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Research: People Lose Environmental Activism as They Age

The environmental movement typically is aimed at recruiting young people. (Edward Kimmel/Flickr)
The environmental movement typically is aimed at recruiting young people. (Edward Kimmel/Flickr)
July 9, 2018

PULLMAN, Wash. – A new study suggests most people don't stay environmentally conscious as they get older.

Researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a large questionnaire that's been around since the 1970s, and found folks become less willing to fund environmental protections – meaning support for protecting the planet has remained virtually flat over the last few decades.

Erik Johnson, an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University who coauthored the report, says this runs counter to the idea that nature-loving young people will age and replace older folks without those interests.

"As you get older, you just tend to become less supportive of environmental spending,” he states. “You're less willing to spend money to protect the environment. And whether you were born in the 1930s or the 1960s or '70s doesn't seem to matter. Just that aging process changes people's opinions."

Johnson notes this isn't the case with other issues, such as premarital sex. In that case, opinions are closely tied to when people were born.

He adds that, in general, people back spending to protect the environment and support this issue above most others.

The shift may be due in part to the larger tax burden people face as they age, but Johnson and his coauthor speculate it may also be that many environmental groups aim their recruiting efforts at young people.

And Johnson says young people are more likely to find messages encouraging them to protect the environment, such as through recycling at school. For working adults, the exposure to these messages goes down.

"Why do people sort of seem to lose interest in it?” he asks. “Well partly, it might just be it's sort of dropping off their radar. It's just not something that's part of their daily life anymore. In school, you're always exposed to environmental messages."

Johnson says the analysis suggests people should do away with the idea that younger generations will replace older generations and swell the number of environmentalists. It's more likely that the movement will grow through a socialization process, where people are exposed more to these ideas.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA