Are We All Still Environmentalists?

Roger Pielke Jr. cites some interesting polling data purporting to show the percentage of Americans considering themselves to be "environmentalists" has declined dramatically over the past 20 years. Today just over 40 percent of respondents answer "yes" to the question "Do you consider yourself an environmentalist or not?"

Does this mean that Americans are less supportive of environmental protection than in the past? I doubt it. One possibility is that an increasing percentage of Americans reject the idea that the environmentalist movement has a monopoly on what it means to be "pro-environment." Americans who support environmental protection may feel uncomfortable with either the tactics or policy prescriptions embraced by establishment environmental groups. If so, it should not be much of a surprise.

A decade or so ago --back in my own activist/think tank days -- I commissioned polling work on what Americans believed it meant to be "pro-environment," finding that many Americans saw "conservative" approaches to environmental protection -- e.g. decentralization, protection of property rights, non-regulatory measures, etc. -- as "pro-environment." (See summaries here and here.)

I believed then -- and believe now -- that this and other polling data suggest that establishment environmentalist groups lack an enforceable monopoly on what it means to be "pro-environment." Insofar as conventional "greens" dominate the field, it is by default. Conservative and libertarian types generally -- and conservative politicians in particular -- have largely ceded the field. They either endorse conventional policies on the cheap, or oppose establishment environmentalist proposals outright without proposing a positive alternative. My own somewhat-academic effort to outline such an agenda can be seen here, but I've hardly answered every problem (or even come close). If only John McCain or some other market-oriented politician would take seriously the need to develop a pro-environment alternative, they might even have a ready-made constituency waiting in the wings.