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As we approach the 40th anniversary of the original Earth Day, two new polls, as well as one recent report, raise important alarm bells about our attitudes toward nature and should, by extension, influence a new mission statement for the next ‘New West.’ The first poll is Gallup’s annual update on American feelings toward the environment. The news is sobering. According to Gallup, national concern continues a steady decline and has reached a point where “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.” On six of eight specific environmental problems, concern is the lowest Gallup has ever measured. Americans worry most about drinking-water pollution and least about global warming. On the latter, the poll shows that the public has become less worried about the threat of global warming over the last two years. Citizens are “less convinced that its effects are already happening,” says Gallup, “and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence.”

Do We Care Less? Polls Show Decline in Concern for the Environment

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the original Earth Day, two new polls, as well as one recent report, raise important alarm bells about our attitudes toward nature and should, by extension, influence a new mission statement for the next ‘New West.’

The first poll is Gallup’s annual update on American feelings toward the environment. The news is sobering. According to Gallup, national concern continues a steady decline and has reached a point where “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.”

On six of eight specific environmental problems, concern is the lowest Gallup has ever measured. Americans worry most about drinking-water pollution and least about global warming. On the latter, the poll shows that the public has become less worried about the threat of global warming over the last two years. Citizens are “less convinced that its effects are already happening,” says Gallup, “and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence.”

This unsettling assessment is backed up by a major survey conducted jointly by Yale and George Mason Universities titled the “Climate Change Generation” which focuses Americans who came of age since the “discovery” of man-made climate change in 1988. The survey’s authors assumed that young Americans “growing up in a world of ever more certain scientific evidence, increasing news attention, alarming entertainment portrayals, and school-based curricula, should be more engaged with and concerned about the issue of climate change than older Americans.”

They’re not. The survey revealed that Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 were split on the issue, and on some indicators they are relatively disengaged when compared to older Americans. In fact, the majority of both under 23’s and 23-43 year-olds said they are either not very or not at all worried about global warming.

Why? Why the decline in concern about the environment – especially now, just as major trouble appears to be looming? According to Gallup and the climate survey authors, two factors are influencing national attitudes: (1) the sour economy has moved jobs, health care, and other economic needs to a high priority; and (2) there’s a general belief among Americans that things have gotten better on the environmental front in the last twenty years, not worse.

But there’s a third possibility that’s even more alarming: people simply care less and less about the environment with each passing year.

This observation comes from a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, 2008 (vol. 105. no. 7) by Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic titled: “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation.” That title alone should be a wake-up call for all westerners.

A previous study they did on national park visitation in the U.S. found that after a steady 50-year increase, attendance peaked in 1987 and has been declining ever since. This conclusion received widespread attention, including some vocal skepticism, so they decided to follow it up with a comprehensive study of sixteen new variables, including national park visitation in Japan and Spain, day-visits to BLM lands, national forests, and state parks in the U.S., as well as hunting, fishing, camping, and backpacking trend data going back in some cases to the 1930s.

Their discovery? The decline in U.S. national park visitation was no anomaly. All sixteen variables showed long-term downward trends, with each peaking in the mid-1980s, including visits to Japan and Spain’s national parks.

Their conclusion is jolting: “The many short-tem correlations in declining public land use in the U.S. and Japan suggest that there has been a fundamental and general national and potentially international shift in people’s participation in nature recreation over the past 20 years.”

This trend has enormous implications, they insist. Among other things, research shows that environmentally responsible behavior results from direct contact with nature. No contact = no interest = no action. Peter Kareiva, of The Nature Conservancy, responding in the next issue of Proceedings, wrote that if this trend is maintained “then the pervasive decline in nature recreation may well be the world’s greatest environmental threat.”

As a result, he agrees with Pergams and Zaradic that the decades-old argument for environmental protection based on the intrinsic value of nature is failing, and needs to be replaced with an ecosystem services argument (services that provide food, water, and fuel for humans), especially since more than half of the world’s populations now live in cities.

This is a big deal. Not only is it a far cry from the aim of the original Earth Day, it challenges the modus operandi of the current recreationally-focused New West. Clearly, important changes are afoot, and we should consider them carefully as we contemplate what we do next.

Courtney White is the executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and the author of Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West as well as countless articles and essays on the region. His Along the Frontier column runs on NewWest.Net twice a month. Read more from Courtney at his Web site, www.awestthatworks.com.

You can read Courtney’s entire series of columns, which are presented as a sequence, on his New West archive at www.newwest.net/courtneywhite. See the most recent columns below.

The New, Carbon West
Understanding the ‘New’ West: Whither the Public Lands?
The Geography of Hope
After the West’s New Gold Rush

About Courtney White

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