In 1991, 71% of Americans thought it was more important to protect the environment than to foster economic growth. Only 20% of Americans thought economic growth was more important. In the latest Gallup poll on the same issue, 49% of Americans think economic growth is more important, while just 41% believe the environment is more important.
Gallup notes that the 8% difference is narrower than the 2011 record gap of 18%, when only 36% of Americans thought that environmental issues were more important than economic growth. The deciding factor seems to be a sense of economic well-being:
The modest improvement in the U.S. economy in early 2012 may have led some Americans to be somewhat less concerned about unemployment and economic growth, perhaps explaining this year’s slight shift in favor of the environment. … During good economic times, when the economy is growing at a good pace and unemployment is close to its historical norms, Gallup’s annual environmental survey data have found Americans tending to favor the environment over economic growth. Like many a public good, the cost seems more affordable when the overall economy is doing well.
For most Americans, then, environmental protection is something the country should support when more important issues appear to be settled. Environmental protection is not a need, but a want, and we can put that off if the price is too high, just as we would put off buying a new car in the midst of a recession.