Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

How Much Is Too Much? A Public Opinion Research Perspective

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

How Much Is Too Much? A Public Opinion Research Perspective

Article excerpt


Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it nothing can succeed.

-Abraham Lincoln, in debate with Steven Douglas, 1858

Accumulating evidence suggests that the ecological underpinnings of civilization may face irrevocable catastrophe unless we change our present carbon-emitting behavior (Pachauri & Reisinger, 2007; Methmann, 2011; Huntington et al. 2012). Many people consider climate change to be the overarching indicator for human sustainability. Despite some 97% of qualified climate scientists believing human activities are responsible for global warming (Anderegg et al. 2010), constructive responses from policy makers seem largely absent.

To address this "science-policy gap," this article reports on original public opinion research mostly conducted in the state of Oregon in the United States. Using a methodology that we at PolicyInteractive, and our associates, have applied to other culturally divisive issues, the project was designed to explore attitudes and values that transcend the deep social divisions around climate change. Rather than focus on cultural sector differences toward global warming often observed in public opinion research, our approach has been to discover shared values supportive of constructive change. The purpose of the underlying research is to inform Oregon policy makers about alternatives to the climate change-policy stalemate.

As the inquiry began in 2008, an early finding of some surprise from a statistically representative sampling of Oregonians was 88% agreement that "our country would be better off if we all consumed less." Such high agreement naturally implies considerable shared values, compared to climate change concern, making it worthwhile to examine the particular finding in greater detail.

Why Consumption Matters

Within the last decade, two competing solutions to the complex problems of human environmental impact, notably global warming, have emerged (Princen, 2001; Bluhdorn & Walsh, 2007; Knight & Rosa, 2009; Rees, 2009). The first and dominant version proposes an efficient and "green" technology overlay on the contemporary economic model of mass consumption and infinite economic growth. This version offers that we "grow" our way out of recession by dramatically redirecting growth and change toward "green" economic investments. Organizations and officials that promote ecological "sustainability" endorse this model because of a deeply embedded worldview that "growth is good" and that the modern economic model can effectively address environmental harm through technological change and cosmetic behavioral change. An early expectation of this approach was that science, technology, renewable energy, and regulations folded together would yield a wholesale decoupling of carbon emissions from consumption-based products and behaviors. However, these strategies are not spurring change at the pace climate science suggests is necessary and evidence is mounting that they may be counterproductive. Using metadata, Dietz et al. (2012) extend their prior critique of the environmental modification of Simon Kuznets' theory that higher affluence eventually yields lower ecological impact (York et al. 2003; 2007). Their 2012 examination of evidence from 58 nations finds a decrease in overall environmental well-being as affluence and consumption is increased. Another view comes from Ted Trainer (2010) who uses thermodynamic analysis to show that the potential of renewable energy to supplant carbon-based energy is economically unfeasible without a decrease in ecological impact.

Maria Csutora (2012) contributes to Dietz et al.'s (2012) macro-level analysis with micro-level data from survey research in Hungary. She finds pro-environmental (green) attitude-driven behaviors lead to little reduction (and sometimes a worsening) of per capita ecological footprints (EF). Aptly naming the behavior-impact gap to be "The BIG Problem," Csutora then asks "if a workable conception of 'effective environmental behavior' exists at all. …

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