Green Economic Growth on Collision Course with Shifting Social Values?

June 24, 2011; Source: | Since 2008, an Oregon nonprofit organization, PolicyInteractive, has conducted several statewide polls to gauge community attitudes toward climate change issues. Over several iterations, respondents have consistently supported the statement that, “Our country would be a better place if we all consumed less.” No fewer than 74 percent and as many as 88 percent of respondents agreed with this statement.

The results were similar in a 2009 national poll conducted by the Center for American Progress. In that poll, 80 percent of respondents agreed that, “Americans should adopt a more sustainable lifestyle by conserving energy and buying fewer goods.” A separate question purely focused on energy efficiency received slightly less support, which suggests that there is independent support for buying less.

The Oregon polls in particular reveal that “consuming less” is a value that could unify socially, politically and ideologically diverse groups. While support for the “consume less” statement was higher among self-identified Democrats and environmentalists, 61 percent of self-identified Republicans and 67 percent of Christian conservatives agreed with the same statement.

There are several implications for the policy arena. First, just because diverse groups agree in attitude that could translate into behavior, they don’t necessarily agree on the best public policies to encourage such behavior. The greatest common ground is for policies that increase energy efficiency, from inverted rate structures for utilities to high home and gasoline efficiency standards.

Second, according to PolicyInteractive’s Tom Bowerman, the shift in consumer attitudes and behavior around consumption pre-dates the current recession, at least in Oregon. This suggests that politically popular strategies to grow our way out of recession, even with green energy development, may not ultimately gain traction if consumers are increasingly unwilling to buy more “stuff.”

Going green is getting more complicated, and more interesting.—Kathi Jaworski