Australian & New Zealand J. Sociology, 1980, 16(3), 110-111
Does Living Near a Coal Mine Change Your Attitude to the Environment?: A Case Study of the Hunter Valley
J. J. Ray
Sociology, University of New South Wales
From a 'common sense' point of view, a coal mine would generally be something that environmentalists would hate. The visual pollution of the landscape by mullock heaps, the heavy traffic engendered by coal trucks and the air pollution by coal particles must be among the more obvious unattractive features. If people can tolerate a coal mine nearby there cannot be many environmental phenomena that disturb them.
The present study therefore was carried out in one of Australia's many coal mining regions -- the Hunter Valley.* The Hunter Valley is an interesting area in that it is also one of Australia's more successful wine-producing areas. It could hardly provide for its inhabitants a more vivid contrast between the rural /industrial alternatives that confront modern man.
Environmental attitudes in the Hunter Valley were examined by use of the Ray (1975) 'Attitude to the Environment' scale. This is a scale of demonstrated psychometric soundness for which there already exist useful general population norms. The norms (mean and S.D.) obtained in the original application of the scale were based on a random cluster sample of the Sydney metropolitan area (Ray, 1975) but a subsequent Australia-wide postal survey (Ray, 1979) showed that similar levels of environmental consciousness were to be found in Australia as a whole. We thus have a good base against which attitudes in the Hunter Valley might be compared.
Random cluster samples were carried out of three separate Hunter Valley communities -- Scone, Muswellbrook and Singleton. Scone is very much in a rural area, Muswellbrook is in the heart of the coal-mining area and Singleton is intermediate. It was hypothesised that attitudes in the Hunter Valley generally would be more pro-environmentalist than in Australia as a whole and that they would be most pro-environmentalist in Muswellbrook.
The sampling was carried out by drawing names at random from New South Wales electoral rolls for the area and visiting not only the person so drawn but also his four nearest neighbours. This 'clustering' was done to enlarge the size of the sample without at the same time making it very much more difficult and costly to carry out. Because voter-registration is compulsory in Australia, the sampling frame was unusually comprehensive. Interviewing was carried out by volunteers from the Hunter Valley with a general interest in local betterment. Although they were not professional interviewers, the 'closed-ended' nature of the scale (specifically designed for self-administration) meant that this should not have been a serious distorting influence on the results. Such influence as there was would presumably tend towards making people claim to be more pro-environment.
The final numbers of interviews completed were: Muswellbrook 223; Scone 175 and Singleton 173.
The mean scores observed on the scale in the three areas were: Muswellbrook 70.73 (S.D. 8.63), Scone 68.49 (8.95) and Singleton 69.19 (8.32). For comparison, the equivalent figures found in the original Sydney standardisation of the scale were: 69.03 (10.95) with an N of 100 people. Clearly, there were no significant differences between any of these four means.
It would seem that living near a coal mine does not make you value a pristine environment more. All observed mean scores were very much in the pro-environmentalist direction (with 20 items responded to on a five-point scale, the theoretical midpoint of possible scores was 60. The observed mean was generally a full standard deviation above this) but to a highly similar degree.
The concept of a 'dynamic equilibrium' familiar from economics may help us to understand this result. A dynamic equilibrium is an equilibrium achieved between continuously acting and interacting forces. In the present case one set of forces acting on attitudes are the clearly perceived advantages of industrialisation. For instance, in a series of supplementary questions also included in the survey, 78% of the Muswellbrook sample said that they thought an extension of mining would have a favourable effect on employment opportunities for any sons they might have (versus only 5% who thought it would have an unfavourable effect). What would appear to be happening then is that a pleasant environment has intrinsic attractiveness but that one cannot go too far in advocating environmental conservation without running up against unacceptable costs in other spheres. As a result, people generally advocate a cleaner environment as much as they possibly and reasonably can. They establish an equilibrium as far in one direction as they can go and any further movement in that direction would lead to obviously too costly losses of utility in other respects.
This explanation is rather ad hoc but another finding that gives it force again comes from the supplementary questions also included in the survey. When asked to rate a variety of desiderata, 171 of the Muswellbrook sample rated 'Clean air' as 'Very important' whereas only 156 of the same sample rated 'Friends' as 'Very important'. Clean air is rated as even more important than friends! This is obviously a score that is rather hard to top.
Ray, J.J. (1975) Measuring environmentalist attitudes. Australian & New Zealand J. Sociology 11(2), 70-71.
Ray, J.J. (1980) The psychology of environmental concern: Some Australian data. Personality & Individual Differences, 1,161-163.
* Thanks are due to Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge who both stimulated and organised this project.
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