National Study Reports on American Public's Environmental Views

Findings have interesting implications. It is easy to lose perspective in the day-to-day details of our lives. Between making a living, maintaining a household, meeting family and social obligations, and 'self-maintenance' (eating right and getting enough exercise, 'downtime,' and sleep), it may seem there is little time left for us to take in the "Big Picture." But to make progress and to be sure we are moving in the right direction, periodically we need to take stock of how we are doing.

In the environmental field we are fortunate in having several excellent sources of help in doing this. Granted, the assistance provided is on a national scale, lacking in details about distinctions in local and regional issues, as well as the public's views on them. But to help us understand what the American public knows about environmental issues, how they feel about such matters, and what they are doing to take action, a recent report of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF) provides a superb foundation. Plus, NEETF has been conducting public opinion surveys on environmental education and environmental issues long enough to be able to shed some light on how things are changing.

In their report, NEETF reveals some encouraging and some not-so-encouraging findings. First, it is gratifying to know that a vast majority of Americans remain resolute in their support of a healthy environment. By various measures, between 2/3 and 3/4 of adults say they hold environmental issues in high priority, and they overwhelmingly support more environmental education for our children, with 95% supporting it. This has been a consistent result of the survey over four years.

Another interesting finding is that 78% of Americans believe that environmental laws and regulations either do not go far enough (46%) or have achieved about the right balance (32%). Only 15% or respondents believe that regulations and laws go too far. This fact is in stark contrast to the impression often gathered by observing public discussion of legislative and budgeting proposals being considered by local and state government in Georgia.

[Editorial note: This may be (1) an example of politicians being several steps behind the public in their perception of priorities, (2) a result of the disproportionate influence of well-financed lobbyists who oppose environmental controls for narrowly defined, short-term business interests, or (3) a combination of both.]

Of the natural resources the public is most concerned about protecting, water and air are given the highest ranking. Fully 70% of respondents believe that water protection laws and regulations don't go far enough, and 63% believe air pollution is inadequately controlled. Lower ranked, but still significant, are concerns about improving protection for natural areas (habitats), with 50% believing more should be done, and wetlands, where 44% said that regulations and laws should go further. When analyzed by region of the nation, the South presented a strong position overall, reflecting the national averages.

[Editorial note: The survey makes no distinction between inadequate enforcement of existing laws and regulations, compared with inadequacy of the laws or regulations themselves. We believe that a large part of the public's perception of insufficient environmental protection is a result of poorly enforced laws, not due to defects in the laws or regulations. This means the Center holds that the public's views on insufficient environmental safeguards are significantly influenced by patchy sampling/monitoring, insufficient or technically inaccurate assessment, under-staffed or under-trained field enforcement operations, and/or politically compromised or otherwise weak follow-through by enforcement authorities. We do, however, recognize the need to strengthen certain state and federal environmental laws and regulations.]

What is rather confounding is that there appears to be little change in the public's nominal understanding about basic environmental principles and issues since the survey was first conducted in 1997. According to the report, despite extensive efforts by many public institutions and non-profit organizations over the past few years, results from administering a simple 12-point quiz reveal virtually no change in the public's comprehension of environmental issues. These scores show barely more than 50% of the answers being correct and only 32% of those taking it even passed the quiz. This result may also reinforce the public's strong belief in the value of environmental education for school children, but such motivation is uncertain.

However, these findings are at odds with the public's self-assessment in the survey, which showed they believe themselves to be fairly knowledgeable (59%) or to have "a lot" of knowledge about environmental issues (11%).

The upside is that, given the large majority support for environmental causes, it would seem that effective education could achieve substantial results - in terms of support for better monitoring and enforcement, funding for protection of natural areas, wildlife, and water quality, and general political backing for policies and funding needed to safeguard natural resources.

Another encouraging indicator is that a significant majority of the public feels that environmental quality and economic progress go hand in hand - a question that wasn't asked in prior surveys. An impressive 89% of those in the multiple survey groups agreed that "the condition of the environment will play an increasingly important role in the nation's economic future." This means that most people do not believe it is necessary to risk degrading or destroying public resources in order to achieve advancements in job-creation and affluence. This would also seem to imply that we are on the right track here at the Center through our efforts in promoting the concept of sustainability - balancing the interests of this and future generations to achieve greater compatibility between business, the health of our communities, and the quality of our environment.

It is clear from this report that environmental education must remain one of the Center's foremost priorities. To assist us in this important endeavor, we welcome your suggestions, financial contributions, and help as a volunteer. If we are to effectively manage the mounting demands of human activities within the limits of natural resource systems over the long term, we must prepare the next generation to assume this awesome responsibility. Environmental education is essential to this task.

The Center encourages you to look at the report, which is available at the NEETF website, where it may also be downloaded. For those without access to the Internet, copies of the report may be obtained by writing the Foundation at 1707 H street, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20006-3915, or by calling them at (202) 833-2933.
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