Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

question was asked. Only those managing medical care received a higher vote of confidence in the surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Confidence in many other key players (including Congress and the executive branch) was much lower and has dropped sharply since the early 1970s.

Another reason for the belief that we can encourage economic development and protect the environment may stem from the belief that government is doing a good job in this area. In 1994, 46 percent told Roper Starch Worldwide interviewers that protecting the environment was a definite responsibility of the federal government, and 37 percent called it highly desirable. In the follow-up question, a solid majority felt that government was carrying out that responsibility fully or fairly well.


One way to assess support for the environment is to look at how strongly people identify with the movement. In 1987 and in 1994, in Times Mirror surveys, about a quarter of Americans placed themselves at points 9 and 10 on a scale to indicate that the term environmentalist was perfect or near perfect for them. Of the sixteen groups Times Mirror inquired about, only ''a religious person" and "a supporter of the civil rights movement" got broader backing.

A Times Mirror Magazine group survey found that slightly over 20 percent called themselves "active environmentalists." A majority fell into the "sympathetic but not active" group. Almost no one said they were unsympathetic. Any way you slice it, "the environment" and hence "environmentalists" are popular.


That large majorities feel positive about the environment as a social value is important. But politically the real question is how much Americans think should be done now and in the future to advance environmental goals and how much they are willing to do themselves. Answering these questions is not easy because most Americans do not get involved in specific policy issues, nor are they particularly attentive to the details of the debates surrounding them. They offer broad policy direction to legislators that reflects their belief about the importance of the environment.

Many of you are familiar with the work of Robert Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell, a thoughtful commentator on public attitudes toward the environment, has argued that in thinking about any issue, we need to distinguish between salience—"how much immediate personal interest people have" in it—and strength of opinion—"the degree to which people regard the issue as a matter of national concern and are committed to improving the situation or solving the problem." This formulation is useful, but it is not exhaustive.

Salience can be measured by looking at responses to "open-ended" questions,

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement