Give Me Something to Believe in

Adolescents are aware of the serious consequences of climate change. So why don't they do anything about it?
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"Some say irreversible consequences are 30 years away," states a grimacing global warming skeptic as a locomotive roars in the distance. "That won't affect me," he deadpans before brazenly stepping off the tracks — allowing a child to get mowed over by an oncoming train.

This Environmental Defense Fund commercial, like many catchy and provocative campaigns before it, illustrates the trend of environmental moralizing by well-meaning organizations. Every year, millions of public and private dollars are spent in order to spur Americans, particularly youth, to engage in small but meaningful conservation behaviors to combat global warming and reduce their carbon footprint.

And every year, it appears, adolescents tend to ignore these pleas.

A new study by Pennsylvania State researcher Laura Wray-Lake finds a precipitous decline over the past 30 years in the proportion of adolescents who believe that the world's natural resources are scarce, who take personal responsibility for environmental caretaking and who regularly engage in conservation behaviors.

The research, which culled data from the annual nationwide Monitoring the Future survey, examined more than 100,000 randomly sampled high school seniors' responses between the years 1976 to 2005 to map how attitudes toward the environment had changed. Researchers examined multiple categories such as propensity toward materialism, belief in resource scarcity and self-reported conservation behaviors.

"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 bike or mass transit as were young people in the '70s," the authors wrote. The proportion of adolescents who reported cutting down their electricity "quite a bit" to conserve energy declined from an all-time high of 73 percent in 1980 to about 48 percent in 2005.

Researchers also found that during periods when self-reported "materialism" rose among adolescents, youth were also less inclined to perceive that natural resources were limited. In 1980, 81 percent of youth believed that resources were scarce compared to only 46 percent in 2004. "It was somewhat disheartening to find that youth's belief in resource scarcity declined so substantially given that we know non-renewable resources grow increasingly scarce across decades," Wray-Lake stated.

On first glance these declines are perplexing, especially given the assumption that Millenials are the most "eco-conscious" generation. But hyper-awareness of potential climate change devastation, it seems, doesn't translate into tangible action. Even though youth may want to help save the environment, they seem to be unwilling to part with a lifestyle that is incompatible with these efforts. Instead, they have steadily shifted the burden of responsibility for environmental caretaking from the individual to the government.

Throughout the past 30 years, adolescents were "more likely to endorse consumer responsibility and the government's responsibility to protect the environment than they were to report a personal effort to conserve environmental resources," the authors noted. Considering that the U.S. government has perpetually been at a standstill with regards to enacting sweeping climate change and conservation legislation, this revelation isn't encouraging news.

Adolescents, as the study suggests, would like to see action taken to preserve the environment — they just want somebody or something else take the initiative. "For young people, faith in [future] technology goes hand in hand with personal commitments to the environment," Wray-Lake wrote. "That is, at times when youth believed that technology would solve problems that arise, they were also likely to positively endorse a personal responsibility to preserve the environment."

In the same manner, at times when youth believed the government was taking the lead in conservation efforts (the promotion of Earth Day 1990 was cited as one such moment), they were more likely to do their part by cutting down on electricity, using mass transit or engaging in other conservation behaviors.

This "follow-by-example" mentality could prove to be a successful blueprint for engaging today's adolescents. The groundswell of enthusiasm for films and grassroots promotions such as An Inconvenient Truth and the Obama administration' "green" aspirations (which, again, haven't yet come to fruition) might stem the 30-year decline.

At the very least, this mentality seems more agreeable than the tried-and-true alternative: the guilt-trip.

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