Americans Have Positive Image of the Environmental Movement

by Riley E. Dunlap
Gallup Scholar for the Environment

Majorities agree with movement's goals, and trust it to protect the nation's environment

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- April 22nd not only marks the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, but it is widely viewed as representing the 30th birthday of the modern environmental movement. While the older conservation movement was evolving into the more multifaceted environmental movement throughout the '60s, the first Earth Day is generally treated as the official beginning of modern environmentalism.

That hugely successful celebration, held nationwide on April 22, 1970, fused '60s activism with concern over environmental quality, and thrust "the environment" to the forefront of our nation's agenda. New organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, were formed at both the national and local levels, and older conservation organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, adopted a broader environmental agenda.

The emergence of a highly visible environmental movement was accompanied by passage of landmark environmental legislation, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, and establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These developments, combined with similar laws and agencies at the state level, institutionalized the concerns of environmentalists.

Ironically, many social movements find it difficult to survive once their goals are adopted by government (most social movements never manage to achieve such success in the first place). But while the environmental movement has had its ups and downs over the past 30 years, it continues to remain a vital force in American society.

A key element in the continued success of the environmental movement is that it has always enjoyed considerable public support, particularly for its key goal of environmental protection. Americans continue to support environmental protection, and this is evident in Gallup's new Earth Day 2000 poll. As shown in part one of Gallup's Earth Day series, which focused on environmental attitudes, a healthy majority chooses environmental protection over economic growth, and only 10% feel government is doing "too much" in terms of protecting the environment.

A unique feature of Gallup's Earth Day poll is that it probes public perceptions of the environmental movement, and involvement in environmental activism, in considerable detail. Today's report focuses on how Americans view the environmental movement, and the results suggest that most Americans have a positive view of the movement as it turns 30.

Evaluating the Environmental Movement
When presented with a list of eight important social movements active in recent decades and asked to rate them in terms of their impact on our nation's policies, three-fourths of Americans (76%) rate the environmental movement as having had either "a great deal" or "a moderate amount" of success. This places it behind the civil rights and women's rights movements, in a virtual tie with the abortion rights and gun-control movements (both of which are extremely visible at present), and ahead of the consumers' rights, animal rights and gay and lesbian rights movements.

Impact of the Environmental Movement

Great deal/
Moderate amount
(combined)

A great
deal

A moderate
amount

% % %
1. Civil Rights Movement 85 50 35
2. Women's Rights Movement 82 42 40
3. Gun-Control Movement 74 38 36
4. Abortion Rights Movement 75 36 39
5. Environmental Movement 76 30 46
6. Consumers Rights Movement 67 21 46
7. Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement 59 24 35
8. Animal Rights Movement 50 15 35

When next asked to indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree with the goals of the various movements, 83% of Americans express agreement and only 15% express disagreement with the goals of the environmental movement. The environmental movement trails only the civil rights and women's rights movements in levels of agreement.

Agreement with Environmental Movement Goals

Strongly
agree/
Somewhat
agree
(combined)

Strongly
Agree

Strongly
disagree/
Somewhat
disagree
(combined)

% % %
1. Civil Rights Movement 86 49 12
2. Women's Rights Movement 85 45 13
3. Environmental Movement 83 43 15
4. Consumers' Rights Movement 82 30 13
5. Animal Rights Movement 72 29 25
6. Gun Control Movement 69 43 29
7. Abortion Rights Movement 61 30 36
8. Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement 49 15 47

Observers of the environmental movement have often argued that it is one of the three major social movements -- the others being the civil rights and women's rights movements -- to have arisen in the last half of the 20th century. The foregoing results provide some support for this claim, as the environmental movement enjoys a degree of public agreement with its goals similar to that enjoyed by these other two movements. In terms of perceived impact on policy-making, however, it clearly lags behind -- and is currently challenged by the highly visible gun control and abortion rights' movements for third place.

Relationship to the Environmental Movement
In addition to rating the environmental movement, respondents were asked a series of questions about their personal relationship to environmentalism. When asked if they consider themselves an active participant in the environmental movement, sympathetic but not active, neutral or unsympathetic toward it, nearly 1 in 6 Americans (16%) say they are active in the movement. Another 55% are sympathetic toward the environmental movement, and only 5% are unsympathetic toward it.

This participation question has been asked in a variety of polls since 1978. Between 1978 and 1983, four national polls found between 7% and 13% of Americans claiming to be active in the environmental movement, and 47% to 55% sympathetic toward it. The combined figures for the active and sympathetic categories for these four polls ranged from 60% to 66%. The current survey's results of 71% (16% active and 55% sympathetic) thus represents a modest rise over the past couple of decades in the proportion of Americans indicating active involvement in, or at least a sympathetic orientation toward, the environmental movement.

Membership in Environmental Organizations
At the time of the first Earth Day there was a good deal of activism at the local level, but most of these efforts were short-lived and the environmental movement was dominated by large national organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation. In the past couple of decades, however, local, grass-roots environmental activism has experienced considerable growth.

In most parts of the nation, it is common these days to find environmental groups active at the neighborhood, community and regional levels. The growth of such groups has led to a more diverse movement, and the vitality of local environmental activism is reflected in responses to two questions about organizational membership. Although only 5% of Americans indicate membership in large national and international organizations such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, 9% report belonging to groups and organizations in their local community, region or state. These figures translate into millions of members for both national and local organizations.

Participation in Environmental Actions
There are many things that Americans can do to help protect the environment besides joining environmental organizations. When given a list of environmental behaviors, and asked to indicate which they have personally done "during the past year," respondents report varying levels of action depending on the behaviors in question.

Simple household behaviors, such as recycling (90%), reducing energy usage (83%), and trying to use less water (83%) are most common, closely followed by shopping behaviors. Many Americans say they have avoided environmentally harmful products (83%) or bought environmentally beneficial products (73%), an indication of the appeal of "green consumerism."

Sizable minorities also report more overtly activist behaviors: 40% have contributed money to an environmental group, 31% have signed a petition for an environmental cause, 20% have attended a meeting concerning the environment, 18% have contacted a public official about an environmental issue, and 15% are active in an environmental group or organization. Of special relevance in an election year is that 28% say they have voted or worked for candidates because of their position on environmental issues.

Finally, smaller percentages say they have engaged in stronger forms of green consumerism, contacting a business to complain about its products or policies because they harm the environment (13%), or buying or selling stocks based on the environmental record of the companies (9%).

Overall Assessment of the Environmental Movement
The survey next asked respondents to indicate whether they felt the environmental movement has done more good than harm, or more harm than good. Consistent with responses to the other survey questions, most Americans see the environmental movement as having done more good than harm. Three-fourths hold this view, with 33% indicating the movement has definitely done more good than harm and an additional 42% indicating it has probably done more good than harm. This is virtually identical to results from a 1992 Gallup survey.

Interestingly, there has been a slight increase in intensity of feeling among those who feel the environmental movement has done more harm than good. Today, 21% believe the movement's net impact has been negative, compared to only 14% in 1992. However, the fact that four times as many Americans say the environmental movement has done more harm than good (21%) as say they are unsympathetic toward the movement (5%) suggests that this question probably taps more than a simple positive/negative view of the movement. Perhaps some Americans who are sympathetic or at least neutral toward the movement disapprove of its tactics, or feel that it has produced unintended negative consequences.

Trust in Environmental Organizations
A final indicator of Americans' positive orientation toward the environmental movement comes from their rating of the degree of trust they place in environmental organizations -- relative to a variety of other institutions -- to protect the quality of our nation's environment.

When given a list of 12 types of institutions, Americans say they have the most trust in national and local environmental organizations when it comes to protecting the nation's environment. More than three-fourths (78%) have either a great deal or a moderate amount of trust in national environmental organizations, and nearly as many (74%) have comparable levels of trust in local environmental organizations.

Only federal and state environmental agencies come close to environmental organizations in terms of the degree to which Americans trust them to protect the environment. Americans place considerably less trust in the other six institutions, although they place considerably more trust in local government agencies and the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party and large corporations.

Public's Trust in Groups to Protect the Environment

A great
deal

A moderate
amount

Great deal/
Moderate amount
(combined)

% % %
1. National Environmental Organizations 34 44 78
2. Local Environmental Organizations 28 46 74
3. Federal Environmental Agencies like the EPA 27 45 72
4. State Environmental Agencies 21 51 72
5. Local Government Agencies 12 47 59
6. The Democratic Party 15 41 56
7. Small Businesses 13 35 48
8. The U. S. Congress 10 38 48
9. The Republican Party 10 33 43
10. Large Corporations 9 28 37

Environmentalism Seems Here to Stay
Thirty years after its founding, most Americans view the environmental movement quite positively. Large majorities of the public agree with its goals, see it as doing more good than harm, and trust it to protect our nation's environment, while significant minorities claim participation in its activities and organizations.

Yet, as noted in the prior report on Gallup's Earth Day 2000 survey, environmental problems currently are not a top priority for most Americans. Many environmentalists may lament this as they celebrate the 30th birthday of their cause, but this is not an atypical pattern for a social movement. No movement, however successful, can keep its cause at the top of the nation's agenda year in and year out. The goals of social movements must constantly vie with traditional concerns such the economy and crime, as well as currently newsworthy concerns (like today's emphases on education and moral values), for national attention.

A similar pattern is apparent in the civil rights and women's movements. Despite the strong endorsement given to both of these movements in our survey, neither racial nor sexual discrimination currently leads the list of Americans' top concerns. Yet, it seems clear that both are destined to remain important issues on our nation's agenda. The continued vitality of the environmental movement, particularly its strong public backing, suggests that environmental issues will not disappear from our national agenda for the foreseeable future. A highly visible environmental disaster, or significant debate over environmental issues in the upcoming election, could easily boost environmental problems back into the national spotlight.

Survey Methods
The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,004 adults, 18 years and older, conducted April 3-9, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

There are many social movements that try to have an impact on policy-making in our nation. For each of the following social movements, please tell me how much of an impact you think it has had on our nation's policies -- a great deal, a moderate amount, a slight amount or none at all. [RANDOM ORDER: A-H]

A great
deal

A moderate
amount

A slight
amount

None
at all

No
opinion

% % % % %
A. The Civil Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 50 35 11 3 1
B. The Abortion Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 36 39 18 6 1
C. The Gun-Control Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 38 36 18 7 1
D. The Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 24 35 27 12 2
E. The Environmental Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 30 46 20 3 1
F. The Women's Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 42 40 13 4 1
G. The Animal Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 15 35 35 13 2
H. The Consumers' Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 21 46 23 6 4

Regardless of how much impact, if any, each movement has had, please tell me if you personally agree or disagree with its goals. As I read each one, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with its goals. [RANDOM ORDER A-H]

Strongly
agree

Somewhat
agree

Somewhat
disagree

Strongly
disagree

No
opinion

% % % % %
A. The Civil Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 49 37 8 4 2
B. The Abortion Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 30 31 11 25 3
C. The Gun-Control Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 43 26 10 19 2
D. The Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 15 34 18 29 4
E. The Environmental Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 43 40 10 5 2
F. The Women's Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 45 40 9 4 2
G. The Animal Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 29 43 16 9 3
H. The Consumers' Rights Movement
2000 Apr 3-9 30 52 10 3 5

Thinking specifically about the environmental movement, do you think of yourself as -- An active participant in the environmental movement, Sympathetic towards the movement, but not active, Neutral, or unsympathetic towards the environmental movement]?

Active
participant

Sympathetic,
but not
active

Neutral

Unsympa-
thetic

No
opinion

% % % % %
2000 Apr 3-9 16 55 23 5 1

There are many different kinds of environmental organizations, including large national and international organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, as well as smaller, local organizations. First, do you, yourself, belong to any large national or international environmental organizations?

Yes

No

No
opinion

% % %
2000 Apr 3-9 5 95 *

Next, do you yourself belong to any environmental groups or organizations in your local community, region or state?

Yes

No No
opinion
% % %
2000 Apr 3-9 9 91 *

As I read the following list, please tell me how much you trust each of the following to protect the quality of our nation's environment -- a great deal, a moderate amount, a slight amount, or none at all? [RANDOM ORDER A-J]

A great
deal

A moderate
amount

A slight
amount

None
at all

No
opinion

% % % % %
A. Federal environmental agencies like the EPA
2000 Apr 3-9 27 45 18 9 1
B. Large corporations
2000 Apr 3-9 9 28 33 29 1
C. State environmental agencies
2000 Apr 3-9 21 51 19 8 1
D. National environmental organizations
2000 Apr 3-9 34 44 14 7 1
E. The U.S. Congress
2000 Apr 3-9 10 38 31 20 1
F. Local environmental organizations
2000 Apr 3-9 28 46 19 6 1
G. Small businesses
2000 Apr 3-9 13 35 34 18 *
H. Local government agencies
2000 Apr 3-9 12 47 28 13 *
I. The Republican Party
2000 Apr 3-9 10 33 32 24 1
J. The Democratic Party
2000 Apr 3-9 15 41 26 17 1

Which of these, if any, have you, yourself, done in the past year? [RANDOM ORDER A-M]

Yes,
have
done

No,
have
not done

No
opinion

% % %
A. Avoided using certain products that harm the environment
2000 Apr 3-9 83 17 0
B. Been active in a group or organization that works to protect the environment
2000 Apr 3-9 15 85 0
C. Voted for or worked for candidates because of their position on environmental issues
2000 Apr 3-9 28 72 0
D. Contributed money to an environmental, conservation or wildlife preservation group
2000 Apr 3-9 40 60 0
E. Contacted a public official about an environmental issue
2000 Apr 3-9 18 82 0
F. Contacted a business to complain about its products or policies because they harm the environment
2000 Apr 3-9 13 87 0
G. Signed a petition supporting an environmental group or some environmental protection effort
2000 Apr 3-9 31 68 0
H. Attended a meeting concerning the environment
2000 Apr 3-9 20 80 0
I. Tried to use less water in your household
2000 Apr 3-9 83 18 0
J. Bought some product specifically because you thought it was better for the environment than competing products
2000 Apr 3-9 73 27 0
K. Voluntarily recycled newspapers, glass, aluminum, motor oil or other items
2000 Apr 3-9 90 10 0
L. Reduced your household's use of energy
2000 Apr 3-9 83 16 1
M. Bought or sold stocks based on the environmental record of the companies
2000 Apr 3-9 9 91 0
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