Place Effects on Environmental Views

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Abstract

How people respond to questions involving the environment depends partly on individual characteristics. Characteristics such as age, gender, education, and ideology constitute the well-studied “social bases of environmental concern,” which have been explained in terms of cohort effects or of cognitive and cultural factors related to social position. It seems likely that people's environmental views depend not only on personal characteristics but also on their social and physical environments. This hypothesis has been more difficult to test, however. Using data from surveys in 19 rural U.S. counties, we apply mixed-effects modeling to investigate simple place effects with respect to locally focused environmental views. We find evidence for two kinds of place effects. Net of individual characteristics, specific place characteristics have the expected effect on related environmental views. Local changes are related to attitudes about regulation and growth. For example, respondents more often perceive rapid development as a problem, and favor environmental rules that restrict development, in rural counties with growing populations. Moreover, they favor conserving resources for the future rather than using them now to create jobs in counties that have low unemployment. After we controlled for county growth, unemployment and jobs in resource-based industries, and individual social-position and ideological factors, there remains significant place-to-place variation in mean levels of environmental concern. Even with both kinds of place effects in the models, the individual-level predictors of environmental concern follow patterns expected from previous research. Concern increases with education among Democrats, whereas among Republicans, the relationship is attenuated or reversed. The interaction marks reframing of environmental questions as political wedge issues, through nominally scientific counterarguments aimed at educated, ideologically receptive audiences.

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