Thursday, March 18, 2010

Americans Increasingly Unworried About the Environment

A new Gallup poll suggests that Americans are less worried about most environmental issues than they have been since Gallup began polling 20 years ago.

"Americans are less worried about each of eight specific environmental problems than they were a year ago, and on all but global warming and maintenance of the nation's fresh water supply, concern is the lowest Gallup has measured. Americans worry most about drinking-water pollution and least about global warming."

People grasp what their drinking water has to do with them. Overwhelmingly, I think they do not fully grasp what global warming has to do with them - and that's a rhetorical failure. Speaking at NESEA, one of my fellow panelists mentioned Bill McKibben's highly successful efforts through Project 350 and Step-It-Up, and I had to argue with her - because, with all due respect to Bill McKibben who I like and admire, those movements have been extremely effective in reaching people already inclined to be reached, and totally ineffective at changing the way people think about global warming. At the same time that highly effective movements are arranging million person demonstrations in the streets, most of the people who will actually tell their congressfolk whether to vote for change were watching Law and Order SVU.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not attacking activists. But the correct measures of activism's success are all showing failure here - popular engagement is disappearing. You can point out that most of the denialist activists are idiots all you want, and show people all the good science you want, and get the same people who will demonstrate for many good causes to come out and march all you want, and not make any meaningful change.

So what's the alternative? Focus on accomplishing the right ends, rather than on getting people to share the same worldview. Ends can be shifted much more easily than worldviews - what people want is a much shiftier thing than basic values or who they trust or how they see the larger world.

Back in October, I went to Georgia to speak at a conference at an Mercer College on Climate Change - one of the first climate change conferences held at an Evangelical University. Most of the people who brought me were political conservatives or moderates, and I expressed surprise, several times, that they'd be so pleased to have a leftist Jewish envrionmentalist come talk to them. Every time I did, the conversation went like this "Oh, who even knows anymore what liberal and conservative mean anymore? I'm so sick of the discussion - neither side is dealing with what's essential!" The point was our common goals - not our common politics.

Everywhere I speak, I run into that general frustration with politics, with barriers that no one knows how to get past - and an overwhelming passion for solutions, for things like changing lives and building better communal infrastructure and transforming institutions. There simply are not enough people who care deeply about global warming in the US - and there may never be, other than brief spikes of interest when something happens. By the time it fully grasps everyone's attention, it will probably be too late to do much. But people are often fairly dying to get past the old political barriers and talk about what to do.

The question that arises is this - is the preservation of a planet, a climate and a place that we can actually live in, an ecology that supports billions of lives a first or second order problem? Is the preservation of millions of lives a first-order moral requirement? If it is a first-order problem, indeed *the* first order problem, then you can compromise on many second-order problems in order to deal with it and to achieve desired outcomes. If it isn't a first order problem, indeed, one of the central first order problems, then we may as well sit around waiting until everyone cares - because the outcome is the same either way.

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