This month's column is titled The Browning of the Greens? and asks the question whether environment is still a major issue of importance.
Angus Reid Reports on the Importance of the Environment to Albertans
Where do Albertans currently stand on their concern for the environment? According to Angus Reid Polls conducted between August 1993 and December 1995, environment is no longer a priority in people's lives. Not surprisingly, over one half (54%) of those polled considered health care to be the most important issue facing Albertans today. Other important issues trailing by almost one half included the deficit (28%), jobs and unemployment (22%), education (2J %) and the economy (21%). In August 1993, environment was considered by 5% of respondents to be the most important issue; by November 1995, it was ranked important by only 2% of respondents. Even more interesting is that the importance of the environment as a major issue did not differ between either gender or age group.1
Why is environment no longer an important issue in people's lives? This is very different from 1987 results of a national poll where 83.3% of Canadians felt that it was very or fairly important to maintain wildlife and 46% indicated some or great interest in participating in a wildlife related organization.2 Have we peaked in our concern for the environment?
Environment or Economy? Not a Question of Choice?
There is no hierarchy ..... it is environment and economy rather than environment or economy
While Angus Reid may have polled a representative number of Albertan's regarding their views on important issues in people's lives, the Environment Council of Alberta released The Report of the Future Environmental Directions for Alberta Task Force in March, 1995.3 The work built on earlier work of the Alberta Round Table on Environment and Economy which developed a vision of sustainable development for Alberta, which was endorsed by the Alberta legislature and over 100 municipalities in June 1992 (see Sidebar).
In September 1993, the Environmental Council of Alberta was asked by the Minister of Environmental Protection to develop the Future Environmental Directions for Alberta Project. A Task Force of knowledgeable Albertans was struck to examine emerging environmental trends over the coming 20 years and to recommend priorities for implementing the Vision for Sustainable Development. The Task Force was assisted in this process by hundreds of Albertans who contributed their views through a two stage Delphi survey.
One of the questions asked during the Delphi Survey was "what do you think Alberta's environment will be like in 20 years time?" Sixty one percent of respondents were cautiously optimistic and predicted that Alberta's environment would be little different in 20 years from what it is today. They did, however, see that serious challenges to environmental quality must be addressed and that negative impacts would level off "as public concern over health effects increases prompting government and industry attitudes to change".
The remaining respondents were split between optimism and pessimism. Only 16% felt that Alberta will be one of the most protected areas in the world and that technological development, public pressure and government regulations will ensure that there would be both increases in environmental protection and economic development.
At 23%, the pessimists felt that Alberta would be "fighting for its life" in 20 years time. Their concern was the focus on short term economic gain which eventually leads to resource depletion and a decline in overall wealth and standard of living of Albertans.
Why are the views of the Task Force and its participants not reflected in the Angus Reid poll? Do the majority of Albertans feel differently about the environment than do the "experts", who were responsible for plotting Alberta's environmental future? Here are some thoughts.
Are Other Issues More Important?
There is clearly no doubt that the results of the Angus Reid polls reflect the concern that most of us have today regarding the uncertainty in the economy, unemployment and national unity. Environmental issues have been displaced from people's minds by more pressing short term concerns for the future. But despite the current situation in Alberta and other countries in the developed world where budget cuts and conservative policies have dominated the political scene, environment as a priority has been declining over the last decade. This is reflected in declining revenues for conservation organizations as individuals, facing lower disposable incomes, now are spending more money on social charities rather than protecting the environment.
Environment first became an issue with the "baby boomers" in the 1960s in North America. Concern at the time dealt primarily with what sort of world was being handed over and concerns over increasing industrialization and its visual impact on the environment. Smogs in Los Angeles, oil in the oceans and pollution in the Great Lakes, were all visual reminders that the environment was in trouble.
Ironically, this same group who "took" over the reins of power from one generation to the next, forged the concepts of sustainable development. The idea that we could have both industrial development and a healthy economy. Environmental concern may have peaked again in the 1970s and 1980s when these same boomers began to have children and became concerned about what sort of world they would pass on in the future. Children also began expressing this concern to their parents.
Young people of today are perhaps not so much concerned about the environment, but more so how they can find a place in the world, where jobs and the economy are dominated by the "boomers". Perhaps in the future, when the majority of "boomers" have become seniors, environment will once again rise as an issue of importance as the reality of inheritance of the world by their children becomes a reality.
Scale of the Issue and What the Individual Can Do
Another factor as to why the environment is dwindling as a priority in people's lives is the enormous scale of environmental issues and the difficulties of individuals in truly affecting change. We have been told that each one of us can make a difference and we have responded by recycling our newspapers, tins and bottles. For many this marks the limits of individual actions in "saving" the environment.
Larger environmental issues, such as global warming, ozone destruction, loss of rainforests and species extinction's, are too boggling in their comprehension as to how one person can make a difference. As a result, most of us parlay these larger responsibilities into the hands of governments and conservation organizations to affect change. As the consequences of these larger issues do not affect individuals on a daily basis, their importance in their lives, and subsequently their own personal concerns, lessens.
Have We Been Numbed by the Media?
For a time, environment was a major issue for the media. Oil spills and ozone holes were assured of front page coverage in major newspapers and headlines in television news programs. The environment even became a column in major main stream publications such as Time and Newsweek.
Perhaps we have been numbed by the media in our concern towards the environment. There have been more "bad" news stories about the environment, rather than "good" news ones. Even good news stories were trivialized by the media for their human interest element rather than actually indicating that major victories were being won. Has the preponderance of "bad" news about the environment further accentuated our belief in the inability of individuals in making a difference?
Of course too, emerging concerns about the economy and issues such as the Quebec referendum have also been dominating the news as the media focuses on these issues. Environment has also become an issue of lesser importance in terms of media coverage and instead, the media now focuses our concerns on these other issues as being more important.
False Pollyannas and False Perceptions?
In a recent issue of the journal, Conservation Biology, Dr. Reed Noss writes that conservation biologists "should not be so assured that the degradation of nature is general knowledge". He goes on to say that "as a greater proportion of us live in cities, as kids watch TV and operate Game Boys instead of catching snapping turtles in the creek, and even as biology majors rarely take a field trip in school, the damage (to the environment) becomes increasingly invisible to the general public. For those ever fewer of us who still get outdoors and believe in the virtues of natural history, seeing the wounds is bad enough; knowing that other people go merrily on their way oblivious to the destruction around them is almost unbearable".4
Lamenting the fact that environment is not a major priority in people's lives because of a lack of education, Noss raises a greater concern of those who are now trying to convince the public that "the environmental movement has succeeded or else was never needed in the first place". With the shift to the conservative right that is dominating the American political scene right now, we are seeing attempts to repeal environmental legislation that is viewed as being contrary to economic progress. While it is true that there have been great strides in cleaning up the environment of Europe and North America through reducing contaminant levels, the battle to preserve the environment wages on. Noss concludes that, while recovery of native species and lands in North America is possible, the Pollyannas of "all is well in the environment" are speaking too soon.
It may well be that concern for the environment is a cyclical issue and that one day it may again be front page news. The fact is however, that despite the progress we have seen in moving ahead the concept of sustainable development, many do not see the linkages between economy and the environment. It is clear that the lines have been drawn and in resolving environmental stand-offs, we often end up in a compromise situation where both the environment and the economy are losers.
Despite what may appear to be a declining issue, it is unlikely that most of us will forego the environmental gains that we have seen over the past 25 years. The key still lies in education and raising environmental awareness. While economy may be the major issue of concern for many, to our children the environment is still a major concern and luckily they are better educated than many of their parents. For those children, the environment will continue to be an issue of concern in the future as they finally realize the consequences of the world they have inherited.
Alberta's Vision of Sustainable Development
Alberta, a member of the global community, is a leader in sustainable development, ensuring a healthy environment, a healthy economy and a high quality of life in the present and the future. The vision encompasses all of the following elements:
- The quality of air, water and land is assured.
- Alberta's biological diversity is preserved.
- We live within Alberta's natural carrying capacity.
- The economy is healthy.
- Market forces and regulatory systems work for sustainable development.
- Urban and rural communities offer a healthy environment for living.
- Albertans are educated and informed about the economy and the environment.
- Albertans are responsible global citizens.
- Albertans are stewards of the environment and the economy.
Priorities for Alberta's Environmental Future
The Environment Council of Alberta Task Force compiled the results of all of the surveys and workshops conducted and developed the following five priorities for Alberta's environmental, economic and strategic direction.
Priority 1: Make sustainable development a fundamental value in the way we govern and conduct our lives.
Priority 2: Implement sustainable development practices to protect our air, water and land.
Priority 3: Maintain the Alberta Advantage and ensure our success as a trading province through sound environmental management.
Priority 4: Develop innovative, cost-effective ways of doing business to support sustainable development.
Priority 5: Ensure greater environmental empowerment and accountability for all sectors of Alberta.
1 Angus Reid poll on the Alberta political scene. Source: Internet at http://www.canuck.com/Angusreid
2 Filion, F.L. et al. 1989. The importance of wildlife to Canadians in 1987: Highlights of a national survey.
3 Alberta Environmental Protection. 1995. Ensuring prosperity. Implementing sustainable development. The report of the future environmental directions for Alberta task force. Edmonton. Also available on-line at http://www.gov.ab.ca.
4 Noss, R. The perils of pollyannas. Conservation Biology, Pages 701-703. Volume 9, No.4, August 1995.