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Sustainable Development: What it Means to the General Public - Research Findings

DescriptionThe Scottish Office commissioned a survey to determine public knowledge of and attitudes to sustainable development and to explore public reactions to the dilemmas posed by it.
ISBN0 7480 1288 5
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998
Environment Research Programme Research Findings No. 6 (1995)
Sustainable Development: What it means to the general public

Ewen McCaig and Charlie Henderson: The MVA Consultancy

ISBN 0-7480-1288-5Publisher The Scottish Officeprice £5.00
In January 1994 the Government published 'Sustainable Development, The UK Strategy' as part of a co-ordinated follow-up to the UN Conference on the Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In response to the various measures proposed to take forward sustainable development, The Scottish Office commissioned a survey to determine public knowledge of and attitudes to sustainable development and to explore public reactions to the dilemmas posed by it.
Main findings
  • Few respondents could correctly define 'sustainable development' and levels of awareness of what happened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and of Agenda 21 were low.
  • Most respondents thought it was possible to find a balance between economic growth and protecting the environment.
  • The majority of respondents thought that protecting the environment was more important than economic growth or keeping prices down.
  • The majority of respondents were concerned about the state that the world would be in for future generations.
  • Most thought that central government had the main responsibility for making sure Scotland was in a state fit to be passed to future generations.
Public attitudes to sustainable development
The policy framework
In January 1994 the Government published 'Sustainable Development, The UK Strategy' as part of a co-ordinated follow-up to the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The strategy sets out mechanisms for taking forward sustainable development, recognising that central and local government, business and industry, voluntary bodies and individual citizens need to work together.
A number of initiatives have been developed in Scotland to progress the strategy. These include the Secretary of State's Advisory Group on Sustainable Development and the promotion of sustainability at the local level through The Association of Scottish Community Councils network. In addition, local authorities are developing the concept through their own Agenda 21 programmes.
The Scottish Office recognised that before strategies for involving the citizen could be fully developed, a better understanding was needed of public knowledge and awareness of the concept of sustainable development, what it means to the individual in terms of lifestyles now and in the future, and how actions can contribute to sustainable development at local, national and global levels.
The approach
The research was based on a structured questionnaire survey at 500 households across Scotland in September/October 1994.
Quality of life
Respondents were asked to identify the 3 factors which most contributed to a good quality of life. High employment (59%) and good health care (54%) were most mentioned. Good quality environment was selected by only 19% and economic growth by 14%.
Sustainable development scenarios
World population
The following views were held by the majority of respondents:
  • population control was essential and in the interests of the West as well as of developing countries;
  • countries should be encouraged to control their populations rather than face penalties if they did not;
  • technological development was not a solution to resource depletion.
Fish stocks in the North Sea
The majority of respondents considered that
  • government intervention was necessary to conserve stocks;
  • price rises had to be accepted.
  • Loss of employment was unacceptable to a small majority.
Out-of-town shopping centres
Although the majority recognised that the countryside was a limited resource few were willing to restrict such developments or the rights of individuals to go shopping in their cars.
Tourism development in the Scottish countryside
While there was a general feeling that the countryside should be kept in its natural state, most thought it was able to cope with more visitors. There was strong support for the promotion of rural tourism.
Public support for sustainable development
  • When asked about issues relating to sustainable development
  • most respondents were implicitly supportive of the concept
  • 64% said that protecting the environment was more important than economic growth
  • 64% said that protecting the environment was more important than keeping prices down
  • 70% said it was possible to find a balance between economic growth and protecting the environment.
When asked about sustainable development policies
  • 70% said that wealthier nations should contribute towards assisting poorer countries to control pollution
  • 72% said that the UK should take a global approach to economic development and environmental issues
  • 95% said that the Government should bear in mind the needs of future generations when designing policies
  • 95% said that if we don't make sacrifices in the way we live now, it will be difficult for future generations to meet their own needs.
When asked how much the state of the world for future generations worried them, 33% said they worried a lot, 46% said they worried quite a lot and 17% said they worried a little. Only 3% said they did not worry at all.
Social class was the only significant determinant of attitudes with the higher classes tending to be more supportive of the pro-environment options. However attitudes were not the same for all scenarios and respondents were most likely to be pro-environmental when global issues (eg population) were dealt with. More importance was attached to economic and financial criteria when considering local issues. Personal wealth also influenced attitudes with those in social classes D/E attaching most importance to financial criteria.
Despite general support for the concept respondents were not very knowledgeable about the terminology and history of sustainable development. Only 12% could correctly define it, only 19% knew what event took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and only 2% could correctly say what Agenda 21 was.
Respondents were presented with three further topics: road transport and pollution, non-renewable energy supplies and water pollution. For each, they were asked to rank criteria in order of importance to policy development. Overall environmental, health and safety factors were ranked high and economic and cost factors were ranked low. Physical and visual impact were least important.
Summary
The report shows that most people support the principles underlying sustainable development, but that the concept itself is not well understood. The majority of respondents in the survey:
  • favoured environmental protection and resource conservation rather than economic development
  • acknowledged the need for behavioural change by the individual
  • indicated that the issues had to be resolved through global action rather than unilateral policies of individual countries
  • supported government intervention rather than laissez-faire and a free market.
About the survey
The survey was based on a face to face interview survey with a sample of 500 individuals in September/October 1994. All of mainland Scotland was covered by the sample frame with the exception of the extreme north and west and the remoter areas of Argyllshire. Within each of the 50 sample points, interviewers selected respondents according to prescribed quotas relating to age, tenure and sex.
Careful attention was paid to questionnaire design, analysis and interpretation in order to overcome the challenge of addressing the issues surrounding sustainable development in a quantitative survey.
The term 'sustainable development' was not introduced until midway through the questionnaire, but the concept and underlying principles were investigated through the use of practical examples. For example four scenarios were introduced in the questionnaire which covered sustainable development issues - world population, fish stocks conservation, out of town shopping, tourism development - via fictitious news reports and responses obtained using agree/disagree statements. A method was developed of summarising and reporting the issues around four central themes of 'environment/economy', 'government intervention/ laissez faire', 'behavioural change of the individual/no change' and 'global/local'.
"Sustainable Development: What it means to the general public", the research report summarised in this Research Findings, may be purchased (price £5 per copy).
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