Wealth is poor predictor of green values

New analysis of public opinion in 80 countries challenges long-held theory that affluence breeds environmentalism. 

Anyone who has taken even a passing interest in global climate negotiations in the past 20 years will be familiar with the strong moral argument that rich, mainly western countries should bear more of the costs of dealing with environmental change than poorer, developing nations. The richer nations developed earlier and established the foundations of their economies largely free of environmental concerns. Developing nations, with vast populations living in poverty, should be afforded a similar chance to grow their economies. The upshot of this moral argument is that rich, industrialised nations can “afford” to be more environmentally concerned.

Conveniently, an important 1971 study of western public opinion found that concern for the environment among western populations grew rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. This period also coincided with decades of strong economic growth in these countries. US political scientist Ronald Inglehart, the study’s author, argued that these two trends were connected. He argued that economic growth led populations to become more concerned about the environment, and therefore more willing to sacrifice in order to improve it.

For Inglehart, the transition to greener public opinion was due to generational change. People who were born in tough times, with war and poverty, were less likely to put environmental concerns ahead of “materialist” priorities, such as economic growth and national security. Peace and economic growth in the group of developed nations in the latter decades of the twentieth century meant that younger people, who grew up in these better times, could raise their horizons beyond the priorities of the older materialist generations. They are a new breed of “post-materialists”, who prized, among other things, protection of the environment.

One result is that the politicians in countries with a large number of these post-materialists would be pressured to make the environment a high priority, perhaps sometimes even putting the greater good ahead of the national interest. For dealing with global environmental problems like climate change this is very good news indeed. The rich nations will carry much of the weight on their broader shoulders, and their populations, freed of their “materialist” instincts, will accept their responsibility to do so. Poorer countries can grow their economies and, as they become richer, they too will become more “postmaterialist” and more willing to sacrifice for the common good.

The decline of environmentalism?

Since Inglehart’s pioneering work there has been a major economic slowdown in western countries. The “rich countries” are no longer quite as rich. If Inglehart is correct, this would tilt public opinion back in the direction of materialist priorities as the people in these nations struggle to deal with the immediate challenges of unemployment and a declining standard of living. For the global environment this is worrying. But if we follow Inglehart’s logic, we should expect a return to the good times once economic growth comes back to the industrialised countries. Soon enough, the interruption will end and the post-materialist momentum will resume.

In a recent research exercise, we found evidence that indicates this rosy scenario may not be the likely one; that problems at the core of Inglehart’s argument mean a return to economic good times may not bring with it the optimistic future he mapped out. We looked at data from the World Values Survey, which combines 135 large-scale random sample surveys from 80 countries across 15 years (1994-2008), incorporating 149,559 respondents. Because this sample is broader than those used in previous studies, it is more likely that it captures more accurately the complex reality of public opinion on environmental protection. Unlike most other studies, it includes western and non-western countries, and countries with vastly different levels of economic development. One-quarter of the countries sampled do not qualify as conventional democracies.

Our focus was on respondents’ answers to two questions: the first asks whether they agree with an “increase in taxes if used to prevent environmental pollution” and the second asks them to choose between “protecting the environment” and “economic growth and creating jobs”. Both items tap individuals’ willingness to bear real economic costs in order to protect the environment, a better way of gauging their attitudes to the environment than merely asking them whether they think that environmental protection is an important issue.

We found that there has been no general increase in environmental concern in the countries for which we have data. Instead, the data suggest that there has been no clear trend over the time period that we examine, only idiosyncratic, country-specific fluctuations. Moreover, there has been no discernible increase in environmental concern in those countries that are rich or that had experienced rapid economic growth.

The data show that some countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Canada conform with the predictions of post-materialism theory; these are countries where pro-environment sentiment is strong. Yet in other countries that were prime examples of post-materialist sentiment, such as Germany, environmental concern is declining. Though it was one of the first publics to support a “Grün” party and elect green candidates to a national legislature, Germany has experienced a precipitous decline in environmental concern – by around 15% over the period of the survey. This has occurred despite its long experience of affluence.

Germans still score highly on other indicators of post-materialist sentiment, which means that they give more weight to matters of self-expression, such as participation in political decisions, than to the materialist priorities of fighting crime, inflation, and war. But this interest in self-expression no longer translates as consistently into concern for the environment. To a lesser degree, we also observe similar patterns in the United States, Singapore and South Korea. In these countries, which have also experienced affluence for an extended period, environmentalism ranks relatively low in citizens’ rankings of priorities.

Environmental concerns rising in China 

There are also surprising results in the other direction. Some populations that, based on the Inglehart theory, we would expect to prioritise materialist concerns over environmental ones do not appear to do so. These countries include Vietnam, China, Burkina Faso, Mali, the Philippines and India. In these countries, there has been an increase in concern for the environment, and a growing willingness to incur costs to protect the environment, despite the fact that the citizens in these countries remain averagely poor.

No country has witnessed a more explosive growth in environmentalism than India: a hefty 17 percentage point rise between 1995 and 2006. This is a country with hardly a whiff of post-materialist sentiment where, despite recent economic growth, the average citizen continues to be burdened with crushing poverty from cradle to grave. It is striking that our unexpected “greenies” across Asia and Africa seem willing to bear costs to protect the environment even without the benefit of affluence.

China also displays surprisingly high levels of environmentalism. For the period we studied, it ranks in the top 10 countries in terms of its citizens’ pro-environment sentiments, even though it is outside of the top 50 in terms of per-capita wealth. The citizens in countries such as China have strong environmental concerns but it is not because they are post-materialists. Perhaps it is due to the destruction of local ecosystems, or natural disasters or health and safety concerns. Our research does not tease out the precise sources of environmentalism in these countries, but it does strongly suggest that post-materialism is a weak explanation of environmental attitudes in developing countries.

Indeed, it suggests that the process leading to a growth in environmental concern may run in the opposite direction to that posited by Inglehart. So, while Inglehart argued that childhood prosperity led citizens to look beyond materialist concerns, our data shows instead that childhood poverty is correlated with high levels of environmental concern. This surprising finding is consistent with the idea that upbringings marred by famine or floods, or at least precariously dependent on careful management of natural resources, may help to foster a yearning for environmental protection.

Where does all of this lead in our attempts to solve collective problems like climate change? The answer is unclear. Environmentalism has stalled in the west, so it may be too optimistic to expect the solution to be one where the industrialised nations curb their carbon emissions to allow space for the increasing emissions of the developing countries.

In any case, the acceleration of economic growth in large, developing countries such as China and India makes this unlikely scenario probably insufficient to deal with the volume of global emissions. A global solution to the carbon problem, one that stabilises emissions at sustainable levels, cannot depend on the inevitable rise of post-materialism.

There may be other solutions. Maybe environmentalism will grow in countries that experience the adverse effects of global pollution. Maybe these costs will make environmental issues important enough to compel changes at the national and international level. Maybe politicians will take the lead by encouraging pro-environment attitudes in their nations.

These are a lot of maybes. The point is, we don’t know what will happen. Our study shows that global opinion on environmental protection is remarkably unsystematic, which necessarily means highly unpredictable. The general pattern of results is consistent with mass opinion being determined, at least in large part, by varying interests: by a particular public’s idiosyncratic calculation of the domestic costs and benefits of a specific course of action, at a particular point in time.

Hopefully governments can reach binding agreements in the collective interest. Hopefully the governments of the world’s biggest polluters, the United States and China, can be leaders in this area rather than laggards. All of this may yet happen. Our research suggests, however, that economic growth will not provide an automatic answer to our environmental woes.

Zim Nwokora is post-doctoral research fellow in politics at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University.
Karen Stenner is senior social scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

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