Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Environmentalism in Australia: Elites and the Public

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Environmentalism in Australia: Elites and the Public

Article excerpt


The social support base of environmental issues, environmental group membership and green and `new politics' parties in Australia has been examined in a number of empirical studies (Pakulski et al. 1998; Tranter 1996; McAllister and Studlar 1993; Marks and Bean 1992). Previous research has shown that support for environmental groups and new social movements is strongest among the young and highly educated, and among urban-based, left-leaning, postmaterialists (Inglehart 1990b; Van Liere and Dunlap 1980). The rise of new social movements and `new politics' (Muller-Rommel 1990), or `left-libertarian' parties (Kitschelt 1990), has also been interpreted as evidence of the emergence of a new political dimension, based on values cleavages rather than old economic (class) divisions (Inglehart 1990a; Dalton 1988).

However, while environmental policy has proliferated in Australia in recent years (mirroring shifts in public opinion), the major parties that comprise the political `establishment' have been seen by environmental groups and green politicians as essentially anti-environment. One aim of this research is to assess whether such claims are empirically grounded. Empirical research on environmental issues and new social movements abounds, but less is known about the environmental attitudes and behaviour of Australian politicians, especially in relation to their supporters. This research focuses on several key questions: Are Australian politicians more or less environmentally conscious and supportive than their constituents? Are the social bases of environmentalism changing among the public and the elite? Is `the environment' still a salient political issue, or a shooting star on the political horizon?

In order to address these questions, support for environmental issues and groups is analysed empirically using nationally representative survey data from Australia. The social and political bases of environmentalism are examined, but in contrast to previous studies the focus here is upon the political elite as well as the public. If `the environment' is becoming a `mainstream' political issue, and is now an `integral part of the political culture', as Papadakis (1993: 199) suggests, it should be possible to detect changes in the relationship between environmental attitudes/behaviour and correlates of environmental support. On the other hand, if environmental groups have been abandoned by all but the most committed activists, this should also be discernible in the survey data. These research issues are examined empirically, following a review of some of the more important theoretical and empirical research on environmentalism.

New values and environmental support

An influential interpretation of the rise of new political movements and issues, based upon the relationship between value priorities and generational replacement, is advanced by Ronald Inglehart (1990a, 1977). Inglehart (1990b: 43) argues that the key to understanding political preferences and behaviour lies in childhood socialisation, as one's early experiences influence the formation of different value priorities.(2) Value orientations are affected by salient economic and social conditions during one's formative years (for example, economic depression, large-scale war). Those growing up under conditions of relative economic affluence and physical safety are more likely to develop postmaterialist values and to favour quality of life issues over economic-materialist issues. Experience of economic hardship, war, or political upheaval leads to the development of materialist values, and prioritisation of economic and physical security issues (Inglehart 1990b: 47).(3)

Given the relative stability and affluent circumstances in Western countries since World War II, value priorities should vary between generations--with the younger, postwar generations tending to be more postmaterialist than prewar generations. …

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