Myth: Americans Don’t Care About the Environment

Is It Passe to Care About the Environment?

In the world of trendy “isms,” one day you’re in, the next, you’re out. Take environmentalism, for one. In the ’90s, everyone wanted to be an environmentalist; the trend was so palpable that in early 1990, Fortune magazine declared it “the Earth Decade.”

Fast forward to today, when the new tastemakers on the block, aka Millennials, don’t wanna be environmentalists, according to a 2014 Pew survey. Now when you Google “sexy environmentalists,” the most recent hit is from 2012. Search “cool environmentalists,” and the results are even bleaker: Urban Dictionary ranks high in the search results with pretty choice words for the environmentalists of the world, which, shelter your eyes, kids, “as popular as a turd in a punch bowl.” Ouch.

More than being just an aging fad, though, several studies—which we’ll dig into below—indicate that Americans are worrying less about the environment in the new millennium. So, does all this mean no one cares about nature anymore?

Let’s see what the numbers reveal—as well as what experts on the human relationship with nature have to say on the matter: hat tip to some brilliant minds at the Center for Humans and Nature and Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods.

On One Hand, the Downside

Survey says—in a word, blah. Warning: sobering numbers ahead! An ongoing Gallup poll of public attitude in the U.S. about the environment reveals dismal downward trends in the new millennium.

Those who consider themselves sympathetic fell from 55 to 41 percent from 2000 to 2015. When asked how much they personally worry about the quality of the environment, the number of people who answered “Great deal” shrank from 42 to 34. More specifically, fewer people now worry “a great deal” about pollution than in 1989: water pollution worries shot down from 72 to 47 percent; air pollution, from 63 to 38 percent. Support for policy is lagging too, with 12 percent fewer Americans favoring spending more to develop solar and wind power (down from 79 percent in 2001 to 67 percent in 2014), and the a drop in the those who favor stricter pollution for businesses and industry from 84 percent 65 percent between 2007 and 2014.

Meanwhile, Green Gauge, an SC Johnson and GfK Roper Consulting survey, found that the number of Americans who consider concern about the environment to be “very serious” and something that “should be a priority for everyone” dropped from 46 percent to 33 percent between 2007 and 2011.

And those are just a few of the lowlights.

There are also some behavioral examples of where the U.S. gets a “needs improvement” on the eco-report card. Case in point: the National Geographic 2012 Greendex survey found Americans are now least likely to use our own reusable bags, out of the 18 countries participating, which range from Argentina to Russia.

Does all this mean we’ve collectively lost that loving feeling for Mama Earth? Not necessarily.

Though the Green Gauge study demonstrates a downward trajectory in environmental concern, it also casts light on at least one big reason the numbers seem to be down: economic angst. The survey reveals changing priorities—not that people don’t care about the environment, but that other concerns have risen above this issue: 41 percent agree that first comes economic security, and then we can worry about environmental problems—up 13 points from pre-recession levels in 2007.

In other words, unlike the relatively booming ’90s when we had fewer economic concerns and therefore potentially more bandwidth to devote to environmental issues, the new millennium has brought with it a different order of priorities for mainstream America. Many people are more actively worried about how the lingering effects of the economic downturn will impact their retirement savings, or even their ability to keep food on the table, than they are about other issues—but it doesn’t mean the caring’s over.

What’s more, many great minds have argued that economic security is utterly dependent on reliable natural resources, aka, a healthy natural environment.

On the Other Hand—Not-so-cruel Intentions

The thing about data is, there’s way too much of it in today’s high-tech world to draw simple conclusions from any of it. It’s really only valuable when someone smart (and/or a robot) rolls up their sleeves and crunches the numbers. So while the stats cited above seem to indicate we’ve jumped ship on environmental issues, other stats suggest that our intentions really are better than meets the eye.

  • We want action!: 71 percent of respondents in a 2014 Pew survey agreed with the principle that the country “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.”
  • We have good personal intentions!: Consider the National Geographic Greendex survey, which found that more than three quarters of Americans (78 percent) intend to make at least some improvement to personal habits, with 22 percent interested in making a significant or very significant improvement in personal impact on the long-term wellbeing of the environment.
  • We try to buy green!: 71 percent of Americans consider the environment when they shop, up from 66 percent in 2008, according to research from Cone Communications’ Green Gap Trend Tracker.

Those good intentions add up, in the eyes of Kevin Ogorzalek, MS, who is working with the Center for Humans and Nature to develop a three-year project devoted to exploring how we care for nature. He and his team believe that people who care for nature do so because of the emotional or spiritual fulfillment caring gives them.

We’re all in a relationship with the world in which we live—some of us are just more likely to put a ring on it.

And in an era where environmental issues are so often shrouded in doom and gloom, there’s a not insignificant feel-good quotient to caring. Even small “sacrifices” like turning off the lights can demonstrate an inordinate level of care, he says.

“We see sacrifice as a negative term, but maybe that’s wrong—maybe by buying into a different system, we become part of something bigger that helps us find more meaning in life,” says Ogorzalek. “Turning ‘simple actions’ that we used to do by rote into more meaningful actions can definitely be a source of pride.”

Recognize that we care, at least in some way, about the earth—and therefore feel like a million bucks, too? Score one for the home planet team!

Warm/fuzzy Inspires Collective Action

Some people have warm and fuzzy feelings about this sweet planet—and you’re thinking, so what? That we care about nature or the environment may seem insignificant, says John Barrett, JD, MA, who has become accustomed to questions of the intersection of people and nature during his tenure as interim executive director at Brushwood Center.

“I think the important part about caring is that it’s the catalyst for specific behavior,” he says. “A person is generally going to make deliberate choices based on what they feel or care about.”

“We already show we care in obvious ways,” says Ogorzalek, from volunteering at nature centers or donating to a cause, to even smaller daily activities, like going outside to read a book in the park, or choosing a microbead-free face wash at the store.” He says even our leisure activities speak to care for the natural world. For example, did you know that 292 million people visited our national parks in 2014, while 700 million people visited wildlife in global zoos and aquariums?

The more each of us actively cares for the environment, the more likely we are to make a difference together. And guess what. Numbers back it up, too. Green Gauge demonstrates some major progress in individual action. For example, comparing 2011 to 1990 numbers reveals that on a regular basis: twice as many Americans now sort trash to separate garbage from recyclables (58 percent), buy stuff made from or packaged in recycled materials (29 percent), and cut back on driving (18 percent).

More evidence pours in from all corners: More of us grow our own veggies—35 percent of all households in America, or 42 million households, are growing food at home or in a community garden, up 17 percent in five years, according to the National Gardening Association’s 2014 report; Meatless Mondays campaigns are now active in 36 countries; and Bicycle Friendly Communities, including Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Denver and Lexington, Ky., have more than doubled their bike commuter share since 2000, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

All in all, we care!! But, how do we explain the contrast between people’s actions and those disturbing stats about environmental attitudes?

Actions Speak Louder Than Labels

Our good intentions and resulting actions together illustrate a real connection between Americans and the environment we inhabit. So does that mean most of us do care, the studies are bogus, and we can all go home and make granola now? Not so fast. Politics and, yes, progress both contribute to changing perceptions of what it means to support environmental issues. We may well care for nature just as much, or even more than ever—but we’re answering the same questions differently today because the cultural meanings of the words have changed, too.

Cue the aforementioned environmentalist blahs. This 2013 Canadian study found that people are generally turned off from environmental activists—but it’s not the message or concept they’re rejecting so much as the name or behavior they project on to the name. And, like we mentioned earlier, Millennials are not so keen on the label, themselves. But, the fact that the “ism” may have lost some popularity with the younger crew doesn’t mean Millennials don’t make decisions that reflect concern or care for the environment. In fact, they actually do support environmental policy more actively than older generations, according to another Pew poll.

“I think you have to consider an evolving definition of what it might mean to be an ‘environmentalist,’” says Barrett. “For example, 20 years ago, only ‘crazy hippie environmentalists’ cared about recycling, but today, recycling is second nature for so many people.” It may simply not occur to some people to dub that, or buying organic, etc., an environmentalist thing to do—it’s just routine in your community.

Love the environment but loathe the ism? There’s a reason there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. Words matter (even when they’re mysteriously only 8/10s of a word). And yet, the continental divide that has grown between one who digs nature and “environmentalist” is propagating the myth that Americans don’t care.Thing is, caring about the environment is virtually the same thing as caring about nature because, dictionary. According to everyone’s pal Merriam Webster, the “environment” is just another word for the natural world, and nature is the physical world and everything in it, including people (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people. How we vote can certainly impact Mother Nature—and yet, it doesn’t have to define our relationship to nature or the environment.

For his part, Barrett thinks that if you accept and adopt certain behaviors that have significant consequences on the natural world, then you don’t actually have to call yourself an environmentalist. “More importantly, maybe it’s a signal of the movement’s success if entire communities of people are willing to adopt environmentally conscious behaviors but don’t actually identify as environmentalists?”

We’ll leave that doozy to next year’s surveys. For now, the bottom line is, plenty of people care for natural resources, in plenty of different ways. And that’s cool.

Myth Outcome: The Jury’s Still Out

Is caring about the environment passe? Some numbers show that Americans are less concerned about environmental issues than in decades past. But when you strip away the politics and the perceptions to review actual behavior, there are promising signs that many people do care for the environment, whether they identify as environmentalists or not.

One Green Thing

Everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten, EcoMyths edition: Sharing is caring! Share your time with Mama Earth by picking up litter at your fave outdoor spot.

Multiplier Effect: If every American spent one hour

this week picking up litter, we’d log over 36,600 years of pro bono time for nature.

More ways you can help:

  • Take a moment to think about ways in which your daily actions demonstrate care for the environment. Celebrating and discussing these actions with your fri

    ends helps spread positive change.
  • Turn good intentions into action: get outside and pay attention.
  • Volunteer at your favorite local conservation site.
  • Search out all the ways we as humans are interconnected to everything else on Earth—and in the universe!