Environment-Economy Trade-Offs and Forest Environmentalism

Article excerpt

Public opinion polls have consistently demonstrated the public's willingness to "tradeoff" economic growth for environmental protection. The absence of a middle ground position in these polls raises questions as to whether or not respondents view economic growth and environmental protection as necessarily inimical. Furthermore, little research has examined whether these tradeoff preferences actually relate to how individuals view environmental problems at the local level. This research examines the tradeoff problem in light of a current resource conflict, forest management, using a statewide probability telephone survey. Most respondents prefer to see that "both the environment and the economy" are important in the case of forestry management, but favor weighting the balance in favor of environmental protection. Furthermore, general tradeoff preferences correlate with specific value choices (relating to private property), definitions of the current forestry situation for the state, and attitudes toward development of forest resources. At least in the case of forest management, how individuals conceptualize the economy/environment tradeoff is central to how they think about forest problems more generally.


A central question in environmental debate today is how environmental protection and economic growth interrelate. As Schnaiberg (1980) notes, economic growth is dependent on "biospheric withdrawals" and a "treadmill of production" that does not easily accommodate environmental protection. The complexity of the environmental-economic relationship, however, doesn't lend itself to simple generalizations. There is a great deal of evidence that environmental protection and economic growth aren't necessarily antithetical (Schug & Western, 1997) and even that economic growth is necessary for pollution abatement (Byrne, 1997). Some analysts have begun to make headway in decoupling these issues. For example, Lovins, Lovins, and Hawken (1999) argue that reducing demand for energy (e.g., through energy efficient motors) may be essential for continued economic growth. As Hertsgaard (1998, p. 300) notes, environmental innovations that save money (and resources) will become an important way to generate new jobs. In short, it is not unreasonable to assert that economic systems can be made more both more environmentally benign and more profitable. Increasing resource efficiency in the future, however, may be entirely offset by the growth and expansion of human population with its attendant demand for resources.

Pollsters have attempted to tap public loyalties in this debate through the so-called "trade-off" question. The typical form of this question has been to present respondents with dichotomous alternatives between favoring environmental protection or favoring economic growth or jobs. Longitudinal trends in the United States (as documented in publications such as Cambridge Reports Trends & Forecasts by Cambridge Reports, Inc.) indicate growing support for the environmental choice implying, for many, decreasing commitment to traditional economic and materialistic values (Inglehart, 1995). The public's apparent willingness to promote environmental quality over economic growth is often viewed as evidence of deepening environmentalism (Dunlap, 1991).

While trade-off questions provide some indication of changing public values about the environment, their abstract as well as dichotomous format raises many issues regarding how the public views the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Are they seen as necessarily inimical, requiring that we trade off one against the other? Conversely, might the public see a healthy economy and a healthy environment as desirable end-states of social policy, both of which can be equally maximized? Furthermore, do trade-off questions implicate how individuals think about environmental problems? Do individuals think of the relationship in the same way when dealing with local conflicts between the environment and the economy? …


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