Environmental survey sees changes in public awareness, not practice

May 12, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Marylanders are more environmentally conscious than they were a decade ago, but they haven't changed their daily habits to protect the environment, according to a University of Maryland report completed Thursday.

The report, sponsored by the Coastal and Environmental Policy Program, said the state's environmental activists have so far been unable to harness this new public consciousness, although they wield more political clout today than ever before.

"Everybody's pro-environment until they have to get up and sit in a traffic jam for three hours every morning. Then they are pro-road, regardless of the environmental consequences," the report quoted one legislator.

The study, funded by the Abell Foundation and the Beldon Fund, is the first to look at what the state's 175 environmental groups -- from the powerful, mainstream Chesapeake Bay Foundation to grass-roots neighborhood coalitions -- think of Maryland's environmental movement. It also reflects the views of hundreds of environmentalists, government officials, businessmen and journalists around the state.

The challenge facing the movement, according to the report, is to help the public understand that environmental problems aren't likely to be solved by a new program or another regulation but will require more fundamental changes in society.

"Most environmental activists believe that society must move away from such patterns as energy dependence on fossil fuels, throwaway consumerism and natural resource depletion, and move in the direction of energy and water conservation, mass transit, recycling, resource conservation and preservation," the report said.

Most environmentalists surveyed are pessimistic about the future and their ability to solve environmental problems. Most groups are small, volunteer organizations with annual budgets of less than $10,000.

The report said environmentalists believe the most important issue facing the state and the nation is the control of growth and development, rather than the Chesapeake Bay, energy conservation or global change.

This view differs from that of the general public. In a poll conducted for the report, Marylanders said they are most concerned about water quality, particularly pollution from factories and urban sewage plants.

The environmental groups said they have had some successes, such as tighter wetlands restrictions, development controls and a phosphate ban. And there are dozens of educational programs to help save the Chesapeake Bay.

The groups are strong because of their diversity, but, the report said, many in and outside the community of activists believe that a radical element -- to arouse public sentiment and goad elected officials -- is absent from the mix.

The report said environmentalists believe that the movement has failed to embrace the concerns of minorities and the poor, often those most affected by environmental health problems such as lead poisoning and air pollution.

While the public and the environmentalists said they rely on newspapers more than television for information about environmental issues, the groups were critical of the region's major daily newspapers, including The Sun.

They said that reporting often oversimplifies and sensationalizes environmental issues, rather than educating the public.

Environmentalists see public education as key to their fight to preserve natural resources and clean up the environment. In the study's public opinion poll, a majority of respondents said they believed that individuals could do much more to improve the environment, but some said they were confused about what was good or bad for the environment.

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