05/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Learning Curve is Steep

How does environmental protection rank in importance for Americans these days? If the results of two recent studies are to believed, our priorities have definitely shifted. First, a 2009 Pew Research Center for People & the Press study shows that only 41 percent of Americans cited protecting the environment as a top priority, down from 56 percent last year. Secondly, only 1 in 10 Americans would be willing today to pay more for an environmentally friendly vehicle, according to a study by the automotive research division of Strategic Vision, Inc. That study also revealed that out of 124 attributes desired by consumers for their next vehicle, overall environmental friendliness ranked 53rd, emissions controls ranked 87th, fuel economy/good mileage ranked 120th, and fuel efficiency ranked last at 124th.

What do these two studies say, exactly? The Pew numbers most likely are reflecting economic issues. As people worry more about their dwindling fortunes, their fervor over the environment is lessening. This makes sense in hard times. The Strategic Vision study is more disconcerting, considering the information and data on emissions and fuel economy that has been in the public domain, especially in the last few years. More to the point, although gas prices are down from their highs of last summer, there is no doubt that they will go up again. How can fuel economy/gas mileage rank so low? If this study is to be believed, it appears that we, as a country, have learned nothing about the need for fuel efficiency. The science of creating more environmentally friendly vehicles may take a backseat to financial concerns for the moment -- that could explain the lack of interest in paying more. But what will it take to convince our citizens that paying more now will actually save money in the long run -- both in dollars and a cleaner planet?

Jonathan A. Schein is the publisher of and