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Pundit Mailbag — Honor ‘Green’ Attempts

Our piece, Consumers Not So Fast To Go Green, brought this astute observation:

The sentence below, from “Consumers not so fast to go Green,” leaves me gasping:

Yankelovich’s survey of 2,763 consumers and their environmental attitudes, GOING Green, released today, found that only one-third (34%) of consumers feel much more concerned about environmental issues today than a year ago. And less than one-quarter (22%) of consumers feel they can make a difference when it comes to the environment.

I think that a 34% increase in concern on a particular subject, in the space of a single year, would in most contexts be seen as an avalanche, a tidal wave, whatever superlative word one might choose. And yet to a skeptic, the truth is that 66% of those polled had not changed their opinions, and therefore nothing has really changed.

The 22% percent of people who feel they can make a difference when it comes to the environment is equally staggering. Many of your articles propose that this sense of personalresponsibility is based on various trendy illusions — the truth being that there isn’t much of a problem and even if there were, nobody could realistically do anything to improve things.

I agree with you that some, perhaps most, attempts to be pro-active are misguided or oversimplified, but this is because the scale and complexity of the problems facing humanity are so huge.

But the concern, and the attempts,should be honored, I think.

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts
Rochester, Massachusetts

Bob is a frequent contributor to the pages of the Pundit and his comments are always insightful. Today he points to something absolutely true: If over a third of people have become much more concerned about anything in a year, that is a sea change.

That Yankelovich didn’t treat it that way — they didn’t make the headline “A Third Of Consumers Much More Concerned About The Environment Than Last Year” — is probably because the nature of the question is tricky.

Yankelovich didn’t do a comparison survey of one year’s results over the next. They did not ask people to rate their concern on environmental issues one year, then do the survey again this year and note a 34% increase in people who respond that they are concerned about the environment. Instead Yankelovich asked people today if they had grown more concerned on this issue.

The problem with this methodology is that the question was not morally neutral. There have been hundreds of articles, TV interviews, cocktail conversations on this subject, not to mention an Oscar-winning movie… all creating the atmosphere in which the virtuous answer, the answer that communicates a personal concern by any knowledgeable citizen, is to say, “Yes, my concern in the environment has increased.”

So while we agree with Bob that the leap in concern seems enormous, we have to put this whole matter into the category of “interesting, if true” until we get some more data, perhaps in next year’s follow-up study.

We agree with Bob that honoring those who try to do good for the world is desirable, but we believe in the ancient admonition, Primum Non Nocere — first, do no harm. This means that those who choose to act also take on the responsibility to know what they are doing.

This means that consumers in a Marks & Spencer who decide to avoid produce from Kenya with the airplane sticker on it to help the world better have included the plight of those Kenyans in their calculations.

Otherwise, electing not to buy that product is not really an attempt to help the world. It is a kind of moral snobbery, in which people do things to feel more virtuous — regardless of the actual consequences of their actions.

As always, we appreciate Bob Sanderson’s insight and contribution.

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