I received a phone call just after noon on Sunday from a Princeton, New Jersey-based polling firm that asked to speak to "pre-teens" aged 6 to 11 for a poll about the environment. They encouraged me to listen in. My 11-year-old daughter answered five questions that grew increasingly dire. The pollster said they are not told who the client is (A green group? Or a media outlet like Weekly Reader or Time for Kids?), so they don’t bias the survey. But the bias strongly came through in the questions.
First, they asked which natural disaster was scariest – a hurricane, a tornado, a flood, and something else. (I hadn’t started taking notes yet, but I picked up a pen.) My daughter said tornado.
Then they asked which environmental happening would be the scariest: the extinction of the polar bears, global warming causing the melting of the polar icecaps leading to flooding, a severe shortage of drinking water, or increased air and water pollution. The daughter said a drinking water shortage.
Next, they asked my child if she ever fears that the Earth won’t be as good as it is now when she grows up. Naturally, she said yes.
Then came the question that even my daughter thought was erratic. They asked if my child ever worried that the Earth wouldn’t exist any more when she grew up. She said "no" in a very baffled tone.
The last question was the sneakiest, the one that sounded like a tattle-on-your-parents moment. They asked are you sure your parents doing everything they can to preserve the planet, like recycling and keeping down use of electricity? My daughter said yes, although she could have easily said "no." We use plastic grocery bags, don’t drive a hybrid, and not every light bulb in our house is a compact fluorescent.
The questioner was polite, and answered (well, deferred) my polite inquiries about who was paying to lob these wild questions at impressionable kids. We'll have to keep an eye out for which media outlet or interest group tries to use these poll numbers, but I would bet it's a publication for children.
They could have asked these same questions to those of us who grew up in the 1970s and we would have given dire answers, because that's what the conventional wisdom was at that time. We were told that oil reserves were about to dry up, that air pollution was dire, and that the Earth might be cooling dramatically. But somehow, the world still exists now that we've grown up. Eco-panic never seems to take a holiday.