Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet
Average Americans Take Environment Personally

How do average Americans feel about the environment? What do they want to know? What do they think about the politics of environmental policy?

Regrettably, the vast majority of ordinary, taxpaying U.S. citizens have only a passing familiarity, if that, with many of the issues to which Club activists are utterly devoted. While we passionately debate the nuances of a complex wilderness proposal -- does it include "hard release" language? -- our neighbors fret vaguely about air and water pollution. While we fume about Newt Gingrich, Don Young and the gang in Washington, most concentrate on their own backyards.

How, then, do we reach out to the majority of Americans who consider themselves environmentalists, but who don't necessarily know the Sierra Club from the Flat Earth Society?

That's just the question Club leaders asked Celinda Lake, a prominent pollster based in Washington, D.C. Lake, in turn, conducted interview sessions with 60 likely voters in six focus groups, running the gamut geographically, educationally and culturally. Two of the groups consisted of hunters and anglers, while one comprised non-activist Sierra Club members. The sessions were conducted in Detroit, Denver, and Cherry Hill, N.J.

Most everybody, Lake found, worries about air and water pollution. Women especially worry about health risks to their families from pollution. Linda, in Detroit, said, "I don't think it's getting any better because I think people are having more health problems. I myself have respiratory problems, and I've seen them get worse over the years....Kids have more asthma and respiratory problems because of the air."

But most Americans also believe the environment is improving, and many resent being told things are getting worse. If that were the case, Lake says, "they think they'd be hearing about it on '60 Minutes' and 'Geraldo.'" And, because they're not -- and because they don't believe politicians would jeopardize the health of their own families -- they view as extreme our dire warnings about efforts in Congress and state legislatures to "gut" environmental protections. "Basically, there's a complacency out there," says Lake. "And it's a complacency that people want to keep."

John, a fisherman, pointed with pride to the water quality of once-severely-polluted Lake Erie. "It's unbelievable," he said. "Ten years ago you could see sewage floating by. Today, in the middle of summer, you can see down 15, 20 feet."

A woman in Cherry Hill was also optimistic. "My children are really growing up more in tune with saving the environment," she said. "I'm glad for that. When I was growing up I don't think I ever cared about that."

Average Americans also appear to be wearying of strident rhetoric. They associate it with politicians -- whom they don't trust, regardless of party. And they don't like it when environmentalists sound like politicians. "Whenever I see vague allegations," said Rick in Denver, "I think someone is trying to use scare tactics. Someone is trying to put something out there in the minds of people that may not be true." When it comes to special-interest influence on the political process, however, activists should feel free to take the gloves off: Elected officials' connections to big business, says Lake, are widely acknowledged and disliked. "It still comes down to money and who is lining their pockets," said a Denver man. Added a woman in Detroit, on the subject of congressional leaders cutting back-room deals with polluters who fund their campaigns: "Oh yeah, I could see them doing something like that. It's all politics. Politicians, I think, can be bought."

Based on her focus-group and polling work, Lake contends -- and Sierra Club leaders agree -- that the way to communicate with ordinary Americans is to tone down the rhetoric and appeal to their patriotism, sense of community and concern for their children's health and futures. If you feel a need to crank up the rhetorical volume, save it for discussions of undue influence of big money in the political process, thereby tapping into widespread voter anger.

Finally -- as all of us already know, but often forget -- personal stories work. Credible, real-world examples of a policy's impacts are apt to carry far more weight than intellectual abstractions. Activists may want to keep in mind the woman in New Jersey who said, "I kind of look to see how it affects me immediately, and if there's something I can do hands-on. Like recycling, I can do something about that. [But when it comes to] the ozone, I'm kind of lost."

Or, as one outdoorsman put it, "It's got to be in your own backyard."


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