It's been more than 40 years since the first "Earth Day" in 1970 and close to a quarter-century since hysteria over global warming began. In recent decades schoolchildren have been relentlessly propagandized about "the environment." Turns out it hasn't worked.
"An academic analysis of surveys spanning more than 40 years has found that today's young Americans are less interested in the environment and in conserving resources . . . than their elders were when they were young," reports the Associated Press. The data come from a survey of college freshmen:
Researchers found that, when surveyed decades ago, about a third of young baby boomers said it was important to become personally involved in programs to clean up the environment. In comparison, only about a quarter of young Gen Xers--and 21 percent of Millennials--said the same.
Meanwhile, 15 percent of Millennials said they had made no effort to help the environment, compared with 8 percent of young Gen Xers and 5 percent of young baby boomers.
The AP's Martha Irvine goes in search of explanations. Jean Twenge, one of the study's authors and apparently an environmentalist herself, says: "We have the perception that we're getting through to people. But at least compared to previous eras, we're not." Mark Potosnak, an "environmental science" professor, blames, in Irvine's words, "skepticism--or confusion--about climate change," which "leads to fatigue."
But Twenge and Potosnak beg the question. We know from the study that today's freshmen are more blasé about "environmental" matters than earlier generations were. To say that green propaganda isn't "getting through" or that "skepticism" is common is a mere restatement, not an explanation.
Beth Christensen, an "environmental studies" professor, tells Irvine that compared with her college peers in the 1980s, "a lot of these students have very little experience with the unpaved world." Irvine reports that Christensen tries "to get her students out into marshes and onto beaches--and even coral reefs in Australia--to help them connect with a natural world many have only seen on television."
It is true that America's population has been urbanizing, not just in recent years but throughout the country's history. That's good for the environment. As Robert Bryce notes in City Journal, population density promotes efficient use of resources. That doesn't mean Christensen is wrong. It could be that even though today's young city-dwellers live greenly, their lack of exposure to nature leads them to think about it less. On the other hand, her anecdotal reports entail an obvious selection bias. Students who major in "environmental studies" surely are not representative of the apathetic majority.
Irvine also talks to two recent college freshmen, both 20 and both disdainful of their peers. Emily Stokes, who "wants to go into marine resource management," says she is "pretty frustrated a lot of the time" and calls her generation "narcissistic." Kelly Benoit, who "has worked with lawmakers in her state to try to ban the use of plastic bags," "went as far as calling her peers 'lazy.' "
It appears not to have occurred to Irvine to talk to anyone from the group whose attitudes she is trying to explain--to wit, non-environmentalist college students. The quotes from Stokes and Benoit may nonetheless have some explanatory power. It seems quite plausible that many of their classmates find their smug self-regard off-putting.
Reader Chris Papouras, who sent us this story, remarks: "My read on this is that the youth are realizing life will be tougher than it was for their parents, and are prioritizing accordingly." But the survey data run from 1966 through 2009, so that "most of the survey data available for Millennials was collected before the country's most recent recession hit." The same is true of all the data for the baby boomers and Gen Xers.
We have another thought as to why environmentalism seems to have peaked with the baby boom. The key is in that generation's moniker: "baby boom." The baby boomers' parents were unusually fertile, especially when compared with subsequent generations, including the boomers themselves. But the decline in fertility was not evenly distributed throughout American society.
This columnist has posited that the polarization of the electorate around the issue of abortion, combined with the direct effect of abortion itself on fertility, over the long term has a conservatizing effect on the electorate. We call it the Roe Effect. Although environmentalism is not sharply polarizing in the way that abortion is, it seems to us quite probable that a similar and overlapping effect is at work here.
After all, you can't make a baby by hugging a tree. Attitudes about "the environment" are very much tied up with attitudes about human fertility. The prevailing view on the environmentalist left is, and has been since at least the early 1970s, that to bring a child into the world is an act of violence against Mother Earth. Along with feminism, which devalued motherhood and women's domestic work, environmentalism motivated left-liberal baby boomers to have smaller families, or none at all.
If ideology drives one segment of the population to reproduce less, the effect compounds over time. Whereas big families get bigger with each generation, a childless couple (or single woman) is unlikely to have grandchildren either. The future belongs to the fruitful.