06/14/2010 10:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Gulf Oil Spill's Impact on the Politics of Sustainability

I have long argued that the media misinterprets environmental polling data and underreports the consistent and strong support for environmental protection expressed by the American public. Recently, Stanford Professor Jon A. Krosnick reported the results of a study he led which also demonstrated the extent of the public's deep understanding of global warming and support for environmental protection. Writing in the New York Times, Professor Krosnick observed that "huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it." He correctly notes that widely reported Pew and Gallup survey questions intended to measure the public's belief in global warming were overly complicated and also tapped into confidence in the news media or in the scientific establishment. This may have contaminated their measurements of global warming perceptions. According to Krosnick:

Questions in other polls that sought to tap respondents' personal beliefs about the existence and causes of warming violated two of the cardinal rules of good survey question design: Ask about only one thing at a time, and choose language that makes it easy for respondents to understand and answer each question.

It is difficult to measure perceptions and values, and social scientists prefer to use multiple indicators in order to measure the public's views from a variety of perspectives. The evidence for the public's growing support for sustainability is all around us and not difficult to see. It is part of what I think of as the broad sweep of economic, technological and cultural change that is enveloping the planet. Images and world views are shared globally and disseminated instantly around the planet. A song or style in New York City on Friday appears in Mexico City on Saturday and in Hong Kong by Sunday. Despite the efforts of fundamentalists to contain it, xenophobia, racism, homophobia and prejudices against people who may not look and act like you do are in a long (possibly too slow) decline. The facts of the world are too hard to hide and inevitably become part of our politics. The hero of the conservatives, Ronald Reagan, was our first divorced president. Reagan's desire to lead a satisfying home life overcame any dogma and ideology. In the end, divorce is a cultural phenomenon that transcends and is more powerful than politics. So too is environmentalism. Every human breathes air, drinks water and eats food. No one wants to get sick or die in the process. As near as I can tell, there is not a liberal or conservative way to breathe.

What is the reality of our environment? What are the challenges of global sustainability? In 1960, there were about three billion people on the planet, doubling to six billion in 2000. On June 13, 2010, the U.S. population was 309,493,471, and the world population was 6,827,044,336. What does that mean? In tangible terms, more of us sit in traffic than we used to and most of us can think of a place that we used to hike when we were kids that is now a strip mall or a condo. We know that sustainability is a challenge. We also know that we like our lifestyles and will not give up mobility, iPods, climate control and all the other technological support systems we use every day. They are central to how we live, and we hope that we can figure out a way to keep using them without destroying the planet in the process. The public opinion surveys are measuring the dissonance of these contradictory impulses.

But every day we see oil pouring out of that underwater pipe. Every day we see the wildlife and wetlands covered in muck. Most people cannot get those images out of their mind, and each time we pump gasoline into our cars we think about it. At this point, the long term social and cultural impact of this catastrophe has not yet been determined. The political impact will surely follow, but its form is uncertain. You can be sure that no politician is going to cry "drill baby drill" ever again. The political power of the fossil fuel industry reached its peak during the presidency of George W. Bush, and it will never reach that level again.

The human interest stories about the spill have started and will continue throughout the summer. BP seems to be PR savvy enough and rich enough to provide financial compensation to many of the victims. The Obama administration is working to gain control of the compensation issue and to use it to demonstrate its toughness. It is also seeking to gain control of the disaster's message and meaning in order to push its energy policies. The government's attempt to steer this event is an effort to direct public perceptions and shape the long-term cultural and political impact of the spill. It is difficult to know how successful all of this will be. A lot depends on the obviously deeply flawed technology of spill control and cleanup. If the flow of oil into the Gulf is not ended soon, the political impact will evolve accordingly, but its direction will be unpredictable.

What is predictable is that the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf will have a long-term impact on energy and environmental politics, just as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had a lasting impact on civilian nuclear power in the United States. My guess is that the search for alternative energy and the push for energy efficiency will become more urgent. As I wrote at the start of the Gulf crisis: "The optimal energy source will be decentralized, low in capital requirements and environmentally benign." That hasn't changed.