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
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
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
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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