Earth in the Balance

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Public attitudes on the issue of environmentalism. Most "green" issues are presented as choices between protecting the environment and growing the economy. You can have a logging industry or save the spotted owl. You can reduce greenhouse gases or have industrial growth. Most Americans, however, seem to be seeking a choice that includes and rather than just or.

A Gallup survey conducted in April 2000, found that 67 percent of the public would rather protect the environment over economic growth, if forced to choose. Yet, in an October 1999 Wirthlin Worldwide survey, 69 percent said it was "not necessarily a choice between the two." Some 83 percent of Americans told Pew researchers in October 1999 that there should be stricter laws on the environment, but questions that asked how much people were willing to pay, got decidedly mixed responses. When a May 1999 American Lung Association survey asked how much people would be willing to pay for cleaner fuel, there was no majority for any specific price.

Half of all Americans say they consider themselves environmentalists, but that's down from three-quarters of the public in 1989. Yet most Americans, particularly younger people, also expect the environment to get worse in the 21st century. One possible explanation surfaced in focus groups which Public Agenda conducted in 1998. Many participants seemed convinced of the gravity of environmental problems, but believed the underlying cause was human greed and selfishness. Since those human failings couldn't be easily addressed, the participants said, there isn't much hope for solving the environmental problems they cause.

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