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The Sustainability Generation

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I recognize that I do not see a random sample of young people by teaching graduate students in environmental policy and sustainability management at Columbia University. I also confess that my visit last week to Portland, Oregon to meet with sustainability management students at Willamette University is influencing my mindset. Portland has been working on sustainability for a long time, and it shows. Caveats aside, I find that more and more people born since the mid 1980's have internalized aspects of an environmental ethos, and that awareness will soon have a major impact on American politics. While Gallup continues to poll on what I consider the false tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection, even their data reports growing environmental awareness, especially among young people.

A Gallup poll last week reported that:

"For the fifth consecutive year, more Americans are interested in protecting economic growth than in protecting the environment when the two goals are at odds. This year's 48 percent to 43 percent split represents a relatively narrow advantage for the economy, similar to last year's reading. But the latest result contrasts with 2011, when a record-high 54 percent chose the economy as the higher priority."

The question is based on a false premise and asks survey respondents to react to this question: "With which one of the following statements do you most agree? Protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth; or, economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent". The connection of environmental quality to economic growth, a central tenet of the concept of sustainability management is ignored by this question. Environmental protection is not something you must sacrifice for economic growth; it is a key source of economic growth. This is a lesson that China is rapidly learning, and some Americans learned when we spent hundreds of billions on toxic waste clean-up.

When the environment suffers, it costs money when we eventually get around to cleaning it up. If we had not damaged it in the first place, the money devoted to clean up could have been used to do something else. Moreover, essential environmental resources such as air and water cannot be used once they are poisoned. If these resources are damaged they must be filtered before they are used, and the cleansing process requires a lot of energy and money. The Gallup poll question treats the "environment" like it's a visitor from outer space, instead of the air, water and soil that human beings require to remain alive. While short run corporate profits can be made by exploiting natural resources, real economic growth requires high environmental quality to both attract investment, and keep our food and water prices affordable.

It is clear from the Gallup data that when the economy is doing well, more people favor breathing healthy air and drinking clean water. When the economy falters, people favor economic growth over just about anything. Until the economic crash of 2008, Americans always favored "environment" when asked this question. The trade-off choice was just as false then, but the response to the poll is certainly statistically valid and is an accurate measure of the public's response to that question.

While Americans are willing to tradeoff the environment for economic growth, the response to this flawed question varies significantly by age. Young people, between 18-29 favor the environment over economic growth by 49 percent to 45 percent. As Americans age, they increasingly select the economy over the environment with the oldest Americans, those 65 and older, favoring economic growth by 53 percent to 37 percent.

Gallup has also polled about government's role in protecting the environment, and has found:

"Americans tilt toward the view that the government is doing too little to protect the environment -- at 47 percent -- while 16 percent say it is doing too much. Another 35 percent say the government's efforts on the environment are about right. These views have not changed much since 2010, although Americans in most years between 1992 and 2006 were more likely than they are today to say the government was doing too little to protect the environment."

While the responses still indicate that average Americans would like to see a stronger government role in protecting the environment, it is not clear if the question is measuring attitudes toward environmental protection or attitudes toward government. The poll reports that 27 percent of all Republicans believe that government is doing too much to protect the environment as compared to 2 percent of all Democrats. I suspect we would find this poll would find a similar gap between the parties on the role of government in many areas of public policy.

In my view, the questions posed by Gallup are not tapping into the change that is underway. My sense is that many young people have a deep fear that the planet they will inherit from the rest of us may be damaged beyond repair. They do not necessarily see its repair as a function of government, especially our national government. Instead, they are looking for change at the community and municipal level. The fact that young people are moving away from suburbs and back to cities is in part a rejection of a lifestyle that they suspect may not be sustainable. The cars, lawns, and costs of cooling and heating large suburban homes are replaced by biking, walking, mass transit and smaller apartments where heating and cooling costs tend to be lower.

This is not to say that young Americans are rejecting consumption - far from it - but they are looking to consume in a different way. And these emerging consumption patterns reflect their concern over environmental sustainability. The growing number of people biking to work and shopping at local green markets is an indicator of this change. The number of cities, nonprofits and corporations engaged in sustainability initiatives is another indicator of this change. People and institutions are thinking about their use of natural resources and energy and the impact of their consumption on the planet. That trend is most pronounced among young people; and that social change will gain momentum as they age.

When speaking with sustainability students, I am sometimes struck by the combination of pessimism about the current state of the planet, and optimism about the impact that individual lifestyle changes can make in changing the world. Some believe that the answer is to return to the land and become one with nature. Most are more realistic and understand that with more than seven billion people in the world, we have too many people and too little land for that to ever happen.

The data on fossil fuel consumption in India and China, and the hunger for economic development in those nations, coupled with our own high levels of consumption and waste requires institutional action. Individual action is necessary but not sufficient. Government and industry must develop a sophisticated partnership if we are to produce the goods and services demanded worldwide without destroying the planet. No amounts of individual sustainable living will replace that. On the other hand, the cultural change now underway that prioritizes sustainable individual action holds out the prospect of building a constituency for the governmental actions that will be needed.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if Gallup abandoned some of these outdated survey questions, and focused on the way people live and think in 2013. I realize that it is helpful to have longitudinal data in order to report trends over time, but the fact is these environmental questions do not reflect the integration of economic development and environmental protection that is characteristic of the emerging concern for sustainability. People will increasingly understand that the economic growth-environment trade-off is a false one, and the reliability and validity of these survey data will decline.

The generation that grew up in the first part of the 21st century will be coming to power in the coming decades. They have grown up with a concern about the sustainability of our economy and the health of our ecosystem. The issue of environment and sustainability has already moved from the fringe of political awareness and our policy agenda to its center. In the next decade, this will only increase as the sustainability generation comes of age.

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