Australian Attitudes Towards the Environment: 1991 to 2001

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Universitat Politcnica de Valncia]On: 22 October 2014, At: 01:14Publisher: Taylor & FrancisInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: MortimerHouse, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Australian Journal of Environmental ManagementPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tjem19

    Australian Attitudes Towards the Environment:1991 to 2001Andrew Lothian aa South Australian Department for Environment and HeritagePublished online: 20 Mar 2013.

    To cite this article: Andrew Lothian (2002) Australian Attitudes Towards the Environment: 1991 to 2001, AustralianJournal of Environmental Management, 9:1, 45-62, DOI: 10.1080/14486563.2002.10648542

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  • Australian Attitudes Towards the Environment: 1991 to 2001 **

    Andrew Lothian*

    This article, which extends an earlier investigation covering the period 1975-1994, reviews surveys of community attitudes towards the environment

    during the 1990s up to 2001. It focuses mainly on Australian surveys but includes two that cover attitudes of New Zealanders.

    The relationship between attitudes and behaviour is examined, and comparisons of stated attitudes regarding the environment and individual behaviour are made. Regular surveys by Newspoll and biennial surveys by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of community attitudes are included, as are national surveys of farmers' attitudes to rural environmental issues and environmental health risk perception. Surveys in NSW, Tasmania and New Zealand are also included.

    Although there has been a decline in the level of community environmental support, the surveys indicate that there has remained a mainstream of environmental consciousness within the community during the 1990s, which is reflected in a consolidation in the environment's perceived importance and a stabilisation of its influence on individual behaviour.

    Introduction The environment is well established in the community as a legitimate and significant area of political concern. Governments of all persuasions and spheres, including local, regional and national, together with business and industry, strive to reflect this concern in their policies, programs and practices.

    In an earlier article, the author (Lothian, 1994) examined the attitudes of Australians towards the environment over the period 1975 to 1994. This was the period during which public concern for the environment emerged as a political and public force, expressed most strongly in the 1983 Federal election over the Tasmanian dams issue. It was the period in which actions were initiated across a wide range of areas of concern - heritage, national parks,

    * Andrew Lothian is with the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage.

    March 2002

    forests, Landcare, Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu to name a few. The 1994 article demonstrated that Australians were very concerned about their environment and supported action to protect and better manage it.

    The 1990s appears to have been a period of consolidation. It was a period in which the environment become a mainstream issue, reflected in party platforms, government policy and company reports. With growth of community environmental action programs such as Clean up Australia, Landcare, Waterwatch, Frogwatch, Friends of Parks groups etc, hundreds of thousands of Australians became active in translating their environmental concern into action on the ground. The ubiquity of kerbside recycling programs in cities and towns further demonstrates the widespread integration of environmental programs into everyday life.

    The purpose here is to trace community environmental attitudes from the early 1990s to 2001 and to indicate the dimensions of this consolidation into mainstream public consciousness. It is to examine whether community attitudes regarding choices have shifted; for example, the tradeoffs between environment and economy. The purpose is also to examine the relationship between attitudes and behaviour, and address the dichotomy raised by some commentators that the actions of people are often contrary to their expressed attitudes. Finally the article is also intended to serve as a reference source of relevant surveys for those in government, business and the community, as well as for students interested in the subject. For this reason it takes a descriptive rather than an analytical approach.

    The article focuses principally on surveys undertaken nationally in Australia but also includes some coverage of New Zealander's attitudes. Some important State surveys are also covered. While every endeavour has been used to identify relevant surveys, including literature searches and contacts throughout Australia and New Zealand, it cannot be assumed to be complete1

    ** The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department for Environment and Heritage or of the South Australian Government

    I. The author would appreciate information on additional relevant surveys.

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  • Generation of Environmental Attitudes Powell ( 1976) described environmental attitudes as a bridge between sociology and psychology:

    "Attitudes are related to but must be distinguished from both 'culture' and 'personality', that an attitude essentially connotes a disposition, that it incorporates three connected components, cognition (i.e. knowledge, beliefs, ideas), affective (feelings, likes, dislikes), behavioural (action) influencing the response towards objects and situations. Cognition and affect influence behaviour." (words in parentheses added)

    This model applies at the level of the individual:

    Cognition + Affect --+ Behaviour

    Value orientations, which are more stable and resistant to change, are also important in attitudes. A basic model of an individual environment ethic is that values influence attitudes and these in turn influence individual behaviour:

    Values--+ Attitudes--+ Behaviour

    This is not a certain relationship as there are many other influences such as one's culture, employment, age, and education on attitudes and behaviour.

    While an environmental ethic may develop among individuals, the development of an environmental ethic at a societal level is uncertain. It derives from the fortuitous coalescence of many strands and influences:

    Cultural traditions and values - e.g. attitude towards nature and non-human species, value frameworks -religion, democracy, political pluralism.

    Events and catastrophes - e.g. Dust Bowls, loss of species (e.g. Passenger Pigeon in US), oil spills (e.g. Exxon Valdez).

    Leaders who articulate the issue and its resolution -e.g. Bob Brown, Vincent Serventy, Jack Mundey.

    Science which identifies the links between our actions and subsequent environmental degradation - e.g. clearance of trees resulting in erosion, flooding, and salinisation.

    Education and communications which transmit information and learning across society.

    Attitudes Versus Behaviour In an article in The Age newspaper, Miller and Wroe (200 I) argued that Australian's commitment to the environment was weak and getting weaker. Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures indicating that the proportion of respondents concerned about the environment had declined from 75 per cent in 1992 to 69

    46

    per cent in 1999, the authors argued that this showed a fall in concern. However a fall of 6 per cent over seven years is relatively slight and does not seem to be a sufficient basis to argue a significantly widening gap between words and action.

    The most contentious area in reviewing environmental attitudes is that the link between attitudes and behaviour is not direct. A respondent may express strong pro-environmental attitudes yet see no contradiction in wasting energy and water, disposing of waste without recycling or reuse, driving to work rather than use adequate public transport, and so on. Part of this discrepancy may be attributable to ignorance - e.g. a farmer who cleared trees may not be aware that salinisation of the land might result, or a householder makes no connection between throwing waste chemicals down the drain and an expressed concern for the marine environment where these wastes may end up.

    Commenting on Newspoll surveys of environment, Gary Gray (2001), former national secretary of the Australian Labor Party, examined why it is that 60 per cent of the population say the environment is important yet few vote for pro-environment candidates. Gray argued that the reason is because environment is "not a central vote driver, it's peripheral." He cited the example of the 65 per cent of consumers who expressed a willingness to pay more for green electrical energy yet less than I per cent do so. He describes this as the "great political conundrum. Never confuse the intensity of opinion with extensity. Or put another way: politicians should not confuse the amount of noise with the number of people making it."

    Despite this sceptism, Gray recognised that even though the green vote may only be 3-4 per cent, this can be sufficient to swing an election - as it did in the United States 2000 Presidential election where the 3 per cent won by green candidate, Ralph Nader, is widely considered to have cost AI Gore the Presidency.

    Do the attitudes expressed in surveys have any credence and do they really reflect the significance of the particular issue? I believe they do. Attitudes reflect ideals or aspirations, the outcomes that respondents desire to apply in a given situation. People can indicate that they would like the world to be without war and poverty and this is a true reflection of their aspirations. Even though most people would recognise the improbability of these being achieved, this does not diminish them being legitimate aspirations. As an aspiration it can motivate action for peace, disarmament, and conflict resolution.

    AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT-Volume 9

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  • Figure 1. Issues Rated by Australians as Very Important, 1990-2001 (Source: Newspoll, 1990-2001)

    Australians may indicate that the environment is important to them and this also reflects their legitimate aspirations. In the short term, there may be a sizeable discrepancy between attitudes and behaviour, but being mindful of the considerable shift towards pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour which has

    occurred over the past decade or so, it could be assumed to be only a matter of time before the behaviour reflects

    the attitudes expressed.

    Table 1 Rating of Important Issues by Australians, Average for 1990-2001

    Issue % Education 77.6 Health & Medicare 73.7 Unemployment 72.1 Family issues 61.8 Taxation 61.74 Environment 61.70 Leadership 60.0 Welfare & social 59.9 Interest rates 53.9 Inflation 50.6 Defence 43.0 Balance of payments 47.1 Industrial relations 40.8 Women's issues 39.2 Immigration 36.4 Aboriginal issues 30.3 Source: Newspoll, published by The Australian

    Newspoll Surveys The Australian newspaper publishes regular polls carried out by Newspoll of the ranking of issues by Australians. These are generally published quarterly and are based on telephone interviews of around 1100 persons across both city and country areas of Australia, weighted to reflect the population distribution. The surveys are often combined with questions on political issues of the time.

    Figure 1 indicates the results of these surveys for the 1990 - September 2001 period for eight of the issues covered2. The overall trend for the environment over this 1990- 2001 period is positive (y = 0.10x + 60.47, r2 = 0.043) while for some other issues it is negative (e.g. unemployment, interest rates). The results of the Newspolls are summarised in the Appendix. The average ratings for this period indicate that the environment is ranked sixth, on a par with family issues (4th) and taxation(5th), but well ahead of other economic factors -

    e.g. interest rates, inflation (Table 1).

    ABS Surveys of Environmental Concerns The ABS (1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001) has conducted national surveys, most of which included the environmental concerns of Australians3. Table 2 indicates the date and sample size of the surveys.

    Table 3 summarises the coverage of the ABS surveys regarding environmental concerns. There are six areas in which questions are asked:

    1. Whether the respondent is concerned about environmental problems - common to all six surveys

    Table 2 Timing and Sample Size of ABS Surveys

    Survey Date May 1992

    June 1994 April1996

    March 1998 March 1999 March2000 March 2001

    Nos. households 16,000 15,024 18,500 18,500 15,500 15,500 18,500

    Note: Some issues did not cover entire period, e.g. education from September 1999, defence from January 2001; balance of payments ceased in June 1999.

    2. The survey includes 16 issues - see the Appendix.

    3. The 2000 survey did not include questions on concerns about environmental problems.

    March 2002 47

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  • Table 3 Summary of ABS Survey Coverage of Environmental Concerns, 1992- 2001 4. Ranking of...

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