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ECOLOGY AND INTERDEPENDENCE Environmental Mobilization in the United States ROBERT CAMERON MITCHELL Human societies have long struggled to improve their members' well- being and to protect them from such basic threats as disease, starvation, and war. In recent centuries other goals, such as political freedom, democracy, and economic justice, have become widely shared by the world's peoples. With the rise of environmentalism, we have another, increasingly powerful set of aspirations that have important implications for interdependence. This paper focuses on how the environmental movement has been able to overcome the dilemma of collective action, which public choice theorists have identified as a barrier to organizing groups that seek a collective good. The organizational expression of environmentalism in the United States is the environmental- movement, which is comprised of citizens who are mobilized on behalf of environmentalist goals. Although the environmental movement itself is less than 25 years old, its precursors, the conservation and preservation movements in the United States, consist of many different organizations, some local, some regional, some national, which seek to influence environmental policy and behavior on issues ranging from wildlife protection and wilderness preservation to pollution control and an environmentally sound energy policy. The movement is recognized as having significant political influence. Most prominent among the groups are the dozen or so key national membership groups such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources De- fense Council, and the Friends of the Earth, which have a nonoverlapping membership of more than 1 million dues-paying supporters. Thanks largely to member contributions, which provide multi-million dollar budgets, these groups employ professional staffs including, as of 1985, almost 90 full-time lobbyists in Washington (Mitchell, in press). During the past 20 years the movement has supported, and~Congress has enacted, a series of major 69
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70 SOVIET-AMERICAN DIALOGUE IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES environmental laws, whose enforcement has imposed billions of dollars of pollution control costs on industry. ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS AND COLLECTIVE ACTION A key characteristic of many types of environmental problems is that they involve a collective rather than a private good. In contrast to private goods, environmental goods and bade exclude no one, a characteristic that has several important implications for my analysis of the environmental movement. One is that, except under unusual circumstances, private market mech- anisms cannot be relied on to provide environmental protection. Such protection requires state intervention in the form of regulations designed to enhance environmental quality. A pluralistic model captures reasonably well the way political decisions are made in the United States. According to this model, political decisions by, say, Congress, are made in a setting where competing interest groups advance their views. In a situation where the costs are visible and "concentrated" (that is, only certain types of pol- luting industries would be liable for pollution control expenses if pollution control legislation were passed) while the potential benefits are less visible and diffuse (many citizens would benefit, but they might not be aware of the impending legislation and each would benefit only a little), the former interests are likely to dominate the political debate unless the latter can somehow organize. Several key motivational barriers must be overcome if money is to be raised from individual donors to support full-time advocates who will lobby government for environmental protection laws (Olson, 1971~. These barriers include the temptation to free ride on the contributions of others, the perceived inconsequentiality of any individual's contribution relative to the overall amount of money needed to make a difference, and the need for individuals to believe the organization they contribute to has a reasonable possibility of making a difference. Clearly, the U.S. environmental movement has succeeded in overcom- ing these barriers. Since the late 1960s the total membership of 11 national groups has increased from 819,000 in 1969 to 1,994,000 in 1983, and fur- ther increases have occurred since then. This paper identifies a number of factors that have enabled: the environmental movement to overcome these obstacles, chief among them the character of the environmental issue. EXPLAINING ENVIRONMENTAL MOBILIZATION The publicity given by the mass media to the movement's past successes in influencing public policy no doubt helped convince prospective donors
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ECOLOGY AND INTERDEPENDENCE 71 that the groups could actually make a difference. The use of direct-mail appeals reduced the effort required to contnbute: all a prospective member had to do was read the appeal, enclose a check in a prepaid envelope, and mail it in. Even under these circumstances the problems of free riding and inconsequentiality remain groups soliciting memberships for other causes, such as gun control, disarmament, civil liberties, and poverty issues, are far less successful than the environmental groups. The advantage environmental groups have over these other groups is the nature of environmental issues themselves. Among the key dimensions that stimulate public support and concern are the concrete character of the issues, their diversity, the fact that environmental goods are collective and benefit everybody living now as well as future generations, and the perception that, despite improvements, environmental problems pose a continuing threat. There are grounds for believing that the last factor, fear of a loss in environmental quality in the future, is especially important. Environmental bads have several characteristics that make them especially threatening to some people (Mitchell, 1979~. Being collective rather than private, they are unavoidable. Some bade, such as the loss of valuable natural areas to development, are irreversible. Still others, such as exploding nuclear power plants and the destruction of the ozone layer, are believed to be potentially catastrophic. This paper tests the hypothesis, based on prospect theory (Kahnemann and Tversky, 1979), that the greater the demand for environmental goods, the greater the likelihood that individuals will join the environmental movement. According to this hypothesis, what is crucial is not how serious a person believes a particular problem to be in an absolute sense at the present time, but whether that person believes more or less of the good that will be provided in the future. Data from three sample surveys that provide measures of people's expectations about future changes in environmental quality were analyzed. These suIveys are (1) a 1978 mail survey of members of national envi- ronmental groups, (2) a 1980 in-person survey of the U.S. general public, and (3) a 1978 telephone survey of the U.S. general public. Although no one data set is entirely suitable to test the hypothesis, the results of four tests that compare members with nonmembers and with potential members provide consistent support for the hypothesis. It appears that the percep- tion of a potential loss of environmental quality is a significant factor in motivating collective environmental action. More generally, this analysis suggests that prospect theory, with its emphasis upon mental accounting procedures that appear (at least in the absence of cross cultural studies) to be cognitively rather than culturally determined, offers much to a theory of collective mobilization.
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72 SOV7ET-AMERICAN DIALOGUE IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES From this perspective, one can see how important it is to understand what factors influence people to change their beliefs about proper rights or entitlements to collective goods. One could argue that before the late 1960s most Americans did not regard a good-quali~ environment as an entitlement; they did not evaluate environmental problems as losses or gains because they had no reference point from which to make such an evaluation. Over the next decade, concern about further environmental deterio- ration, already high, will probably increase (for reasons discussed in the paper), a situation that is likely to result in more rather than less environ- mental activism. A national telephone survey conducted by ABC lblevision News found that only 18 percent of a national sample interviewed in 1988 believed that the "quality of environment" would get better during this time period, while 46 percent felt it would get worse, a level of pessimism matched only by one of the seven other problems investigated, "personal safety from crime." At the time of that survey Americans were far more optimistic about progress on world peace and economic advancement than they were about the environment. REFERENCES Kahnemann, D,. and ~ loverly 1979 Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk. Econome~ica 47:263- 291. Mitchell, R.C 1979 National environmental lobbies and the apparent illogic of collective action. In Collective Decision' Making Applications Tom Public Choice Theory, C.S. Russell, ea., pp. 87-121. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. In press From conservation to environmental movement: The development of the modern environmental lobbies. In The Evolution of American Environmental Politics, S.P. Hays and M.J. Lacey, eds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Olson, M. 1971 The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.