America's Green Zeitgeist

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by: Joel Makower

I've just been given a sneak peek at the findings of the 2005 "Green Gauge Report," and it has implications for anyone seeking to promote sustainability, climate action, green consumerism, clean technologies, or any other worldchanging product, service, or cause.

Since 1990, the Green Gauge has been a signature service of the Roper Organization, the polling arm of what is now the market research firm GfK NOP. Every year (except for 2004), Green Gauge has tracked the environmental attitudes and belief systems of five market segmentations of American consumers. It is based on 2,000 face-to-face interviews that are "balanced to the most recent U.S. census," according to Roper. I've been tracking Green Gauge results since the beginning and find them an interesting, and sobering, look at Americans' environmental Zeitgeist.

This year's, the first since 2003, shows that Americans are still reasonably concerned about environmental issues (though arguably not necessarily the critical ones), but they remain relatively ignorant of key environmental issues and solutions. No surprise there. But what is surprising is how much Americans seem to be shifting their search for solutions to an unlikely source: the federal government.

That's right: the more-energy-at-any-cost, drill-in-the-Arctic, efficiency-is-for-wimps, blood-for-oil, nuclear-powered feds.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

One of the first things I noticed in reviewing the most recent Green Gauge findings is how much they mirror the results of a decade ago. Here's a breakdown of the study's five market segmentations for 2005 and 1995 (the numbers don't add up to 100 due to rounding): 

  • True-Blue Greens — the most environmentally active segment of society: 11% of the U.S. population in 1995, 11% in 2005. 
  • Greenback Greens — those most willing to pay the highest premium for green products: 7% in 1995, 8% in 2005.  
  • Sprouts — fence-sitters who have embraced environmentalism more slowly: 31% in 1995, 33% in 2005. 
  • Grousers — uninvolved or disinterested in environmental issues, who feel the issues are too big for them to solve: 14% in 1999, 14% in 2005.  
  • Apathetics — the least engaged group who believe that environmental indifference is mainstream (referred to as "Basic Browns" in earlier Roper polls): 35% in 1995, 33% in 2005.  

    So, plus ça change.

    Despite the apparent status quo, "Americans are absolutely knowing, thinking, and feeling greener," Bob Pares, the Roper senior vice president who directed the 2005 Green Gauge, told me last week. "But," he adds, "whether they are acting greener is, of course, the missing link."

    As evidence, Pares points to a variety of the poll's findings, such as the sharp spike in concern about energy shortages and prices (the poll was taken in July, weeks before Katrina and Rita sent gas prices skyward), increased concern over threats to drinking water, and persistent worries about chemicals and other potential health threats.

    The issues of greatest concern reflect Americans' longstanding "me first" attitude on the environment — that is, their predominant concern about environmental problems that affect them directly. Water pollution, emissions from automobiles and factories, and health hazards from abandoned toxic sites were the top issues Americans said were "very serious." Destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer rounded out the top-five issues, likely because it is associated with increased incidence of skin cancer from sun exposure.

    But climate change — what most scientists and activists consider the greatest threat among environmental concerns — ranked near the bottom of Americans' "very serious" rankings, leading only nuclear power plant accidents, which no longer seem to have achieved, well, critical mass among public concerns.

    But the biggest surprise of the survey is who Americans see as the savior to these problems. Unlike past surveys, in which environmental groups consistently ranked highest among the groups Americans "trust the most to achieve a balance between economic development and environmental protection," the feds shot to the top of the list, gaining 10 points since the 2003 survey, while enviro groups dropped 13 points to land in third place, behind "individuals." State government (up 4 points) ranked fourth, followed by corporations (up 3 points) in last place. Environmentalism may not be dead, but it sure seems to be ailing.

    When it comes to fixing the world's environmental ills, says Pares, "There's a reluctant acknowledgment that the powers that be must be the ones to ultimately do it or not do it. The will of the people still carries a lot of weight, but it is not going to carry the ball over the line."

    One distressing signal was Americans' reluctance to embrace clean technology, such as renewable energy and alternative-fuel vehicles. Roper saw a nine-point drop in the number of people agreeing that "New technologies will come along to solve environmental problems before they get out of hand," from 47% in 2003 to 38% this year.

    So: more federal government action, but not necessarily on pushing cleaner, greener technology? Hmmm.

    "When you look at the across-the-board movement on these questions, you see an acknowledgment that things are not getting better, but perhaps a shift in how we're going to move forward in dealing with them," says Pares. "I think the acknowledgment is stronger than it's ever been, perhaps born out of frustration, perhaps out of pragmatism, but clearly a significant direction."

    He adds: "Clearly, the public gets that this is a real agenda, more important than ever before. And that's wonderful news. One of the next questions is: 'What now?'"

    What now, indeed?

    For more information on the Green Gauge Report, contact Pares at

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