Young people, in the popular imagination, are more environmentally conscious than the rest of us. But a new analysis of 30 years worth of data suggests that if we're waiting for a child to lead us out of the wilderness of environmental degradation, we may be waiting a long time.
Except for a brief blip in the early 1990s, high school seniors expressed decreasing levels of concern about environmental issues between 1976 and 2005, and were less willing to engage in earth-friendly behaviors such as conserving energy. That’s the conclusion of a study of trends in adolescent attitudes just published in the journal Environment and Behavior.
A research team led by Laura Wray-Lake of The Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies examined data from the "Monitoring the Future" study, a sophisticated survey of the beliefs and behaviors of American secondary school students. The scholars mapped trends in a variety of environment-related areas, including conservation-conscious behaviors, feelings of responsibility for the environment and faith in technology.
“We found a precipitous decline in high school seniors’ reports of conservation behaviors across the three decades,” they report. “These trends clearly indicate that youth in the past two decades were not as willing to endorse conservation behaviors of cutting down on heat, electricity, driving and using bikes or mass transit as were young people in the 1970s.”
In a “strikingly similar” pattern, the prediction that Americans will face resource shortages was widely accepted by high school seniors in the late 1970s, but the percentage of adolescents agreeing with that statement dropped steeply during the 1980s and again in the early 1990s.
“Clearly, the average high school student across the past three decades has not viewed himself or herself as the first line of defense in protecting the environment,” the scholars conclude. They add that the high school seniors surveyed “tended to see government, and people in general, as more responsible for environmental problems than they themselves felt.”
So much for generation green.
The researchers note that the short-lived shift in behavior and attitudes in the early 1990s followed the heavily publicized 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990. Although the data is not yet available, it is conceivable that Al Gore’s widely viewed 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth may have sparked a similar upswing in environmental consciousness among young people.
Even if the film is having that effect, the survey suggests the results will be short-lived without a sustained campaign to increase environmental awareness. If climate change scientists are correct, today’s high school seniors will almost certainly suffer the effects of global warming, but there is no evidence to date that this message has gotten through to them or that they have responded by taking action.
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