the acute crises have been addressed, that there are plenty of laws in place now, and that their "worries" are mostly about the abstract. And people can always worry about the abstract tomorrow, after they've paid the mortgage.