Concern for the Environment Reaches a New Low

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 27, 2012 30

Could the progress we’ve made in protecting our air and water quality soon be reversed? ©Henry H. Holdsworth

The exhausting November 2012 presidential election is finally over. Now we Americans begin what can be another long and involved phase: analysis of that election.

One recent item to come out of this process is a Gallup poll taken in March 2012 that showed that Americans’ concerns about air and drinking water pollution had sunk to new lows. It’s postulated that the ailing economy overshadowed everything else on our minds during the campaign season, and that’s the reason why the candidates failed to debate global issues such as climate change or degrading air and water quality.

If it’s true that we as a people are putting a healthy environment on the back burner, will the strides we’ve made in protecting our air and water since the 1970s and the first Earth Day soon be erased?

Environmental groups continue to struggle to find a compelling message that speaks to voters. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Needing a meaningful message

As little as four years ago in 2008, rising public awareness about climate change caused presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to thoughtfully engage in a conversation about our warming planet. This time around, however, with a lack of jobs and falling incomes on our minds, Americans’ worries about air and drinking water pollution dropped to their lowest point in decades, according to Gallup. And with environmental groups struggling to find a coherent, compelling message to rally voters, we seem to have tuned out caring about ecological issues altogether.

It isn’t because our environmental woes aren’t as urgent as our economic ones. Many scientists increasingly warn that the world won’t be able to curb greenhouse gases quickly enough to prevent a two-degree rise in global temperatures, which might already be enough to raise the sea level a few feet off of Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., by 2100. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, has stated that missing that goal would have devastating consequences for the planet.

Gaining a growing empathy

Other polls and reports that came out in 2012 support the notion that we Americans aren’t as concerned about the environment as we have been in the past. Earlier this year, another Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans thought the government should approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. Oil from tar sands is dirtier than conventional crude oil—emitting up to 20 percent more greenhouse gases, on average, than other transportation fuels used in the U.S.—and it would require the clearing of huge swaths of Canada’s boreal forests.

When it’s livelihoods versus the environment, supporting your family will always win. ©Eric Rock

And in September of this year, a national survey by the Pew Research Center found that energy policy, which rated among the most important electoral issues in 2008, ranked near the bottom of the voting priorities list in 2012.

Living in the United States, we sometimes find it hard to understand why residents of other countries on far-off continents would continue to clear-cut their trees or hunt threatened species when scientists have shown the importance of forests and biodiversity in the overall health of the world. Perhaps now, with our own struggling economy, we may have more empathy. When earning a living bumps heads with doing what’s best for the environment, supporting our families will always take precedence. The trick is making doing what’s right for the economy and doing what’s right for the environment the same thing.

Do you think that environmental concern has a chance to rebound in tough economic times? Or are such issues only able to be taken on when the economy is good?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


Issues of climate and conservation are of paramount importance to us at Natural Habitat Adventures. If we as a society are going to tackle these daunting environmental issues, it’s important for companies to take responsibility for their environmental impacts. To this end, in 2007, Natural Habitat became the world’s first carbon neutral travel company, and we’ve continued to focus on conservation and community initiatives as an integral part of our operations. We invite you to learn more at our sustainability program Web pages.



  1. Fiona December 4, 2012 at 5:12 am - Reply

    It astounds me still how many people actually ‘don’t care’ about what they are personally doing (or not doing) in their own lives to minimize the negative impact that each of us has on the environment. So many people still don’t recycle – don’t even give it a second thought. Of course, I’m labelled a hippy for the stuff that comes out of my mouth. People don’t see themselves as an intricate part of the web of nature. People see themselves as separate to nature. We have alienated ourselves from the natural world and so we don’t actually ‘see’ our negative impact directly. We hear about it on the news.

    Joe, I found your comments about the ‘fall of an empire’ really interesting.

  2. Craig B. December 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    The corporate world has a big megaphone, especially in the conservative media complex, and keep repeatedly hammering viewers about “too many regulations chasing business away”, and “govt. taking away business ‘freedoms'”. these scare tactics, constantly repeated, gets many people thinking that business should be free to do whatever they want, and jobs will flow. greed, over betterment of the country, including the environment, is getting the upper hand. this is true in the rest of the world.

  3. Erick Muchai Ndungu December 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Depletion of natural resources is a significant environment issue, human health will always be a major concern where the integrity of the environment is threatened especially by pollution. Risks from micro-organisms such as the protozoan (Cryptosporidium) have caused major episodes of human illness. Some evidence would suggest that there is a measure of distrust in some segments of the population regarding the wholesomeness of public supplies. Protection of sources and the provision of rigorous treatment will be increasingly important. The health risks from air pollution, respiratory and related illnesses major source of these pollutants is fuel combustion in vehicles. There should be a framework directed on ambient air quality assessment and management and more stringent standards for air quality.

  4. Bonnie Harper-Lore December 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    The economy and environment are forever connected. We need both to survive, but not at the expense of the environment alone.

  5. Bill McGuire December 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    For many people, “the end justifies the means” so if a chemical will control a pest such as the white fly then they use the chemical and their problem is solved. The much bigger problem is that resolution of their problem proliferates others. This is not just the case with individuals at the local scale but also with policymakers at the national and international scale. There is far too little attention to unintended consequences of actions and how that affects the environment and the life within it. Jane, actions such as you took are part of our hope for a better tomorrow and it will take many such actions to make a difference. Greg, I agree totally with your comment that we need to keep talking. And, a key is communication – wildlife professionals must get better at communicating to the greater public in ways that get their attention, stimulate action, and bridge an understanding gap that is now very, very huge.

  6. Jane December 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Judy, very interesting and profound comment. “The endocrine disrupting toxins are causing … underdeveloped facial bones.” This thread has caught my attention. In my little corner of the world, I was able to successfully encourage a client of mine to remove a particular hedge here in South Florida. She had it on a continuous and never ending chemical, foliar treatment plan to fend off White Fly. She lives near a major waterway.

  7. Douglas November 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    We are doomed to cook the planet with greenhouse gases if we can’t convince our leaders of the need for a more progressive energy policy that fades out coal ASAP and promotes renewable options. Given our current Congress I am doubtful about this policy change happening promptly enough. We will see change next year when new members are sworn in, but the “fiscal cliff” demonstrates how difficult it is for these leaders to move toward solutions that benefit more people vs. those with greatest clout.

  8. Judy H. November 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    Europe has at least banned some of the most endocrine disrupting pesticides (umbrella term), but that doesn’t stop the toxins from falling on everything there, including their surface water and all the foliage. The endocrine disrupting toxins are causing the same symptoms in ruminants, especially underdeveloped facial bones, in Europe and Africa as we are finding here in Western U.S. I have had no reports from Asia or South America concerning ruminants, but there are many on amphibians. You are very correct in stating that the lack of concern for what humans are doing to the environment is a world wide problem. There is no place on earth that is immune and we have no Planet B.

  9. Joe S. November 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    Just reading this title alone makes me think the MAYANs just may be right! Or, that there is a meteor hurtling toward us.

    Read a recent article by Larry Elliott talked about the DECLINE & FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. It looked at the fall of Rome, Great Britian, and now… the USA. Warning signs of trouble: military overstretch, a widening gulf between rich and poor, a hollowed-out economy, citizens using debt to live beyond their means, high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addictions, and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence. Certain factors are always present during an empires decline: arrival of a challenger, and initial reluctance to admit that there is much to fret about.

    Its an interesting topic to think of empire collapse ALSO brought about by a total disregard for environment and healthy ecosystems.

  10. Greg November 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    Bill and Margaret, you’re so right…this is a global problem and in fact you may even find that Americans and Europeans are more educated along these lines although of course not nearly enough compared to other countries. Africa where I live is so far behind that losing our natural resources can be plotted on a daily graph with great effect!

    Great conversation, we need to talk more and more…..

  11. Bill McGuire November 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Margaret, good way to put it.

  12. Roger R. November 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Humans face the choice between consumption and conservation, economic development and attendant environmental cost, at every socio-economic level. Willingness to prioritize environmental costs which offer no immediate demonstrable return over guns and butter is inversely proportional to perceived economic well-being.

    By extension; the broad public disconnect between regional environmental concerns (air water etc) and global climate trend is to be expected as we prioritize investments according to geographic and kin proximity and demonstrable return on investment.

    Leadership has been vague at best in establishing a line between cost and benefits for the public at large and much of the popular dialogue is little more than alarmist hand-wringing. As western economies stabilize to a new norm, I suspect a public willingness to invest in a mitigated carbon footprint will emerge when they are presented a coherent consensus strategy with realistic goals and benefits.

  13. Michael wamithi November 30, 2012 at 2:29 am - Reply

    let me quote (not exact) a recent Amazonian Indian featured on TV recently…
    “…money we will leave it here when we die….what is important is our food,clean water,fresh air,health…..”

  14. Margaret November 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Let us not only put ‘blame’ on American citizens – this is a world-wide, human, problem.

    Environmental concern is an issue which everyone should address but, humans being what they are – being at the top of the Tree, therefore extremely selfish and only concerned about their own prosperity and immediate survival, and that of their children – results in a lack of concern for the longer-term future of our planet.

    It is a very small % of humans who are genuinely concerned about the environment – and even some of those who express concern (politicians included) will actually look out for themselves and their immediate economic future first, when push comes to shove.

  15. Bill McGuire November 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Yes, environmental concern will return but only when the consequences for many people outweigh the inconvenience/pain of inattention. This is nothing new and not unique to the developed world and, even in the Dust Bowl years in the U.S. (see the recent documentary on the subject), many of the people living in it and suffering the most had a hard time connecting their actions with the root problem. People (wherever they live) will first strive to survive and then strive to better their lot into prosperity. I am not sure the drive for more and better ever really ends for most individuals, cultures, countries, or civilizations. I certainly do not exempt myself from this basic aspect of human nature although conservation and stewardship are among my core values and continually modify choices I make. However, the continual expansion of population combined with the push for more and more economic cannot sustain forever and I believe that hitting the wall will be the extreme opposite of pleasant and no one will be completely shielded.

  16. L. F. November 29, 2012 at 5:15 am - Reply

    I think it has to do with the “Information Age”. Everybody is pretty much on information overload. When you get bombarded with information from the Middle East and the Far East and our own foreclosure rates and fiscal cliffs it becomes difficult to prioritize what can truly affect our life on the most immediate scale. Here is some information that can help. 70% of the oxygen each of us breathes is supplied by phytoplankton that exist in the top three feet of the ocean. I don’t know about you but I won’t notice my mortgage rate when I am unconcious in the middle of the street! In ten years Tuna, Salmon, Cod and most commercial edible seafood will be so expensive that 95% of the population won’t be able to afford it. And, in twenty years we’ll be talking about seafood the same way we refer to Miami, something in elementary school history books. Don’t get me started on climate change, we have seen the five largest storms in recorded history in the past seven years. I happen to know it’s not a coincidence. I live in Colorado and I haven’t had to shovel snow in more than ten months! I wore a t-shirt outside everyday this week.

  17. Mandy November 29, 2012 at 5:13 am - Reply

    Very sad. It still amazes me the amount of people that still don’t even recycle. Do they think it’s too much work? When I try to talk about these topics with friends and family they just seem like I am trying to push a subject on to them that they don’t care about. Sad

  18. Frank November 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    Perhaps we haven’t had enough big winds & forest fires yet to wake up the public

  19. Matthew Taylor November 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    Well said, Candice. I think the key is demonstrating that concern for the environment is not some wishy-swishy ideal, but rather it is fundamentally linked to the vitality of the economy. Just ask the residents of coastal New Jersey and New York what their economic futures will be like in the wake of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, which are predicted to become more common under climate change.

  20. Judy H. November 28, 2012 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    That may be because many American’s brains have been so damaged by breathing polluted air that they can’t think straight any more.

  21. Chris November 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Most people in the developed world take clean water and clean air for granted, so it’s not surprising to me that those issues are low on their radar screen. It took the Cayahoga River catching on fire to create the political will to pass the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts in the 1970’s. When the impacts of invisible greenhouse gasses become as evident as a burning river, society will react; though that may be too late to avoid significant changes to the environment as we know it today.

  22. Chris November 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    In addition to some of the excellent observations made above, I would add the view that one reason concern about air and water pollution is at a low ebb is that, in most of the developed world at least, both the air and water are relatively clean. As someone who lived through the 50’s and 60’s in Pittsburgh, PA, it is clear why the environmental movement arose during the latter years of those decades and why the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act all became law in the early ’70’s. The crisis was everywhere evident. To some degree, environmentalism is the victim of its own success. Unfortunately, the forces driving the largest environmental threat today (greenhouse gasses) are invisible and the impact incremental. Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, but I doubt even that will make enough of an impression to stir social awareness. Eventually, though, it will come, just as it did when a river in Ohio caught fire.

  23. Lawrence November 28, 2012 at 10:09 am - Reply

    sad state of affairs….

  24. David R. November 28, 2012 at 5:58 am - Reply

    From the UK perspective I guess it is a mixed picture.There is a growing awareness and concern for the environment balanced by many people who are in denial and who continue in their old ways.We have had consumerism for decades and its heavy influence on behaviour won’t go away overnight.The economic climate has forced many people to rethink their priorities but it has also made those on the corporate treadmill more desperate to “get more money” at any cost.

    It is a matter of education but many people in the UK only know a life of striving for the bigger house and bigger car, the strain and stress of which is cushioned for them by buying more stuff.The goal for them is status.They don’t stop to think.They just do.

  25. Shirley November 28, 2012 at 5:56 am - Reply

    Dead on Burr. I’ve been living ASAP, As Sustainably as Possible, for over 12 years now and I’m so inspired by what I’m learning. Slowing down, making careful choices, helping people, doing without stuff I don’t need. I’m really happy and I radiate that out [even when exhausted by being so pure, it does take more time than being wasteful].
    Who says concern for the environment is at an all time low. Not among people I know.

  26. Judy November 28, 2012 at 5:55 am - Reply

    This is really too bad since the poisoning of newborns has reach an all time high. I guess money is far more important than healthy children.

  27. Wm. Hovey Smith November 28, 2012 at 5:54 am - Reply

    Yes, in about a decade. It appears that environmental concerns peak about once every 10 years or so., It is not to say that the issues are any less important to the chore believers, but the general public grows weary when beat over the head with it for several years running.

  28. J. Cameron November 28, 2012 at 5:52 am - Reply

    Hi Candice, I think the Gallup poll might be reflecting a general apathy brought on by ‘issues overload’. Environmental concerns wax and wane in the mainstream over time, particularly when strident activists proclaims imminent disaster and then (to mainstream observers at least) nothing seems to really go wrong. It all becomes part of the background noise when job security, personal debt and other ‘close to home’ issues rise to the fore.

    Short term immediate threats like hurricanes, tsunami, wild fires and epidemics gain our immediate attention and often emphatic response. Slow creeping threats like air pollution, potable water shortages, diminishing fish stocks, climate change, ocean acidification, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, peak oil and even population growth don’t tend to capture or hold our attention nearly so well. This issues myopia is a characteristic of our psyche and I think that is really what the poll is reflecting.

    That being said, ignorance and apathy remain reliable pathways to catastrophe!

  29. Joe C November 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    It will only rebound if we raise our collective voices high enough to be heard over all the chatter of modern life. It is understandable that urbanites are disconnected to the natural world. We need to show them the connections. Otherwise I fear we will rush headlong into fracking for natural gas, and other extractive solutions, in the name of energy independence instead of developing renewable and sustainable sources which would be a much better long run path. I don’t think it’s the bad economy as much as the noise that industry has been able to generate from it that has distracted people.

  30. Burr W. November 27, 2012 at 11:36 am - Reply

    it will rebound once we learn that the way to grow environmental concern is to celebrate what we have, increasing the common knowledge of the populace about what is around them…we have completely neglected teaching folks about their own home…its ecology, its history. Environmentalists have been like fire and brimstone preachers, telling us all we are going to hell in a handbasket…but that dialectic is only for the choir, the true believers, and turns off every one else…

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