Origins of Environmentalism (1)

In 2012 I had a couple of internet conversations with Cardiff psychologist and green activist Adam Corner. The first one got a lot of publicity, eg at Bishop Hill and Judith Curry’s Climate Etc., largely because it was the first time such a dialogue had been attempted. The second one got less coverage. Barry Woods kindly posted it on his site:

which annoyed Adam, since he and Barry have issues. It was my turn to ask the questions, and I specifically asked Adam about his use in a piece of research he’d done (Corner, Whitmarsh & Xenias, 2012) of the New Ecological Paradigm, a battery of 15 questions used to discover how “green” respondents are. It seemed to serve no purpose in the paper, so I wondered why it was used.

Adam replied:

We included it in our research in order to have a well validated scale .. for measuring people’s beliefs about the environment. We wanted to know how they related to people’s beliefs about climate change… As you might expect, people’s score on the NEP scale was a significant predictor of their scores on the scepticism scale – the more ‘pro-environmental’ they were (as measured by the NEP), the less sceptical about climate change they were … I think it helps to set the scene for what is going into a sceptical judgment about climate change: in part, it is coming from disagreeing with the NEP scale. So, in part, scepticism about climate change is coming from disagreeing with items that measure ‘pro-environmental’ beliefs (and measured them long before climate change was known about by the public).

Fair enough. Here is a scale which measures “green” attitudes, independently of, and prior to, attitudes to climate change. It has its origins in a paper (Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, Jones 2000)

which revised the original New Environmental Paradigm developed by Dunlap and Van Liere in 1978.

Here’s how Dunlap et al described the development of their scale in 2000:

Sensing that environmentalists were calling for more far-reaching changes than the development of environmental protection policies and stimulated by Pirages and Ehrlich’s (1974) explication of the anti-environmental thrust of our society’s dominant social paradigm (DSP), in the mid-1970s Dunlap and Van Liere argued that implicit within environmentalism was a challenge to our fundamental views about nature and humans’  relationship to it. Their conceptualization of what they called the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) focused on beliefs about humanity’s ability to upset the balance of nature, the existence of limits to growth for human societies, and humanity’s right to rule over the rest of nature. In a 1976 Washington State study Dunlap and Van Liere found that a set of 12 Likert items measuring these three facets  of the new social paradigm or worldview exhibited a good deal of internal consistency (coefficient alpha of .81),  and strongly discriminated between known environmentalists and the general public. [my emphasis]

Here are the 15 questions on the revised NEP scale, together with the sum of respondents ticking “strongly agree” or mildly agree”. For simplicity, I’ve left out those who ticked “unsure”, “mildly  disgree” or “strongly disagree”. Note that odd numbered statements correspond to “environmental” statements, even numbered statements to “anti-environmental” statements. (sample: approximately 666 citizens of Washington State).

1 We are approaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support (53%)

2. Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs (33%)

3. When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences (82%)

4. Human ingenuity will insure that we do NOT make the earth unlivable (31%)

5. Humans are severely abusing the environment (87%)

6. The earth has plenty of natural resources if we just learn how to develop them (59%)

7. Plants and animals have as much right as humans to exist (77%)

8. The balance of nature is strong enough to cope with the impacts of modern industrial nations (9%)

9. Despite our special abilities humans are still subject to the laws of nature (91%)

10. The so-called “ecological crisis” facing humankind has been greatly exaggerated (22%)

11. The earth is like a space ship with very little room and resources (74%)

12. Humans were meant to rule over the rest of nature (34%)

13. The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset (79%)

14. Humans will eventually learn enough about how nature works to be able to control it (23%)

15. If things continue on their present course, we will soon experience a major ecological catastrophe (65%)

(“Unsures” varied between 3% for statement 9 and 24% for statement 14.)

This is a serious survey, and the results are quite extraordinary. The “dominant” social paradigm is rejected, and the “environmental” paradigm is endorsed, in every single case, often by a huge margin. It could be argued that Washington State is a particularly “progressive” part of the USA, but it wouldn’t be surprising, given everything we know about the prevalence of “green” ideas, to see similar majorities in samples of almost any population in the Western world. It’s one of the puzzling facts about our world that the Green parties, which struggle to get their vote in elections above 5%, regularly see their core beliefs endorsed by 70-80% of the population.

I was going to say “core ideas”, but what strikes one about the above statements is how fuzzy they are. They’re presented as statements of fact; but they’re clearly not. They’re beliefs, attitudes, feelings. How would you go about falsifying a statement like Humans are still subject to the laws of nature” or “The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset”? What does it mean to say that Plants and animals have as much right as humans to exist“?  What plants? What animals? and why bother respondents to a survey with such philosophical abstractions? Or take: The earth is like a space ship with very little room and resources”. This metaphorical proposition is is framed as a supposed statement of fact. But agreeing with it is surely more like expressing a feeling than asserting a fact:

HAMLET: Do you see yonder earth that’s almost in shape of a space ship?

POLONIUS: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a space ship indeed.

HAMLET: Methinks it hath very little room.

POLONIUS: It seemest to have very little room.

HAMLET: Or resources.

POLONIUS: Very like, little resources.

The idea of a paradigm being replaced by another is taken from Thomas Kuhn, and his idea of science advancing by “paradigm shifts” as described in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962).

In the New Environmental Paradigm, beliefs, feelings, predictions, and value judgements are inextricably mixed, and the citizens of Washington State, and the teenage students in the Psychology department of Cardiff University, are presented with a battery of questions designed to separate the environmentalists from the supporters of the dominant social paradigm. But why? How? What for?

Dunlap and his coauthors provide the answer in their paper. They “sense”: “that environmentalists were calling for more far-reaching changes than the development of environmental protection policies”  and they were “stimulated by Pirages and Ehrlich’s (1974) explication of the anti-environmental thrust of our society’s dominant social paradigm”. 

When Dunlap et al start talking about what they “sense” and what “stimulates” them, they have clearly left far behind the world of objective scientific research. Pirage and Ehrlich (1974) is a book – “Ark II– not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It’s a political manifesto, a polemical demand for change in society. Pirage and Ehrlich state clearly that their purpose is to replace the Dominant Social Paradigm by the New Environmental Paradigm. And just  two years later Dunlap and Van Leire do just that, with a simple battery of questions which demonstrate that the vast majority of the population believes wholeheartedly in the Green Creed. The Greens have apparently won the argument before the debate has even begun. And in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, no less.

The peer-reviewed scientific buck stops here. Every paper in the social sciences that cites Dunlap et al is relying on Pirage and Ehrlich, and on Dunlap’s scientific three-card trick of turning political propaganda into objective science. And that means much of the literature covering attitudes to global warming.

Imagine if Marx and Engels had signed off the Communist Manifesto with:

“The workers have nothing to lose but their chains: Do you Strongly Agree, Mildly Agree, Unsure, Mildly Disagree, Strongly Disagree?”

What a lot of fuss and bother they might have saved themselves.

[Alex Cull has kindly provided me with a digitalised version of “Ark II”. It’s most interesting. Pirage and Ehrlich have big problems with democracy. And no wonder].

(to be continued)

About Geoff Chambers

Retired illustrator (children's magazines, religious education textbooks, an Encyclopaedia of Christianity, gay contact and female fitness magazines, pornographic strip cartoons etc.) Retired lecturer in English and History of Art in a French University; ardent blogger on climate hysteria, banned five times from the Guardian and twice from the Conversation. Now blogging at
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12 Responses to Origins of Environmentalism (1)

  1. omnologos says:

    2 3 4 6 8 9 10 14

  2. Omnologos
    Hmm. 6 even numbers and only two odd. I thnk you’ll have to be sent for re-education. For, as Pirage and Ehrlich say: “It would be very desirable if the school system could be transformed to teach students how society ‘ought to be.’”

  3. TinyCO2 says:

    I think this sort of questioning is a very weak measure of environmentalism. A billionaire with a fleet of jets and homes in places as diverse as a tropical island and an Alaskan wilderness cabin might tick all the right boxes and a one bed flat dweller might look like the worst nature hater but which is taking more than their fare share of the planet’s resources? Were those medieval elite who set up deer parks and dealt cruelly with peasants hunting or collecting wood, early environmentalists? Environmentalism has flourished as we have become more wealthy. Is there a level of comfort from which we can afford to care and how natural is the place we ultimately want to save? The questions don’t determine if a person is an environmentalist, they’re actually a measure of the misanthropy and wealth of the subject.

    In this weird world we live in, one could be a noted environmental communicator and fly halfway round the planet to go look at the Antarctic. Irrespective of whether you then get stuck in the ice you go to watch melt, it’s perverse. One can wuv nature and still have a string of fluffy, feline wildlife munchers. A prince can travel to all corners of the globe to tell peasants they must use less and be hailed as a hero. Is environmentalist another word for insane?

  4. TinyCO2
    “Were those medieval elite who set up deer parks and dealt cruelly with peasants hunting or collecting wood, early environmentalists?”
    Yes! There’d be no New Forest now if those rotten Normans hadn’t banned us peasants from snitching their Royal game on pain of death.

    The survey measures attitudes, not behaviour. Anyway, mediaeval barons or their modern equivalent are too thin on the ground to show up in a public opinion survey.

    “Is environmentalist another word for insane?”
    No, but there’s an element of irrationality and hypocrisy in any ideology, including mine and yours. Identifying it is a large part of what politics is about. It’s not being done (or not enough) in the case of environmentalism.

  5. TinyCO2 says:

    Geoff “Anyway, mediaeval barons or their modern equivalent are too thin on the ground”, not so,The modern equivalent is quite common. The parks we seek to create are now in other countries. Our own parks, including the Nw Forest are tiny and not remotely natural. All of those creatures that might seriously disrupt our lives are fiercely controlled or have been removed altogether. Who really wants to see the return of the wolf or the beaver? Even the wild boar introductions will eventually prove to be an unwelcome mistake. Weathy people (including me) want to preserve the planet at a point that suits us, not that which suits the locals.

  6. bullocky says:

    ‘Pirage and Ehrlich state clearly that their purpose is to replace the Dominant Social Paradigm by the New Environmental Paradigm’

    One wonders if there was mention (in the unpublished Conversation), even in those early days, of the need for a foundation on which they could declare a ‘Consensus’.

    Stephen Schneider could possibly have been a player (NEP), also, at that time?

  7. Dodgy Geezer says:

    Alas! I am a philosopher, and so I cannot answer questions ‘properly’.
    To give you an idea of my thought processes, I append a set of answers here. I am sorry for the length – I did not have the time to make it shorter:

    1 – do you mean ‘support with current techniques’? If so, we are ALWAYS AT that limit, so the answer is yes. If you mean ‘support with future techniques’ then we have ALWAYS been able to expand our population, so the answer is no.

    2 – What do you mean by ‘right’? Whether ‘rights’ exist is a complex philosophical question, and I could write a book about it. Do you want me to? ‘I don’t know’ is probably the best I can do…

    3 – Hmm – depending on what you mean by ‘interfere’ and ‘often’ the answer is probably no – but only because everyone ‘interferes with nature’ every moment of every day, and you probably wouldn’t want to say that everything is disastrous…

    4 – A qualified yes. Assuming you mean ‘ensure’ rather than ‘insure’, which would involve paying money to a broker…

    5 – Again unanswerable. In my garden I dug up a bit of grass today, which severely abused that bit of the environment, but also set some bulbs, which probably improved another bit. Am I allowed to set one against the other? And does ANY change count as abuse? If so, breathing is abuse…

    6 – A qualified yes, assuming you are speaking loosely. EVERYTHING is a resource, of course. We have LOTS of silica in the Mantle, and lots of iron in the Core. Of course, the resources exist whether we learn or not, so if the dependent clause is considered to be critical, the answer must be no…

    7 – This one must be a yes. If ‘rights’ exist (see above) then I suppose they are universal. If they don’t, there is still an equality, since nothing has a ‘right’. Who on earth doles out these rights is a mystery to me, of course.

    8 Nature will ALWAYS balance. It can’t avoid this. If we cover the Earth in concrete then we will get a lot of lichen. So the answer must be yes. Assuming that by ‘balance’ you don’t mean ‘stay the same as today’…

    10 Most news articles and activists unquestionably exaggerate the ‘ecological crisis’. Many other people do not – they hardly think about it. Depending on WHO you are talking about, the answer is either yes or no.

    11 The Earth is like a space ship in that it is traveling through space. But it’s very big, and has a lot of resources (see above). Mainly silica and iron. So the answer is yes and no again.

    12 Humans were ‘meant’? Who does the ‘meaning’? this seems to be a ‘Do you believe in God?’ question. Certainly the Christian Bible talks about ‘dominion over the Earth’. However, I’m not Christian. So, although I mean to ‘rule over nature’ in my environment, I say no to the idea that this is ‘meant’ to happen by some demiurge…

    13 A hearty no to this one. Change nature, and it will ALWAYS re-balance. Put a load of oil into a pool and it will go stagnant. That’s nature balancing. Is that what was meant? Or do you mean ‘stay cuddly’?

    14 Well, we DO control some aspects of nature already. We have chemical industries, we build dams, etc. But there are some things, like the weather, which look to be very complex and uneconomic to control. Nevertheless, a qualified yes to this one, because you should never say never…

    15. I suppose this is a yes. There have been ecological catastrophes since the Earth cooled. There was a big one when the planet got poisoned with oxygen, for instance. And asteroids hit us from time to time. It doesn’t matter what humans do – ecological (read natural) catastrophes happen quite frequently in geological time. I’m sure one will happen soon somewhere. Probably not caused by humans, but might be…

  8. Pingback: Origins of Environmentalism (2) | Geoffchambers's Blog

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