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America's Green Zeitgeist
Joel Makower, 20 Nov 05

I've just been given a sneak peek at the findings of the 2005 "Green Gauge Report," and it has implications for anyone seeking to promote sustainability, climate action, green consumerism, clean technologies, or any other worldchanging product, service, or cause.

Since 1990, the Green Gauge has been a signature service of the Roper Organization, the polling arm of what is now the market research firm GfK NOP. Every year (except for 2004), Green Gauge has tracked the environmental attitudes and belief systems of five market segmentations of American consumers. It is based on 2,000 face-to-face interviews that are "balanced to the most recent U.S. census," according to Roper. I've been tracking Green Gauge results since the beginning and find them an interesting, and sobering, look at Americans' environmental Zeitgeist.

This year's, the first since 2003, shows that Americans are still reasonably concerned about environmental issues (though arguably not necessarily the critical ones), but they remain relatively ignorant of key environmental issues and solutions. No surprise there. But what is surprising is how much Americans seem to be shifting their search for solutions to an unlikely source: the federal government.

That's right: the more-energy-at-any-cost, drill-in-the-Arctic, efficiency-is-for-wimps, blood-for-oil, nuclear-powered feds.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

One of the first things I noticed in reviewing the most recent Green Gauge findings is how much they mirror the results of a decade ago. Here's a breakdown of the study's five market segmentations for 2005 and 1995 (the numbers don't add up to 100 due to rounding):

  • True-Blue Greens -- the most environmentally active segment of society: 11% of the U.S. population in 1995, 11% in 2005.

  • Greenback Greens -- those most willing to pay the highest premium for green products: 7% in 1995, 8% in 2005.

  • Sprouts -- fence-sitters who have embraced environmentalism more slowly: 31% in 1995, 33% in 2005.

  • Grousers -- uninvolved or disinterested in environmental issues, who feel the issues are too big for them to solve: 14% in 1999, 14% in 2005.

  • Apathetics -- the least engaged group who believe that environmental indifference is mainstream (referred to as "Basic Browns" in earlier Roper polls): 35% in 1995, 33% in 2005.

    So, plus ├ža change.

    Despite the apparent status quo, "Americans are absolutely knowing, thinking, and feeling greener," Bob Pares, the Roper senior vice president who directed the 2005 Green Gauge, told me last week. "But," he adds, "whether they are acting greener is, of course, the missing link."

    As evidence, Pares points to a variety of the poll's findings, such as the sharp spike in concern about energy shortages and prices (the poll was taken in July, weeks before Katrina and Rita sent gas prices skyward), increased concern over threats to drinking water, and persistent worries about chemicals and other potential health threats.

    The issues of greatest concern reflect Americans' longstanding "me first" attitude on the environment -- that is, their predominant concern about environmental problems that affect them directly. Water pollution, emissions from automobiles and factories, and health hazards from abandoned toxic sites were the top issues Americans said were "very serious." Destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer rounded out the top-five issues, likely because it is associated with increased incidence of skin cancer from sun exposure.

    But climate change -- what most scientists and activists consider the greatest threat among environmental concerns -- ranked near the bottom of Americans' "very serious" rankings, leading only nuclear power plant accidents, which no longer seem to have achieved, well, critical mass among public concerns.

    But the biggest surprise of the survey is who Americans see as the savior to these problems. Unlike past surveys, in which environmental groups consistently ranked highest among the groups Americans "trust the most to achieve a balance between economic development and environmental protection," the feds shot to the top of the list, gaining 10 points since the 2003 survey, while enviro groups dropped 13 points to land in third place, behind "individuals." State government (up 4 points) ranked fourth, followed by corporations (up 3 points) in last place. Environmentalism may not be dead, but it sure seems to be ailing.

    When it comes to fixing the world's environmental ills, says Pares, "There's a reluctant acknowledgment that the powers that be must be the ones to ultimately do it or not do it. The will of the people still carries a lot of weight, but it is not going to carry the ball over the line."

    One distressing signal was Americans' reluctance to embrace clean technology, such as renewable energy and alternative-fuel vehicles. Roper saw a nine-point drop in the number of people agreeing that "New technologies will come along to solve environmental problems before they get out of hand," from 47% in 2003 to 38% this year.

    So: more federal government action, but not necessarily on pushing cleaner, greener technology? Hmmm.

    "When you look at the across-the-board movement on these questions, you see an acknowledgment that things are not getting better, but perhaps a shift in how we're going to move forward in dealing with them," says Pares. "I think the acknowledgment is stronger than it's ever been, perhaps born out of frustration, perhaps out of pragmatism, but clearly a significant direction."

    He adds: "Clearly, the public gets that this is a real agenda, more important than ever before. And that's wonderful news. One of the next questions is: 'What now?'"

    What now, indeed?

    For more information on the Green Gauge Report, contact Pares at

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    Interesting. I've seen some political polling recently that seems to suggest very different breakdowns and priorities among voters.

    I wonder how much of that is an artifact of who's being asked? Political polls tend to concentrate on regular voters, who are a fraction of the US population as a whole, and tend to be more educated and informed than the population as a whole.

    In any case, this is great info. Thanks for posting it, Joel!

    Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 Nov 05

    how do these results in the US compare to the rest of the world?

    Posted by: Matt Waxman on 20 Nov 05

    So why are there no Green Parties in the U.S. House and Senate? Over here we've had Greens in the government, and in most European countries they are present in the political arena (either in the government or in the parliaments, most notably in the EU Parliament).
    I've never understood why there are only two parties in the US House and Senate. It's bizarre.

    Posted by: Lorenzo on 20 Nov 05

    Lorenzo, it's a function of a the "winner take all" electoral system used here, as opposed to the (generally) proportional-representation used in parliamentary countries in Europe. Multiple smaller parties split the vote, so that only parties with (ostensibly) broad bases can ever get elected.

    Numerous proposals to make the voting system more representative and open to smaller parties have been proposed, and occasionally adopted -- such as in San Francisco last year -- but rarely have a substantive impact.

    Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Nov 05


    Because of the winner take all system, if you look at the voting history of the United States since its founding, you'll see there are many points where third parties grow to national prominence before having their adjenda divided up and aped by the two major parties. Because of this, by the next national election the third party has lost much of its appeal.

    The rapid growth of a third party can be taken as:

    • a sign of significant voter discontent with business as usual (Ralph Nader and Ross Perot.)
    • a search for new ideas (The Progressive Party of the early Twentieth Century.)
    • a dangerous attachment to bad ideas now discredited (The States Rights party of the George Wallace.)
    This is vaguely analogous to the coalition building that happens inside parlimentary systems when the two major parties haven't won a sufficient majority due to voter discontent and have to make power sharing deals with minor parties.

    But its an interesting point. I've always wondered which system is better, especially in the long run, for the health of a country.

    Posted by: Pace Arko on 20 Nov 05

    "One distressing signal was Americans' reluctance to embrace clean technology, such as renewable energy and alternative-fuel vehicles. Roper saw a nine-point drop in the number of people agreeing that "New technologies will come along to solve environmental problems before they get out of hand," from 47% in 2003 to 38% this year.

    So: more federal government action, but not necessarily on pushing cleaner, greener technology? Hmmm."

    Hmm indeed. A belief that new technology will "come along" to solve all our environmental problems sounds more like dangerous laissez faire than embrace of said technology or endorsement of government action. Obviously the federal government is not currently pushing for green tech. I think this response could also be read as a positive sign that people know something more must be done, that technology doesn't merely happen.

    Posted by: aheartwell on 20 Nov 05

    I second aheartwell's comment.

    That "New technologies will come along to solve environmental problems before they get out of hand" dropped from 47% in 2003 to 38% this year may mean that people KNOW maybe another techno fix ain't gonna make it if the Greenland ice cap goes or the Gulf Stream changes direction. That same realization of great seriousness may also be behind the Federal government rising by 10 points since 2003 in "trust the most to achieve a balance between economic development and environmental protection," making the Feds the most trusted, over individuals and enviro groups.

    Consciously or not, we may be beginning to understand that things are going to have to change in so far unimagined ways if we are to confront the problems we've made for ourselves over the last few decades and centuries.

    Renewable technologies and techniques must empower the indidividual and resonate into restorative, sustainability systems at every scale. Green has to be at least conservative on an economic level in order to build a marketplace that will support the changes necessary. If it keeps money in your pocket, good; if it puts money back into your pocket, even better.

    Posted by: gmoke on 20 Nov 05

    No what happened is people are finaly realizing what we always ment when we said tech will come to take care of OUR needs and fix OUR problems.

    We ment OURS not yours;/

    More people have realized they arnt in the group that will be helped by tech. And that scares the everloving poop out of them.

    They assumed we ment tech will save us all. We never said that tho admittedly we didnt go out of our way to point out the error either...

    No what tech does is save techies.

    We have our way out and thus we arnt overly worried.

    But then our way out was always one of the easier ways past climate change and global warming as it didnt need to fix either it just needed to endure it.

    To save the entire world ... well id expect thats about impossible right now.

    I think right now we have a mass of people waking up to the fact they are not safe and that they dont know where safe is. And to make matters more dire alot of snake oil "cures" are being sold that just delay the point where people find out they current are in very bad positions.

    We have islands full of people who should be moving as there is nothing that will save that island and yet they cling to snake oil hopes and spend money they should be saving for the move.

    Its as if a mass of people were sitting on train tracks and the techies said we are safe.. because they arnt on the tracks and a bunch of others were selling train repelenat spray... And no one truely believes the train wont stop for them forgetting or just not understanding the train cant stop trains just dont stop that fast and they sure as heck dont swirve.

    Posted by: wintermane on 21 Nov 05

    There really should be a sixth category:

    John Birchers -- political conservatives who see environmentalism as a cryptosocialist conspiracy to attack their way of life

    Posted by: ponte on 21 Nov 05

    Ah that group is a special case.

    They are the moola mavens.

    They plan to get past this via brute force money and as such anything that reduces thier moeny is in effect possibly killing them.

    Do not EVER screw around with these people some of them can be rather... intense in thier beliefs.

    With global warming and climate change these people are more intensely focused then ever. The only good news for you is they feel they can make money off climate change fighting efforts. The bad news is how they do it.

    Posted by: wintermane on 21 Nov 05

    Oh I fergot the distrust everyone group. They arnt so much conservatives as they distrust us less then they distrust you;/

    And then there is the large group that lies on polls saying what they want to be seen and not what they actauly do and chose.

    Posted by: wintermane on 22 Nov 05



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