06/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Growing Public Support for Sustainability

I first started studying environmental policy and politics in 1975 when I walked into the late Professor Lester Milbrath's graduate seminar in Environmental Politics at SUNY/Buffalo. Back then it was a fringe issue for tree huggers and other outliers; it was considered to be as far from mainstream politics as you could get. It has taken a long time for this perception to change. When I started as an assistant professor at Columbia in 1981, a senior administrator responded to my request to teach a course in environmental policy by telling me that "No one comes to New York to study the environment, it would be better for your career if you taught another management course for us." And so I did. Today, the world is a very different place. We don't call it 'environment' anymore; we call it 'sustainability,' and it is clear that we have entered the era of sustainability- even here in New York.

What has ushered in the era of sustainability? What is driving this urge to maintain and sustain the planet? First, there is this fear that we could use the place up. Since I was growing up, the number of people of the planet has increased from three billion to nearly seven billion. We continue to make more people, but we haven't made any more planet yet. Second is the role of young people. Young people see the signs of deterioration everywhere. They know that people like me will probably be dead before things really fall apart. They know that if we don't focus on sustaining the planet instead of using it up, when they get old, the place could be in really rough shape.

The environmental views of young people are complicated, just as the views of their elders are far from simple. The Harvard Institute of Politics conducts a youth poll every two years that provides some insight if we combine it with a similar poll conducted by the Marist Institute. In 2008, environment was mentioned by only 4% of their sample as one of the top issues facing the nation. The top two issues were the economy (29%) and war in Iraq (20%).

However, when asked if protecting the environment should be as high a priority for the government as protecting jobs, 64% agreed and only 13% disagreed. Part of this response can be attributed to the wording of the question. Many conservatives don't think that government should be involved in job protection, but consider the policing function of the state to include environmental protection. Still, the trade off question of job protection compared to environmental protection asked if both should be considered equally by government. In 2010, a similar (but unfortunately differently worded) question appears in the poll: "Agree or disagree: Government should do more to prevent climate change, even at the expense of economic growth." "Environment" which includes water and air pollution has pollution has been replaced in the poll by "climate," and job protection has been replaced in the poll by "economic growth." Let's ignore the possibly false premise of the question that the two must be traded off against each other; the response of America's young folks is interesting. Overall 29% agreed by selecting climate over economic growth, and 27% disagreed. The largest group (41%) had no view. Among college students the split was 37% favoring climate with 25 % focused on economic growth. By small majorities, young people selected more "environmental" responses.

An April 2009 Marist poll provides an indication of the complexity of Americans' views on environmental issues. In that poll, most Americans (60%) refused to label themselves "environmentalists." But when asked: "Thinking about how you live and the things you buy, overall, do you personally do a great deal, a good amount, a fair amount, a little, or nothing at all to help the environment?" Eighty percent said a "fair amount" or greater. They are not self-described environmentalists, but in my view, they probably would say that they are in favor of "sustainability."

There is little question that the Great Recession has crowded out all issues other than the economy. Polls show that when asked to trade off environment and economic growth a growing number of people are picking the economic growth. With people out of work and suffering, I suspect that economic growth would dominate any trade-off question. But while Americans are prioritizing the economy above all else, there are growing signs that they are becoming more aware of environmental issues and are starting to question the validity of the trade-off between environmental quality and economic growth. You cannot understand the complexity of American public opinion on the issues of environment and sustainability by looking at a single poll at a single point in time. Multiple indicators measuring a variety of attitudes and behaviors are required.

Two polls conducted last summer provide evidence of the appeal of green values, even during the Great Recession. In a study by the public relations firm Capstrat and survey firm Public Policy Polling : "Eighty-three percent of respondents said a company's commitment to sustainable business practices is very or somewhat important in their purchasing decisions." This concern for sustainability is not simply reflected in purchasing decisions but in everyday life. A Harris Poll also conducted last summer reported that:

"Most people have taken some steps to reduce or limit their use of electricity and paper. Many others have taken steps to recycle computers, cell phones or other electronic devices, switched from bottled water to tap water, taken steps to reduce their water consumption, made their homes more energy efficient, or bought a more energy efficient car."

Harris points out that while most Americans act in ways that reflect a growing sustainability consciousness, they characterized the country as falling into four fairly equal categories; the least green (23%), the not very green (29%), the somewhat green (25%), and the most green (22%) . Nevertheless, Harris concludes, as I do, that a change is now underway; I am starting to think of this change as a shift to a paradigm, or world view characterized by a concern for environmental sustainability. According to Harris:

"This is not so much a glass that is half empty or half full, but one that is "mostly empty but filling up." Many people are beginning to take some steps that save energy or water and reduce their carbon footprint, to slow global warming."

The change might be seen as change in the view of environmental protection. For traditional environmentalists, a cleaner environment was self-justifying and seen as a goal or an end. To those concerned with sustainability, environmental protection is a means. For those adhering to this view of the world, if we do not improve our stewardship or management of the planet's resources, the economic processes that we benefit from will become unsustainable. The sustainability paradigm is based on the fear that our present course is unsustainable. This view is growing and influencing companies like Wal-Mart, GE, Pepsi and Coca Cola as well as the individuals polled by Harris last summer. This is the glass that Harris views as "filling up." Young people are coming of age while this paradigm shift is underway. On college campuses, courses on sustainability are over-subscribed, and the new masters program in Sustainability Management that I direct here at Columbia University received three times as many applications this year than we projected. The fringe issue I stumbled across in 1975 has entered the center of American political, economic and cultural life.