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Ed Begley Jr

Ed Begley Jr

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By SHAUN McKINNONThe Arizona RepublicA year ago as Earth Day approached, Americans seemed smitten with the environment.Energy-efficient light bulbs flew off the shelves.

Hybrid vehicles hummed along as the new highway status symbol.

Al Gore's big-screen PowerPoint in the Oscar-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth" ignited new interest in climate change.

Ed Begley Jr., the "St.

Elsewhere" star who found a second career promoting simple living, emerged as the star of a whole new eco-centric cable TV channel.

Green was the new everything.Then in January, a series of polls appeared to suggest that the passion had cooled.Facing the worst recession in generations, Americans said the environment ranked low on the list of concerns.

For the first time in 25 years, people told Gallup they would sacrifice environmental protection for economic growth.The green movement started to look like a luxury, and some of its leaders wondered if it would become another victim of the recession.The reality, experts say, is as messy as a real love affair and hidden mostly in the fine print of the polls.When Americans mark Earth Day 2009 on Wednesday, their true feelings about the environment will have changed little:- They still want clean air and safe water.- They still want to preserve the special places, whether it's a public park down the street or a national park in the next state.- And they still believe environmental quality is declining.

But it's more complicated when money's tight, when politics and government intrude, when the old lines blur between what's good for the planet and what's not.

The polls likely have tapped into a shift in attitudes as Americans assess their priorities, but environmental groups say outdated poll questions may overstate a more subtle change."People's views of the environment are inevitably bound up with a variety of other issues, including their views on the government, on health, maybe their concern about the well being of their children and grandchildren," said Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociologist at Oklahoma State University.

The EconomyWhat pollsters asked this year were the same basic questions they always ask: What issues concern you most? This year, the environment slid precipitously as the economy, health care, jobs, crime and education grew in importance.

In one survey, concern about jobs gained 21 percentage points while concern about the environment fell by 15 points.

A second question rattled the poll takers a little more.

For the first time in a quarter century of asking, Americans told Gallup that economic growth should take priority - even if it comes at the expense of the environment.

The findings reflect a sort of hierarchy of needs, said Tom Rex, an Arizona State University economist."If you don't even have food and water, then you can't think about much of anything else," he said.

"If you have that, you can think about other things."The environment always drops as a top-level concern in an economic downturn, Rex said.

But that doesn't mean people stop caring."In recent months, we are finding that businesses will not spend on new equipment unless there is a solid economic justification," said Laura Burgis, owner of Burgis Envirolutions, a Tempe, Ariz., company that provides environmentally friendly waste and recycling systems.Burgis said her company helps its customers reduce costs, and that is driving business."The aspect of having a positive environmental impact is secondary," she said.

"It is not what is motivating the purchasing decision."Some business experts, including some of the architects of President Barack Obama's recovery plan, believe helping the environment is the key to rebuilding the economy.

They say renewable energy and other green initiatives will create new jobs and replace jobs lost permanently in the recession.PoliticsEven before the economy nosedived, politics had burrowed deeper into the environmental movement, coloring the viewpoints of true believers on both sides.Although conservatives long have distrusted environmentalists - "tree huggers" isn't exactly a term of endearment - the rise of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore as a climate-change evangelist seems to have sharpened the debate."Al Gore has been a double-edged sword on this issue," said Jim DiPeso, policy director for the group Republicans for Environmental Protection.

"He brought greater attention to the issue, but unwittingly, he made it more partisan."That DiPeso's group exists underscores the party divide on green issues.

Republicans, whose leaders were instrumental three decades ago in the passage of the landmark clean air and wilderness acts, have supported policies not friendly to the environment.Those views filter through the party faithful and begin to harden as opinions about the environment.

Most often, DiPeso said, those opinions center on the government's role in managing resources such as oil, timber, coal and water.

Climate change, tied up in science that even experts struggle to explain, further polarized the parties."People who have jobs and families and kids can't spend hours looking at policy debates and science," DiPeso said.

"So they tend to follow the lead of opinion leaders, take their cue from them.

They figure, 'OK, if I'm a Republican and Newt Gingrich says this, then that's good enough for me.

If I'm a Democrat and Nancy Pelosi says that, I just go along.' "DiPeso said he was encouraged this year from the passage of a sweeping wilderness bill, which drew a smattering of Republican votes in both the House and Senate.

While the bill drew relatively few GOP votes, DiPeso saw it as a sign that the two parties still could find a middle ground on environmental issues:"History has shown that legislation like the clean air act, wilderness act, the bills that find the middle ground, those laws have stood the test of time," he said.The PollsPoll questions that frame the issue as the environment vs.

the economy may help deepen the divide."They are following a very outdated, simplistic framing of the environment," said Dunlap, the Oklahoma State sociologist.

"In the early day, it was always seen that way: If you clean up the environment, it's going to cost us something.

But there is evidence now that if you clean up the environment, it helps the economy."The polls simply ask what issue is of most concern, and in a recession the economy and jobs will rank first, Dunlap said.

But behind the apparent poor showing of the environment in a poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press were details about the answers.Pew asked if an issue should be a top priority, important but lower, not too important or something that should not figure into the agenda.On the environment, which ranked 16th on a list of 20 issues, 41 percent of those surveyed said it should be a top priority (85 percent listed the economy first); 42 percent said it is important but lower.

Added together, 83 percent of those asked believe the environment is an important issue.

Dunlap believes a more subtle force could be at work, one related to Obama's election.His theory, based on tracking polls back to the 1970s, is that when the president or Congress or both support environmental protection, people are less worried because they expect the problems will be addressed.Support for the environment ranked highest during the administrations of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W.

Bush, Dunlap said.

Conservation groups saw Reagan as an enemy to the environment - his first Interior secretary, James Watt, once promised the government would "mine more, drill more and cut more timber" - and the first Bush White House did little to change course.

AttitudesDiane Brossart, president of Valley Forward in Phoenix, sees attitudes shifting toward the broader concept of sustainability, finding ways to use resources without using them up."Twenty years ago, we didn't used the word sustainability; we used 'environment,' " she said.

"But I think it's the same thing, maintaining a quality of life for future generations, taking stewardship of the Earth, making the community a healthy place to live."Economic issues actually drew new attention to sustainable practices, she said.

When gas topped $4 a gallon, motorists lined up for the bus or learned to drive less.

As money grows tighter, people are rediscovering gardens and simpler ways of living.And speaking of simple living, Ed Begley Jr., the green guru of cable TV, thinks people might find new rewards in giving Mother Earth a little love."People are just so busy, so over-extended, spending all their time texting, Tweeting, blogging, doing all of those things, all highly caffeinated and sugared up," Begley said.

"Maybe we need to have a crisis like this one, as horrible as it is, to wake us up to what is our real wealth - more time with families, less time on the 405 (freeway) stuck in traffic working two jobs."Begley said he doesn't understand why political leaders have turned the environment so partisan."I learned all these things from my father, a conservative who liked to conserve," he said.

"It should not be a Democratic or a Republican issue.

We have a lot of people who are open to these ideas.

People just want to do the right thing." The Arizona Republic
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