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As Americans Age, Their Support for Environmentalism Declines

It's not easy staying green.
Environmental activists hug trees in Oaxaca State, Mexico, on February 25th, 2018.

Environmental activists hug trees in Oaxaca State, Mexico, on February 25th, 2018.

Younger Americans tend to be more environmentally conscious than their parents and grandparents. This has lead science educators such as Bill Nye to argue societal attitudes toward the topic will shift as older generations die off.

Disturbing new research suggests that may be a false hope. It reports Americans grow less supportive of spending money to protect the natural environment as they age, no matter the year of their birth.

"There is no inexorable march toward greater environmentalism as younger cohorts with greater environmental awareness replace older ones," warn Erik Johnson of Washington State University and Philip Schwadel of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Their study, in the journal Environment and Behavior, suggests organizations urging Earth-friendly behaviors may be targeting the wrong demographic.

The researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a large, nationally representative sample of American adults, from 1973 to 2016. They focused on responses to one question: whether we are spending (a) too much, (b) about the right amount of money, or (c) too little on "improving and protecting the environment."

"Americans are generally supportive of spending to protect the natural environment," they report. "Across the entire observation period, majorities of Americans think we should be spending more on protecting the environment." What's more, preserving the Earth receives "stronger support than for many other issues."

That said, they found no evidence of a rise in support from one generation to another. Rather, "older respondents are, on average, significantly and substantively less supportive than the young on spending on environmental protection."

"Why the effect of age (on people's views of this issue) is so robust remains a matter of speculation," they write. The fact people's tax burden tends to go up with age (at least until retirement) may provide a partial answer, along with the fact older people tend to be less supportive of "disruptive change" of the sort necessary to change our environmental trajectory.

But Johnson and Schwadel suspect another factor is at play, and one that can be altered fairly easily. "The environmental movement," they write, "has historically been strongly associated with, and remains focused on, youth."

They note that, in a comprehensive 2007 list of environmental organizations, "45 groups contain the words kids, children, or youth in their titles, while only one contains the words retired, elderly, aged, senior, or parent (the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement)."

"For the majority of youth, environmental education and awareness is a part of their education," the researchers write. "Individuals may care less about the environment as they age because they are progressively less likely to be exposed to environmental ideology."

This suggests pro-environment groups may have "large opportunities for changing opinion by attending to often-overlooked seniors rather than youth, who are strongly inclined to support the environment already."

Apparently, as people get closer to leaving the Earth, they get less interested in saving it. Given seniors' oversized clout in determining public policy, changing that trend would seem to be a top priority.

As we turn silver, we need to find a way to stay green.