The Emergence of Ecological Sustainability Values and a Planetary Climate Crisis

One key role of Cultural Creatives in American life is as opinion leaders on ecological sustainability and creating a positive response to the planetary climate crisis. This is not about sentimentally saving baby seals, or preserving pretty places. It’s asking what legacy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren—and they’ve shifted the dialogue in this direction. The effect of this constant push by Cultural Creatives on ecology is actually quite strong at the level of cultural beliefs in America, though it is not obvious in what people say about their urgent political priorities in the face of a global financial crisis and a painful recession. The urgent has temporarily pushed aside the important, but that’s mostly about ‘single issues dominating public discourse’ because of the difficulty that the media have in holding two ideas in mind at once. Unfortunately, when that’s true, many voters also have the same difficulty, because the issue of climate crisis is just complex and threatening enough to make it hard for people to process.

Nevertheless, here are dramatic new results from our 2008 survey. Similar statements got 40% support a few years earlier. These numbers are still good today, even though they come from 2008. Because they are about values, not opinions or attitudes. Values statements given in a reflective way are stable and slow to change in people’s lives, good for at least 5 and up to 10 years. You can see the result of Cultural Creatives leading these important shifts in American values and beliefs by comparing the percents in the table:

            The Remarkable New Numbers on Climate Change and Seeing the Whole Planet

Cultural Creatives & Whole US  – on key global warming concerns

            94.2%         82.5% agree We must stop the destruction of the globe’s farmlands, forests and oceans

            93.5%         82.5% agree Humans need to have more respect and reverence for Nature          

            82.3%         63.0% agree Too many people refuse to accept the seriousness of global warming

            79.5%         62.0% agree The earth is headed for an environmental catastrophe unless we change

Cultural Creatives & Whole US  – on the need for action on global warming

            93.6%         81.3% agree Corporations must take more responsibility for their impact on global warming

            93.0%         80.2% agree We should change the way we live now so future generations have decent lives

            83.9%         67.8% agree The media should do more to educate people about environmental problems

            83.2%         73.4% agree We have a moral duty to protect all God’s creatures from extinction

            82.6%         60.4% agree America needs to take the lead on global warming, not drag its feet

            77.6%         51.0% agree I’m willing to do volunteer work as part of a commitment to help save the planet

            75.5%         71.8% agree It is our sacred obligation to care for God’s creation 

            71.5%         55.4% agree We need solar and wind power for global warming, not coal and nuclear        

Cultural Creatives & Whole US  – on our relationship to the planet

            96.5%         87.1% agree We need to treat the planet as a living system                    

            90.9%         75.4% agree People need to work for the good of the planet, for it is our only home

            86.1%         70.5% agree I see myself as a citizen of Planet Earth as well as an American       

            85.9%         68.1% agree At this time in history we need to see this is all one planet and one humanity

            85.2%         67.8% agree I agree with those ecologists who see Earth as a giant living organism          

Why are these results so different than standard opinion polls? Simply that the survey was designed to ask people something more than the superficial factoids of top of the mind questions, and go deeper into what is really important in their lives. The context was more than “what have I been thinking about lately?” Rather, they saw a whole range of statements from climate change denial to strong advocacy for climate action, all side by side. When people get questions in a coherent, meaningful way, not in isolated polling statements that lack much context, they see an issue in more fullness and can consider what its significance is to them. Sure enough, their values came to the fore. So, the response was huge—and quite unprecedented. By contrast, all the climate change denial statements using the arguments in corporate-funded right wing media got agreement down at the 10-20% levels. Climate crisis is in the background of what people know is important, but they do not yet see it as urgent. It’s rather like the subject of life insurance: If the issue is not currently biting them, they’ll put off the hard thinking until another day.

Though Cultural Creatives are one-third of Americans they are half of the opinion leaders on social and political issues like these. They are both better informed, and very involved in social movements and good causes. This shows the effect of their growing influence for thirty years.

Right here I want to counter a false stereotype conveyed by the US media: the idea that that such activists have no inner life, and spiritual people are dropouts. For the last 20 years values research shows that there are strong positive correlations between social and environmental concerns on the one hand and spiritual and personal growth concerns on the other—and also acting on any of them. The Cultural Creatives lead this pattern. The stereotype is about Modern conservative cynicism, and leftist secularism, not about reality. The single issue people are Moderns, not Cultural Creatives. The new values long for integration, and life as a whole person.

In general, our impressions of the world are formed by a mainstream media that speaks for Modern culture as its advocate. For mass media are the ideological gatekeepers of Modernist worldviews, from neo-liberal right to neo-marxian left. Only with the appearance of the Internet and the ability to get news and interpretation from the bottom up, and from other countries, is it finally obvious that the Modernist worldview is breaking up, and alternatives are already here. The climate crisis and ecological sustainability are a powerful case in point, for they mean that the Modernist paradigm of unending economic growth cannot continue on a finite planet. If we pursue that we will go the way of every unsustainable species in evolutionary history—extinct. So the point to the emerging culture is simply that it is steadily growing as a culturally creative wave of change that responds to failures in Modern culture.

Afternote: In 2009, 5 different national opinion polls caught up to the climate change opinions shown in this survey. All they had to do was ask the questions differently…

In 2010, Prof. Jon Krosnick of Stanford University showed that many standard opinion polls were asking questions in an erroneous way: about what people had heard about climate change in the media, and what they thought of that, rather than simply: did respondents think climate change is happening, and should something be done? When questions were simple and unambiguous like that, his polls showed percents in the 70-74% range like mine. I have to conclude that this systematic an error is not merely accidental and inept. It could be the news organization’s business office taking control, and caring more about opinions of media coverage than what people think of the topic, whatever it may be. It can also be mere ‘me too’ copying; it can be not straying far outside a conflicted Washington worldview; it can be setting the survey questions up to reflect a fairly conservative client’s views, or so that they can get future survey business from conservatives; or it can be flat-out ideological bias by pollsters or media organizations. Knowing the financial hard times they suffer, I lean to cowardice explanations.

See, “The Climate Majority,” By JON A. KROSNICK, NY Times, June 8, 2010, and from Krosnick’s website at Stanford, “Measuring Americans’ Issue Priorities: A New Version of the Most Important Problem Question Reveals More Concern About Global Warming and the Environment,” Samuel B. Larson, David Scott Yeager, and Jon A. Krosnick, Stanford University, Trevor Tompson, The Associated Press, May, 2010  [Under review at Public Opinion Quarterly]