Interpreting variation in environmental opinions : explanations and implications
There is considerable variation in public opinion data on the environment. While very general items suggest concern is strong, measures focusing on steps that might be taken to promote environment protection suggest weaker public commitment to green issues. Moreover, in open-ended most important problem polls - i.e. items that measure the relative important of different issues in the public mind - concern for the environment has barely registered at all over recent years. Different poll and survey items also provide varying impressions regarding trends in environmental concern. Whereas some suggest this is one the increase, others indicate that it has fluctuated and still others that it is in decline. This thesis seeks to develop an understanding of these paradoxical findings. While in the first instance it considers ways in which the survey instrument itself promotes variation, the central focus is on the nature and origins of environmental opinions. Contrary to dominant approaches to conceptualising environmentalism, including Inglehart’s Postmaterialist thesis, it is argued that concern for the environment is not a product of individual volition but rather is externally constructed by ‘environmental meaning producing institutions’, particularly interest group and the media. Only by seeing concern in this way, it is suggested, can we begin to understand the variation summarised above. The remainder of the study explores the significance of arguments presented for wider paradigmatic debates in political science. It suggests that the constructionist perspective advanced undermines key assumptions of rational choice theory - the pre-eminent theoretical perspective in the discipline. The thesis concludes by considering implications of arguments presented for the future of environmentalism. It also considers implications for the study of public opinion and for the related field of democratic theory. On the latter point, the key argument advanced is that the conception of the individual developed in the thesis raises doubts about current calls for more public involvement in political decision making and, in particular, the new and widespread interest in deliberative democracy.