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January 9, 2001

An Environmental Profile of Coastal Alabama Residents

What Do They Know? What Are Their Attitudes and Habits?

by Edmund Tsang

A recent study based on telephone interviews of 1,270 randomly-selected adults living in Mobile and Baldwin counties, found "concern about environmental quality and support for protective policies are common" among the respondents. The study, which has a margin of error of 2.75 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, also found the respondents' "knowledge about the scientific aspects of environmental problems is not sophisticated," and their "self-reported behaviors protective of the environment fall short of level of expressed concern for the environment." The study was conducted for the Alabama Center for Estuarine Study by J. Steven Picou, G. David Johnson, Cecelia Formichella, and Keith Nicholls of the University of South Alabama (USA), and was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The goals of the study were to gather baseline information on the environmental attitudes, behaviors and knowledge of residents of coastal Alabama. The 110 questions used in the telephone survey are taken from a published study in Pennsylvania.

Occupational Dependence on the Environment
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Perceptions of Environmental Quality
* present compared to past
* future compared to present
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Support for Environmental Policy Using Public Funds
* keep lands free from development
* encourage business to protect environment
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Self-Reported Environmental Behaviors
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Dominion Attitude Towards Environment
* humans have the right to modify the natural
environment to suit their needs
* humans were created to rule over the rest of nature
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According to the study, the leisure usage and occupational dependence of coastal Alabamians on resources of the Mobile Bay estuary are "substantial." Sixty-seven percent of respondents say they "frequently" use the estuary system for outings, fishing, swimming and sunning, boating, camping, hunting and sailing; and 31 percent of the respondents' and 12 percent of their spouses' jobs depend on the quality of the environment, with another 21 percent of the respondents and seven percent of their spouses "a little" dependent.

Regarding the respondents' perceptions of environmental quality, 52 percent indicated the current quality is "worse" when compared to five years ago, and 53 percent indicated that environmental quality will be worse five years from now. Concerning their perception of the safety of eating seafood caught in Mobile's estuary system, the percent indicating "unsafe" ranged from 14 percent for shrimp to 36 percent for oysters.

Regarding the respondents' attitude on environmental policies, 65 percent favor using public funds to "keep lands free from development" while 68 percent favor using public funds to "encourage business to protect environment." Sixty-one percent of respondents said that they would favor a temporary halt to "new heavy industry"; 61 percent to development on Gulf Shores and 56 percent on Dauphin Island; 59 percent to commercial fishing, 47 percent to recreational fishing; 46 percent to dirt road subdivisions; and 42 percent to septic tanks permits.

Regarding self-reported environmental behaviors, 28 percent replied that they "often" and 22 "sometime" recycled waste; 23 percent "often" and 13 percent "sometime" switched products; 12 percent "often" and 10 percent "sometime" carpool; six percent "often" and 20 percent "sometime" contributed money; five percent "often" and 13 percent "sometime" attended meeting; and four percent "often" and 11 percent "sometime" contacted officials.

The survey also found a large majority of coastal Alabamians lacked scientific knowledge of the environment. Sixty-two percent of respondents replied they know the major source of air pollution but failed to identify it; 76 percent of respondents replied they know the major source of water pollution but failed to identify it, and 70 percent of respondents claimed to know but were unable to identify that upper atmospheric ozone is beneficial.

Johnson of USA's Department of Sociology and Anthropology said he was a bit surprised that the local support for government regulations, when it comes to protecting the environment, is "substantial," because south Alabama residents are known for being conservative politically.

Furthermore, when asked to select one of two statements that comes closer to their opinions, 14.3 percent of the respondents picked "We must be prepared to sacrifice environmental quality for economic growth," while 77.7 percent picked the statement "We must sacrifice economic growth in order to preserve and protect the environment."

The authors said the Social Desirability Factor might explain the reported concern of coastal Alabamians for the environment and their lack of environmentally friendly practices in their daily lives. An example of the Social Desirability Factor can be found in how people respond to surveys regarding voting, explained Nicholls. "At the national level, only about fifty percent of eligible voters participate in national elections," Nicholls said. "Yet a week following the election, eighty percent of those polled said they had voted."

The results of the survey also point to the "need for environmental education, carried out either through traditional classrooms or via media campaigns." Picou said. "The need to improve scientific knowledge about environmental issues in the lay public is critical, because there is an interest there."

According to Johnson, one objective of the study is to test the hypothesis that individuals who are identified as "conservative Christians" or hold the religious belief of "dominion" are less "green" regarding the environment. According to the survey, 46 percent of respondents agree with the statement "Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs," as compared to 16 percent in a similar study carried out in Pennsylvania. Fifty percent of Alabama respondents also agree with the statement "Humans were created to rule over the rest of nature," while 27 percent of Pennsylvania respondents agree.

Johnson said the study found respondents who expressed agreement with the doctrine of dominion were the least likely to express green responses to questions on environmental concern, policy attitudes, and behaviors friendly to the environment. However, Johnson said the study also found a "paradox," which is that the most "religious" respondents, as measured by church attendance and professed beliefs, show "slightly higher levels of environmental concern." Overall, although the correlation is modest, the study found respondents who are classified "conservative Christians" are less likely to express concern for the environment and to support policies calling for temporary halts to development, to engage in environmentally protective behaviors, or to answer correctly questions measuring environmental knowledge.

Leisure Usage of Estuary System
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Perception of Safety of Eating Seafood Caught in Mobile's Estuary System
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Support for Environmental Policy That Would
Favor a Temporary Halt to the Following
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Environmental Knowledge, the Lack of... Ability to Identify:
* major source of air pollution
* major source of water pollution
* upper atmospheric ozone as beneficial
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