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The formal environmental movement is a movement of the 1% (OK, perhaps the 20% is fairer). Famously the average income of members of members of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations is closer to the top 10% of the income distribution than to the middle or bottom of the distribution. I’ll post data on this later in the semester. There is nothing inherently good or bad about it, indeed it seems to reflect what economists understand about the income elasticity of demand for environmental quality. 

Through many studies we have found this number to generally be around 2. What this means is that for the next increase in income (in the US from current levels) by X% we expect a “typical” person to increase their spending on environmental amenities by a factor of 2X%. To illustrate, suppose my income is $50,000 and that I spend $500 per year on environmental goods and services. If my income increases by $5,000 to $55,000 rather than spending 1% of that new income (this is a proxy for quantity) on environmental quality as I did with my first $50,000 I would want to increase my spending on environmental quality by 20% or $100. This means that I would be spending 2% of my new income on environmental goods rather than 1%.

As the US has become richer, we have seen a larger share of our discretionary spending dedicated to environmental quality (indeed, if you think back to the major conservation projects in the 19th and early 20th centuries they seem to have been funded almost wholly by the wealthy and not from broad based support from a population that was on average about 15 times poorer than we are today). So it’s not surprising that within the environmental movement today we see a larger concentration of wealthy people than in the population at large – for just the same reason that we see a larger concentration of wealthy people attending James Taylor concerts or competing in yachting regattas.

So here come the unmentionables. The first one is only moderately unmentionable. What is one of the many facts we know about the income distribution in the US right now? It is that older people are richer people. And the modern environmental movement, just like the population in general, is indeed getting older. I was reading a piece the other day (I forget what magazine) that said the average age of a Sierra Club member was … over 65 years old. The point I’d like to make is that despite all the fervor on college campuses to “Go Green” and live sustainably, there is both an empirical observation and my own casual observations that the current generation of young people is not nearly as committed to environmental conservation as older generations. Again, this would be the topic for a great research paper. But our urban populations are increasing while rural ones (ratios) are falling. Young people have far more diversions for themselves than to just spending quiet time in woods or open meadows (this does NOT mean that they do not love those things – much like professional sports today having to compete with many other activities for their viewers’ interest). And for the last three summers when I have tried to increase how much time I have spent in the woods, hiking, kayaking and being in conservation areas in general, I have been astounded by the relative paucity of young people out there — even at times when you would expect to see them (as compared to the share of older people). If there are folks today who are worried about conservation efforts (real ones) in the future, then I would politely suggest that there is a large untapped young constituency that has not been brought up in the traditions of Aldo Leopold or even of the modern hiking and conservation clubs. This worries me particularly at a time when other factors are putting pressure on how the younger generations spend their income and time.

But the second unmentionable is indeed unmentionable and one I see rarely discussed. While in general the young population does not appear to be as engaged actively in environmental conservation or even in the types of outdoor activities that are commensurate with the “Go Green” rhetoric and lifestyling that we are used to, there is virtually no participation in these activities by minorities. For example, I probably managed to get in over 200 miles of hiking this summer (I’d like to do much more … when I turn 40 I will …). And do you know how many African-Americans or Hispanics I saw on the trails the entire time?


And I probably talked to, passed, camped with, collaborated with over 500 people during these hikes. Now a lot of this lack of participation can be attributed to the same factors we covered above – namely that a disproportionate share of the minority population lives in urban areas, has incomes lower than non-minority populations, and has many other forms of entertainment, exercise and diversions than hiking, fishing, camping, paddling, climbing, etc. A good paper would actually look at minorities and non-minorities who otherwise look the same (such as years of schooling, occupation, income, etc.) and determine how their discretionary spending on environmental amenities varies or how their time in the outdoors varies.

I am not here to tell anyone that they ought to desire to have more open space, more mountain views, more lakes to swim in or any of that. However IF it is your preference to conserve open spaces for recreation, ecosystem services and even to exploit sensibly, this is a data point that surely should make you uncomfortable. The population in America is not only aging, and our discretion in federal and state budgets is not only shrinking (due largely to “mandated” spending on older people), but the country is undeniably getting less white.

Taken together these demographic changes seem to indicate that the country is undeniably getting less “conservation active” for lack of a better word. My point to you is that you ought not be fooled by the lifestyle environmentalism that confronts all of us in bathroom stalls on college campuses (recycling posters are in every stall on my campus – which seems pretty random to me, why not have posters about driving without texting which is far more of a concern than recycling could ever be, particularly for this population) or in supermarkets as we ponder whether to buy an organic lettuce or a “bad” lettuce or even in our choice of car or mode of transport. That all will, of course, increase particularly as the country continues to urbanize. Maybe out of these other movements will spring a new generation of dedicated conservationists but I don’t see it. The work of the true conservationist requires more than clicking on a “Like” to some blog post celebrating the virtues of buying local. I ought to, myself, be doing far more to promote that which I care for in terms of conservation than I am doing now, but alas I do not. Why I don’t is a story for another day.

To lift my spirits, I’d love to see readers post illustrations of efforts to get more young people outdoors and interested in real conservation, or illustrations of programs that are aimed at promoting outdoor recreation among minority and urban communities.

6 Responses to “One of the Great Unmentionables – Or Further Ways to Have Oneself Removed from Polite Company”

  1. Greg says:

    I hope this link will work, it’s a picture of our students on top of Camel’s Hump mtn: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vanhouteneterm/7361532932/in/photostream

    We took 10 eleventh graders on a 4 day 3 night camping trip to do some community service in Vermont. Interestingly, two of the students had been camping and I had not. Life changing experience for everyone involved.

  2. Naseer says:

    That younger people are moving to cities in greater numbers is not a very good example of them being less green. Edward Glaeser’s work suggests that city living has much lower impact on the environment than suburban living (http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_1_green-cities.html). Of course, we can still debate about whether people live in cities *with the intent of being greener*.

  3. Trapper_John says:

    Alas, the Boy Scouts was the program that hooked me on camping, backpacking, and conservation. It’s too bad that BSA has become a symbol of bigotry, as it does provide a great intro to outdoorsmanship, among many, many other virtues. Should I have kids, I’m undecided as to whether the good outweighs the bad (unlike Chick-fil-A, where I’ll take mine with extra pickles, if you please).

    • Michael says:

      Being an Eagle Scout, I have become more aware of a lot of baggage that can come with the rank. I’ve heard it called the phd of childhood, but it doesn’t get as much respect since some troops are churning out Eagle Scouts. Admittably, what I had to do was not what my father did to get his. With my kids, especially since the eldest is a girl, I’m thinking 4H might be the way to go. That seems to have a lot of entreprenuerial stuff, too.

  4. Michael says:

    As a fun fact, I recently heard (beware – hearsay evidence) that the average male between 18 and 35 spends 3 hours a day playing on the computer. With that, who would have time to spend outdoors?

  5. wintercow20 says:

    I made it to Star scout, and then quit after my football teammates and other friends made merciless fun of me.

    Greg, great picture. I am in the very early stages of working with some students to put together an outing club with an express mission to get more under-represented young men and women outside. I don’t think it would take a lot to get people excited, and I hope that your experience was as addictive as my early ones were.

    Of course, I am sounding pretty sanctimonious now, as if being out in the mountains and lakes is somehow a superior preference to others. I need to talk more about this. Best of luck this year.

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