Environmental issues have existed for a very long time. Yet, they come and go from the spotlight depending partially on one set of factors: the public's concern about these issues and about the environment in general.
This concern varies greatly in
degree over short periods of time. Beginning in the late 1960s, environmental concern among Americans took a huge upward swing. As evidence of this, a national study, the Michigan National Election Survey, asked respondents to name what they thought to be one of the country's most important current issues. In 1968, only two percent of those surveyed mentioned some version of ecology in answer to this question. However, just two years later, in 1970, seventeen percent saw the
environment as one of the most important issues. This same year, according to a Louis Harris national study, 41 percent of Americans identified the environment as one of the two or three biggest problems which they faced.
Abruptly, however, this worry began to decline. By 1975, only six percent of Americans answered the Louis Harris question with a problem relating to the environment. Other studies showed similar drops in environmental concern, almost as massive as the growth of
concern in the late 1960s. Partially this decline was due to the salience of other concerns, such as the Vietnam War in the early 1970s and President Nixon and Watergate in the years afterward. Environmental concern did not drop so much as other problems pushed it aside temporarily.
Despite the view of the Reagan administration that environmental regulations hampered economic growth, environmental concern rose again in the early 1980s. Many environmentalists,
angry at Reagan's views, violently and publicly opposed them. They were indeed successful, and the public's concern reached new heights. A national NORC study asked whether Americans felt that the government spent too much or too little on the environment. In 1980, 48 percent said too little and fifteen percent said too much, but by 1991, those numbers had become 68 and 5, respectively. The twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, in 1990,
sparked a new surge of environmental interest, much as the original event did in 1970. Since this time, public concern for the environment in the United States has continued to grow, not always steadily, but unmistakably.