It’s official: the masses are not gullible

A new British government survey suggests that lots of us have an agnostic or atheist attitude to the cult of environmentalism.

James Woudhuysen

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Topics Politics

In spring 2007, researchers commissioned by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) interviewed 3,600 English people for an average of 51 minutes each about green issues (1).

As ever with market surveys, the content and style of questions asked, and the claims made in response to them, should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Still, the researchers’ findings, which were published yesterday, are very revealing. Despite the incessant political and media barrage to make us all change our ignorant habits in relation to the environment, it appears that the English often keep a cool head about global warming. However, the results suggest that, at the same time, we now feel enough personal guilt to adopt, in everyday life, many of the pious rituals of environmental correctness. We are quite rational about climate change doom-mongering, and yet we’re happy to change our behaviour in response to it.

Remarkably, people are less concerned about the environment than they were when DEFRA last conducted a similar survey, in 2001. Then, when asked without prompting what were the most important issues for the government to fix, 25 per cent mentioned the environment; today the figure is down to 19 per cent.

Thankfully, too, today’s popular sense of impotence in the face of impending doom is very modest: only 17 per cent strongly agreed or tended to agree that it’s too late to do anything about climate change. And 67 per cent said that humanity can find ways to solve environmental problems. A striking 19 per cent said they were convinced that scientists would find a solution to global warming without people having to make big changes to their lifestyles.

In the face of all the finger-wagging injunctions to change our carbon-producing behaviour, about a quarter of the survey respondents didn’t believe that their lifestyles contributed to climate change; 18 per cent said that going green ‘takes too much effort’. More than two thirds said that buying food produced locally, rather than food produced abroad, would have little impact on the UK’s contribution to climate change.

On the flipside, a solid 75 per cent said that more insulation and less energy use in the home, along with recycling and using cars and planes less, could have a major impact on the UK’s contribution to climate change. But this sentiment was predicated on the idea that, for that kind of impact to happen, most people in UK would have to adopt such measures. And here, some commendable realism was on display. While more than half the respondents held that a lot or quite a lot of people would be willing to recycle their rubbish more or take new steps on the insulation of their homes, just 17 per cent thought that many would be willing to drive less – and only 13 per cent thought many would be willing to fly less.

Greens would say these attitudes show selfishness or cynicism. I think they show a refreshing refusal to toe the official line on climate. It’s great to hear that 24 per cent threw PC etiquette to the winds and insisted they ‘didn’t really’ want to cut down on their use of cars. Intransigence about flying was even higher: 32 per cent didn’t really want to cut down on their use of planes. A sizable minority of English people wants to get out more and refuses, it seems, to conform to today’s green orthodoxy. And how many felt guilty about taking short-haul flights? Just 17 per cent.

However, the more worrying aspect of DEFRA’s research concerns the claims people made about their own behaviour. Judging by their responses, people appear to have bought and then mentally internalised the view that it is consumers, rather than employers, who are to blame for environmental problems. However much rationality suggests that serious changes to levels of carbon emissions, for example, can only be made in the domain of energy supply, today’s culture has successfully encouraged a majority to go through the irrational motions of saving the planet through cutting back on their personal energy demand (2).

Of course, when 71 per cent said they were personally recycling more, that may have been because their local council insists on such a policy. And when more than half said they had moved to low-energy light bulbs, or had taken to switching off equipment when not in use, that may reflect misguided hopes that they will significantly lower electricity bills, rather than still more misguided hopes that these actions will make a difference to the Earth’s temperature. No fewer than 81 per cent of those surveyed strongly agreed or tended to agree that people have a duty to recycle.

The survey’s seemingly contradictory findings are revealing. On one hand, people are quite robustly sceptical about the need to prioritise the environment over other important issues, and they believe that, with the help of science, we can deal with changes in the climate. And many of us do not believe that we are responsible for climatic doom, whatever the greens tell us. On the other hand, people claim to be carrying out new eco-rituals, such as recycling more and wasting less food. This shows up the religious character of environmentalism: we get on with our lives, but we feel guilty about doing so, and we try to offset that guilt by doing things we know won’t make a great deal of difference. Quite a few people seem to have an atheist or agnostic attitude towards the cult of environmentalism, but that hasn’t prevented them from believing that to consume is so sinful that one must perform Hail Marys at all hours of the day.

That kind of saintliness has no impact on environmental degradation, of course. But it does degrade our minds, our conversations and our ambitions.

(1) See the DEFRA survey here

(2) For more on this point, see In defence of individual ecofreedom, by James Woudhuysen

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