Where have all the environmentalists gone?

Check out the time series from Gallup:

Trend: Americans' Self-Identification as "an Environmentalist"

As you’d expect, this has been especially true among Republicans, but there’s been a solid drop among Democrats, too.

Trend: Americans' Self-Identification as "an Environmentalist," by Political Party

Interestingly, it is probably more so that the label “environmentalist” has come to disfavor, rather than the actual beliefs behind it.  Here’s the long-term GSS data on spending on the environment.


Though there’s been some decline since a 1990’s peak, we are still looking at a solid majority who thinks we are spending too little to protect the environment.  (Though, the anti-environmentalism among the GOP is presumably working to a modest degree when you see that the small number of those who think we spend too much has pretty much doubled).  Anyway, why the label has fallen out of favor is probably worth a good political science study.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

7 Responses to Where have all the environmentalists gone?

  1. Jon K says:

    For me the term environmentalist carries implications of having a non-scientific, almost religious, approach to environmental issues. Environmentalists, in my opinion, are usually anti-capitalist, and are interested in things like destroying oil companies that are “evil”. They are against things – like Keystone Pipeline and more nuclear power plants – that would actually benefit the environment because they think anything that benefits an oil company is automatically bad, or knee-jerk fear of nuclear power. They have impossible demands that if implemented would dismantle the gains of the industrial revolution, and would result in the deaths of many people all over the world. At the same time they make their unreasonable demands they still drive cars, use plastic, and live middle and upper middle class lifestyles.

    I care about climate change and clean water. However I try to look at costs and benefits. I believe that the industrial revolution, and internal combustion engines, have allowed us to live better than any humans before us could have ever dreamed of. I wouldn’t want to be called an environmentalist.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Well, sometimes the Republican in you is still strong :-). I recognize those stereotypes (and their basis in reality), but I think of environmentalists as people like me who believe we need to prioritize the needs of the users of the ordinary users of the environment (i.e., almost all of us), over the needs of big business to pollute. A balance of course, but is the focus the public interest or the narrow financial interest of particular companies/industries.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Does costs and benefits analysis work that well in the face of an existential threat like climate change? Did anyone do a cost and benefit analysis after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the Nazis declared war on us to figure out if we could afford to respond?
    Many people think climate change is exponentially a greater threat than World War II, maybe even our military thinks it’s this serious.
    Do we postpone sufficient action because it won’t hurt us tomorrow or next week?
    Seems to me the term “environmentalist” has declined because climate change unbelievers have denied the findings of environmental science, helped by the fossil fuel industry money and propaganda to ridicule them.

    • Jon K says:

      The industrial revolution, primarily fueled by fossil fuels, has enabled more people to live happier, better, more productive, longer lives than any other period of human existence. That is an undeniable fact. While it might be nice to live in a world where we can have all the benefits without burning carbon that world doesn’t exist and isn’t likely to exist in our lifetimes. Quite simply the technology does not exist. Yes, renewable energy is promising, but it can in no way meet the energy demands of the world. Agricultural production alone is dependent on fossil fuels, and that is at all levels of production. As I learned from The Omnivore’s Dillema everything you eat corn, or products derived from corn you are essentially taking in energy made possible by oil.

      Humans will adapt to changes in climate. There is no way to “stop” climate change. The costs in human lives is just too high. What we will do is adapt. Personally, I accept the implications of climate change, yet reject the most extreme predictions of doom. Climate models are just that models. There is significant variation in the projections of what may possibly happen.

      • itchy says:

        “There is no way to “stop” climate change.”

        This, to me, seems like such a cop-out. Where are the conservatives of the 1950s and ’60s who were at the forefront of progress? The ones who read Popular Mechanics and believed in novel solutions to create a better world? Who were the first to say that, with focus and determination and ingenuity, we can surmount our problems?

        During World War II, it was patriotic to conserve, to be responsible stewards of our resources.

        Isn’t it conservative to be an environmentalist? Don’t we want to conserve the bounty we have? Don’t conservatives believe in personal responsibility and thriftiness? Don’t they look down upon hedonism and wastefulness and short-sightedness?

        I don’t understand today’s conservatives. They should be the first in line to protect the environment. It saddens me that Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon would be labeled as Al Gores today.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    How ironic that the very fuel of the human race’s rise in numbers and wealth could well be the cause of the decline and fall of it. When populations flee the shores and flooded cities, the struggle for increasingly scarce resources will cause untold misery.
    Just ask our military planners.
    I don’t see much to suggest that rational measures will be in effect soon enough. Complex economies fall under the pressure of panicked, moving waves of humanity.
    We have already had a small taste of what it could be like in the flight of the Syrians.

    • Jon K. says:

      Decline and fall? Wow! That sounds horrible. Yet the environment is a complex system that has been and will continue to change despite human interaction and intervention. Yes, we can take steps to to mitigate potential damage, but the climate isn’t a problem that can just be fixed with simple solutions. Especially when those solutions require every country in the world to adopt policies that will hurt them economically.

      Even the current proposals don’t require China and the developing world to adopt significant changes to their practices. The reason why is because they can’t and won’t adopt them. That is why many climate scientists, like those working for the military, aren’t focused on “stopping” climate change. What they are doing is looking at the implications of it and figuring out how to adapt to them. One example of this is planning for open ocean routes in the North that have been too frozen for anything but submarines. This represents a huge issue in terms of defense, and plans are already being formed for basing and patrolling of those waters. That is the type of work that can and will help deal with the inevitable changed that are going to happen.

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