Sunday, April 22, 2012, marked the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day in the United States. This is generally a time for companies, governments, and non-profits to tout the good they are doing for the environment. These same organizations will also motivate the public to take action on the environment – many will hold Earth Day fairs or sponsor events like a River Clean-Up Day. In fact, these types of activities have become expected and ubiquitous. But the Annual Earth Day celebration is also a good time to reflect on some of the highs and lows of the environmental movement in the United States. In many ways, the US has been a leader in the environmental arena, but there have been obstacles as well.
The modern environmental movement was born here. The first Earth Day was held in the US in 1970 (as mentioned above), Republican President Richard Nixon had the foresight to create the Environmental Protection Agency, and Legislation like the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Superfund (1980) have become models for the rest of the world. But at the same time, America has suffered environmental setbacks. The US failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol limiting global green-house gas emissions, and many proposed environmental policies have been stalled over fears of possible economic damage.
At GfK Roper Consulting we have observed similar peaks and valleys in the public’s attitudes and behaviors toward the environment through our annual Green Gauge surveys conducted in the US and 24 other countries around the world. For example, increased Institutional support and public awareness has doubled the level of US adults who now recycle at least some of their waste. In addition, support of environmental education has lifted overall knowledge of environmental issues nearly 30% since 1995. At the same time, the US remains one of the most skeptical nations in the world when it comes to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Moreover, in relation to the rest of the world the US tends to view the cost of going green as “too high” and “too time consuming.”
Despite some of the valleys, the environmental movement in the US is on a positive trajectory that will be very difficult to stop. Young Americans and institutions point the way. Americans under the age of 45 display a concern, interest, and motivation toward environmental issues that will keep environmentalism part of the national conversation into the foreseeable future. In addition, the environment retains strong support within large institutions – corporate America, governments (local, state, and federal), and non-profits. Indeed, it is this support that has kept the movement afloat through difficult economic times.
So as we celebrate the 42nd anniversary of one of the most influential movements of our time, there is every reason to hope that our descendants will be celebrating the centennial anniversary in 2070.
Note: Green Gauge has been tracking environmental attitudes and behaviors in the United States and abroad since 1990. Fresh data from the 2012 Green Gauge US and Global Surveys will be available starting this June. For more information please contact Tim at Tim.Kenyon@gfk.com.