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Environment versus economy: a false choice?

Most Americans believe that environmental protection and the economy go hand-in-hand. So why do polls assume that they are incompatible?

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When asked directly, most Americans don't say that the economy and the environment are inherently opposed. Here's what a 2006 Los Angeles Times poll [PDF] of 1,478 adults found:

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The public is optimistic . . . that protecting the environment does not have to conflict with economic growth, long a contention of those who are looking to dismantle or weaken environmental protection laws. Almost three times as many said it does not have to conflict as said that it does (70% compared to 25%).

And here's what a 2007 poll by the Center for American Progress of 500 adults found:

Americans view alternative energy and more efficient cars not only as a means for energy independence and reducing global warming, but also as economic boons.
• By a whopping 79 – 17 percent margin, people believe that shifting to new, alternative energy production will help America’s economy and create jobs, not cost American jobs.
• By a 22-point margin, 57 – 35 percent, Americans believe raising car and truck mileage standards will save, not cost, people money.

And in January 2008, a Zogby poll of 32,000 Americans found that a majority "believe that if their local communities adopt more environmentally friendly policies, there will be a positive impact on the local economy. They think green technology will create new local jobs [and] make their communities better places to live."

If these polls are correct, most Americans think that improving the environment and stimulating the economy are quite compatible. So when pollsters frame the two as mutually exclusive, they get bizarre results. It's like asking people if they prefer "exercise" over "jogging" and then expecting the answers to be meaningful.

Polls are about perceptions of facts, not the facts themselves. But reality seems to confirm that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand-in-hand.

As the conservative environmentalist John Bliese pointed out in 1999, US states with stricter environmental regulations outperform states with weaker regulations "on all the economic measures." The same is true for countries – those with the most stringent environmental rules tend to show the best economic performance.

It doesn't necessarily follow from this that strict environmental regulations actively foster economic growth, or even that they never hinder it. But it does suggest that we're not always playing the zero-sum game that many make it out to be.

So why does the media keep pushing this economy versus environment meme? Well, you need some way to categorize things, and there are indeed many cases where an individual company's or industry's profits are directly threatened by environmental interests. It makes for a convenient narrative.

But one of the central messages of environmentalism is that things are often interrelated in surprising ways. How would cutting mercury emissions affect health care costs? How would swapping Saudi oil with American wind power affect national security? How would capping carbon emissions affect the job market?

Like other global problems, environmental degradation doesn't exist in a vacuum. It touches just about everything: agriculture, energy, trade, health, human rights, war, and peace. By listing "the environment" as just one of an inventory of discrete "issues," we are ignoring the fact that, by definition, the environment is everywhere, and occluding visions held by many Americans of societies that are both green and prosperous.

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