The growing awareness and importance of environmental sustainability
I know that there is great ideological intensity in our culture today: our attention is constantly drawn to the distinction between red states and blue states, and between conservatives and liberals. While conservatives often resist government action to fix problems, most environmental problems are obvious, and there’s more consensus than you might think when it comes to keeping our air, water, and land free of toxins. We agree there is a problem, we don’t always agree on the solution.
Throughout the 21stSt At the turn of the century, Gallup asked its respondents: How concerned are you personally about the quality of the environment? In March 2001, 77% answered ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ and 22% said ‘only a little’ or ‘not at all’. In 2021 the response was 75% to 24% and last March it was 71% to 28%. Given the margin of error in these polls, these answers are essentially the same — most Americans are concerned about the quality of the environment. In 2001, 57% of respondents thought the environment was getting worse and 36% thought it was getting better. Last spring, 59% thought it was getting worse and 35% thought it was getting better. The stability of these environmental perceptions is striking. Americans in the 21st centurySt Century are concerned about the environment, but unlike the 20thth Century Americans, they no longer identify with environmentalism.
Gallup paints a picture of an American electorate that doesn’t consider itself an “environmentalist” — 57% rejected that label in 2022. But at one time, many more Americans considered themselves environmentalists. In 1989, 76% said they were environmentalists and only 20% said they were not. What has changed? People still see the problem, but they are suspicious of the solutions proposed by “environmentalists”. The image of environmental protection has suffered as environmental defense left the political center and became a left-wing issue. But paradoxically, most Americans care about the quality of the environment and have long worried that it is deteriorating. Environmental protection and environmental protection have become victims of America’s policy of polarization.
People continue to worry about the environment, but is the quality of the environment actually getting worse? The problem is complicated. Some environmental resources, like America’s air and water, are cleaner today than they were in 1970 when we founded the EPA. We have taken millions of people out of exposure to toxic waste. But biodiversity is threatened, invasive species have increased and the climate is changing. The drinking water and sewage infrastructure was derelict. I think Americans are right in their concern about environmental degradation. More specifically, if we ignore the environment, it gets worse; If we apply attention, ingenuity and new technologies to its care, it will get better. Although there will be many more motor vehicles on the road in 2022 than in 1970, air pollution from motor vehicles is lower today than it was fifty years ago.
But what has become of environmental protection? What went wrong? In my view, there were two forces at work here. One is corporate and conservative propaganda arguing that regulation is bad for the economy. That is the argument of the “job-killing regulation”. The fact that regulation tends to create jobs as the industry conforms to new standards seems to be ignored. The second force that has harmed environmental protection is self-inflicted. It’s the arrogant scolding attitude of some environmentalists: shaming families for buying SUVs. Telling people that their consumption behavior is unethical. The first environmentalists were conservationists who aimed to preserve forests and lands for posterity, but also for hunting and fishing. With over six million members, the National Wildlife Federation is America’s largest environmental organization. It was founded in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression. Its founders and many of its members were and are hunters and anglers. Vegetarian environmentalists came a little later.
What we need is a large-scale version of environmentalism composed of rural hunters and anglers, environmental justice advocates, and environmentalists who are willing to work with people who share environmental values but differ on other issues. This coalition is sitting there, ready to take action.
While recent decades have made environmental protection a more partisan issue, there is strong evidence that young liberals and conservatives are more concerned about the environment than older conservatives. Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy of the Pew Research Center wrote in 2020:
“There is a strong consensus among Democrats that the federal government is doing too little on key environmental issues such as protecting water and air quality and reducing the impact of climate change. But among Republicans, there are considerable differences in views by generation. Millennials and younger Republicans — adults born in 1981 or later — are more likely to think government’s efforts to mitigate climate change are inadequate than Republicans in the baby boomer or older generation (52% vs. 31%).”
Young conservatives do not buy the solutions to environmental problems proposed by liberals and supported by young progressives, but they understand the problem. Part of the reason for this growing awareness is that senior private sector managers have begun to see both the risks and the opportunities in environmental issues. The opportunity lies in the new products and services that resonate with the market because they appeal to environmental values. Investors are investing capital in electric vehicles, sustainable fashion, physical and nutritional well-being, outdoor excursions and sustainable supply chains. Companies conduct life cycle assessments of their products to identify places where waste, costs and environmental impact can be reduced. Agribusinesses like Land O’Lakes use automation, artificial intelligence, and satellite data to accurately calibrate the water, fertilizer, and pesticides they apply to crops, reducing pollutant runoff while saving huge amounts of money.
Investors have begun to recognize the financial risks posed by environmental degradation. They are calling for companies to analyze and disclose those risks, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission is proposing a complex rule governing the requirements for soon-to-be-mandated climate risk disclosures. Extreme weather, sea level rise and climate change affect agriculture, manufacturing, shipping and virtually all economic activities. Young conservatives are unlikely to turn down a mandate from their CEOs to analyze and discuss climate risks. CEOs need to understand this risk since it started to achieve their bottom line, and investors need to understand environmental risk to assess the financial risk of their investments.
What we see is that environmental awareness has come full circle. In the 1970s and 1980s, pollution prevention was a consensus issue because pollution was observable and obviously dangerous. It reverts to consensus status for the same reason. In the later half of the 20thth Throughout the twentieth century, air, water, and toxic regulations stimulated private sector technological innovation: water filtration, wastewater treatment, energy recovery, catalysts, and chimney scrubber technologies enabled cost-effective environmental compliance. Climate policy begins in the 21st centurySt Century. Advances in renewable energy and battery technologies are happening more and more frequently. Electric vehicles are no longer visionary prototypes, but series models for the mass market.
Anyone who pays attention realizes that we are on a more crowded and polluted planet. If we want to continue to grow our economies, we need to pay more attention to the environmental impact of our production and consumption. The field of sustainability management was developed to ensure that we learn how to do this and the whole field is based on a growing awareness of the needs of environmental sustainability.
Objective conditions have always been the basis of environmental policy. You could see and smell polluted air, water and toxic waste. In addition, cause and effect could be observed: the pipes and chimneys could be seen spewing poison. Climate change and biodiversity are more subtle and less easily observable issues, and unlike many 20thCentury cause and effect are global and beyond the reach of sovereign nations. Nonetheless, the impacts predicted by climate modellers decades ago are now visible and the associated risks are being internalized by capital markets, prompting calls for corporate climate disclosure. Ideological efforts to resist these disclosures will have the same effect as a move to end financial accounting. No impact. Increasing environmental threats have increased environmental awareness throughout society and have highlighted our efforts to ensure economic growth is achieved with the least possible environmental impact.