The Core Values Series about The New American Middle

The Core Values of Sustainability and Environmental Stewardship

If Everyone Swept in front of Their Own Door, the Whole World Would Be Clean

How Does the New American Middle Think About the Environment? 

While we know the environment generally ranks high among the NAM, pulling out specific questions regarding the environment is much harder. In large part it’s because of confusion about the words we use talking about the problem and the context of the discussion.

We will explore influences and reasons for the confusion as we proceed in this paper. Before we go much further, we must all understand the first big Y in the road. If we get this, we will be prepared to better parse confusion as we find it along the way. Here it is:

  • Big: The NAM believes the responsibility for the big environmental problem—the cleanup, the prevention and enforcement among big polluters, whoever they are—rightly belongs with big government. As individuals, the NAM can’t go plug a smokestack or stop a nuclear meltdown. This is the road that most of the NAM will avoid. In fact, when made to be complicit in the problem by the very same voices that are responsible for the problem in the first place, the NAM may form strong opinions of opposition.
  • Local community: The second road, most often taken is the personal or community responsibility for the environmental challenge. The small scale. The local. The personal. The NAM looks to the world immediately around them and tends to focuses there. The NAM sees the local aspect of environment as something they can do. They are responsible. They know responsible people. They are keenly interested in contributing where they live and where they can.

Report that Middle America doesn’t care about global warming and this practical group will argue their position. “Oh yeah? I do care, but what can I actually do about it? If only the politicians would do their job.” They might post some thoughts on social media, but they will seldom hold a sign and protest about something like this. While the NAM has 4 Core Values, they will avoid the point of diminished returns. They know climate change is a big problem, but that is just it. It is a problem for the BIG folks. Their own time is better spent sweeping in front of their own doors.

The point we are making is, if you quiz the NAM concerning the macro side of the environmental challenge, they’ll acknowledge a problem, but won’t commit themselves. It’s because what can they do about a melting glacier? Their “worry bucket” is already full. Ask them about something they can do, and then you find more passion and activation. Tell them that making real change will end industry jobs and disrupt society, and they’ll stiffen up. Tell them that new jobs and opportunities are the result of the change, and they’ll relax.

They also know that to make real change, it must take place at all levels. Consumers must do better, and the brands they buy from must also bring solutions. Big brands can’t continue to make toxic plastics and then point their fingers at the consumers who buy them and throw them out. Change must take place at both ends of the problem. Big and small and in between. Just like the NAM.

Gender and Age—Insight

In April 2022, Deloitte published what it calls a Sustainable Actions Index. It outlines various characteristics and attributes of people who intend to make a difference. This study seems to be describing the NAM as well as any we have found. While it gathered survey responses from 23 countries, it addresses the heart of the NAM value system when it comes to the environment. Here are a few excerpts:

  • “Across geographies, a ‘typical’ sustainability standard-setter, among the respondents participating in the survey, identifies as female; is 25–44 years old; is a high-income earner; has felt worried or anxious about climate change recently; has at least one child at home; and experienced at least one climate event over the last six months.”
  • “Seventy-two percent of total respondents believe climate change is an emergency.”
  • “Sixty-six percent of those ages 18–34 want their country’s governments to do more to fight climate change. Youth want action.”


The NAM Core 4 Value of Family means they will work at home to make things healthier now and for the future:


The NAM Core 4 Value of Community means the NAM associates with both tangible community and interest-based groups. Here is some other info in regard to how this group sees themselves:

  • They see themselves as an individual. But they also know there are a lot of “individuals” that think the same about a short list of the same core values.
  • “What difference can one person make?” They also know this question is being asked by millions of people.
  • “Where do local political candidates stand on the environment? Does anyone I know think we can trust them to actually do anything about it?”
  • “How can I support recycling at work—without being seen as an annoying picky person.?”

Business Wire, a Berkshire Hathaway Company, in “Americans in Agreement: Recycling is Important and Should Be a Priority,” reported that 94 percent of Americans are supportive of recycling. “Americans in Agreement: Recycling is Important and Should Be a Priority.”

In the report, Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council of North America and vice president, environment, for Tetra Pak Americas, said, “Today, more than 62 percent of American households have access to carton recycling, and we’re excited to continue working with governments, recyclers and many other stakeholders to ensure that every food and beverage carton ends up in a recycling bin and is turned into new, useful products.”

The National Community

The American Communities Project (ACP) continues to probe attitudes and interests among its 15 identified community demographic clusters. The group credited what has been called “a limited pool of worry” for the decline in the public’s interest in the environment through the 2009–10 recession. But a 2021 study showed a significant lift among all communities surveyed. Take a look at other facts and observations to come from the study:

  • Climate change has become an increasingly polarized discussion over the last decade, but America is not as divided as it may seem.
  • Renewable energy has the highest support across the board of any policy. More than 80 percent of each community type said they would support funding research into renewable energy sources. “There’s a misconception out there that not everybody is on board, that many people don’t want this,” Marlon says. “When in fact that isn’t true.” (Emphasis added.)
  • The majority of each ACP community type thinks that global warming is happening, according to the survey’s estimates.
    • The Alarmed group has increased from 11 percent to 26 percent
    • The Dismissive group, which considers global warming a hoax, fell from 12 percent to 7 percent.

The report also states: “The Dismissive and Doubtful groups are overrepresented in Congress ... and have more vocal proponents than do the Disengaged or Cautious. As a result, many Americans overestimate the sizes of these population segments and often underestimate how many people actually worry about climate change and want to transition more quickly away from fossil fuels and toward renewables as our primary energy sources.”

This seems true when we consider the NAM. If so, then it is another peek into the fuzzy world of societal bias and reporting imbalances. Maybe the NAM needs to shout more to get attention? Pushed too far, the NAM will raise their voices. When they do, they will start at school boards, city planning councils. Do I hear them in the distance?

In February 2022, an Ipsos global survey indicated that three-quarters of people want single-use plastics banned:

The five countries with the highest levels of agreement are Mexico (96%), Brazil (95%), Colombia (94%), and Chile and Peru (both 92%). Those with the lowest ones are Japan (70%), the US (78%) and Canada (79%).

We think the following statement is a fair summary of the NAM point of view regarding responsibility for environmental management:

BIG governmental influence/intrusion may not be very welcome in my lifestyle, but if there is one place it needs to intrude, it is on BIG environmental issues that are out of reach of the individual. Global warming is one of them. Only BIG government can monitor challenge and hold BIG polluters accountable.

Added to this point of view is the other end of the issue, local and community:

I am responsible for environmental issue that are within my reach. I will do what I can, encourage others to do the same, and buy from brands that are aware and doing their best to pull in the same direction.

In September 2021, Clifford Young, president of Ipsos public affairs, US, summed up the general public’s views on climate. In one of his ongoing pieces, called “Cliff’s Take: Where America stands on climate change,, he points out that climate change remains top of mind for Americans despite the presence of the pandemic. The catastrophic effects of hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and drought have caught everyone’s attention. Despite warnings from the scientific world, there is still no consensus about the cause, but there is consensus on some aspects, and that consensus remained intact throughout the pandemic.

In 2012, an average of 1 percent of Americans considered climate change to be a main issue. By September 2019, it was 12 percent. By August of 2021, it was down a bit, to 11 percent. We saw those numbers higher among surveys done among the NAM. In fact, concern about the climate and environment is one of the attributes that makes a person a member of the NAM. Our research revealed numbers closer to 18 percent among the NAM.

Young notes that public opinion on the reason for climate change (human activity vs. natural pattern) has shifted from one in three (2017) for natural causes, down to one in four (2021).

There is evidence of public convergence regarding awareness and reasons for climate change. But where everyone comes together is the belief that only big government holds the authority and resources to address the biggest problems.

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The survey totals were taken among the general population. In this survey, we believe that the independent results (lowest row) best parallel the average NAM sentiment:

  • The NAM constituents tend to the political right, slightly more than left.
  • As a total, the NAM members see themselves as more moderate and independent, and forced to vote right or left.

With this in mind, the NAM would put responsibility on first the state and then the federal governments to address larger environmental issues. The NAM will probably be hesitant to relinquish much decrease of American sovereignty regarding the environment. Influences from those who are farther to the right may well echo through NAM who tend to the right of middle. Implications from the political right may include some of the following key words or concepts:

  • Leading the way on climate change will decrease the financial dominance of the US.
  • China is a major polluter, competitor and cheater. We do not want to give them an advantage.
  • The US will lose sovereignty by allowing globalist agendas to dictate internal US policies.
  • Extreme solutions imposed on the US will likely cost jobs and damage our economy.

The NAM also believes that Middle America bears an outsized burden for taxes, they would most likely not accept the higher taxes favored by Democratic (90 percent) response. But they are also a responsible bunch and we feel as though they would support more taxes than the Republican respondents at 48 percent. The independent response of 69 percent is right in between, about where the NAM might expect to see them. It is probable that the NAM has less consensus on raising taxes, but that is just our guess at this time.

At the time of this writing, President Joe Biden’s ratings continue to be low on environmental issues among both political parties. This means there remains public confusion and skepticism about the level of political will to make, or sustain, any real change at the macro level. This may leave the NAM in the pinch. On the one hand, they believe the United States should manage itself, not relinquish control to global pressures. But on the other hand, they have a low regard toward our own political will to react. This insight may not have a direct impact on matters that most interest marketers. However, we hope this particular insight can help inform us on how the NAM thinks. Any brand that can offer leverage or insight or helps give voice to the frustration the NAM consumer has regarding the environment could reasonably expect a lift in brand affinity.

The NAM does not primarily live in the industrial urban core, nor do they tend toward the most remote rural locations, away from services and amenities. Remember, they live in the mindset of the New American Middle Core 4 Values. In short, they live wherever they live. OK, to be practical, it is fair to say there is a significant NAM overlay with both middle class and Middle America. But to base brand messaging on the middle class or Middle America is not enough to get their attention. If anything, marketers risk turning them off with the perception that they are lumped into the wrong groups—groups they have come to expect media stereotype and marketing bias to be applied to. Marketers will not benefit just by broadcasting “middle class” or “Middle America by location” signals in a media splatter shot. It might apply to some degree, but it will marketers no good to go against NAM perception when trying to get their attention. Don’t talk down to them. It is safe to make some assumptions about what they already know.

The Best Time for BIG Influences to Act BIG Is with BIG Problems

The NAM population is well-read, aware, and prone to travel. Their awareness of the effects of climate change is elevated as a result. There are always exceptions, but there are many more circumstances where this is true. The NAM is frustrated when confronted by the big end of the environmental problem, and quietly do what they can at home work and school.

They are especially concerned about the environment because of their family and community focus. Their faith has taught them to recognize intangible concepts, to serve a higher purpose, and to look toward the horizon. They may not have a consensus on what is causing climate change or how to fix the bigger problem. But because the NAM is a DIY community, involved in their immediate surroundings, they also will take action where they are able. They may not be ready to row out to that trash gyre in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but they will do what they can do near home. Skeptics might scoff at what may seem a provincial view, i.e., can’t see the past of their own nose but, honestly, if we are ever going to solve environmental degradation, we must work the problem from both ends. Big policy? Sure! But just as important is the personal action. The part where we all sweep in front of our own doors to clean up this place.

Multiple studies show a few positive trends among Americans, revealing changing behavior in their homes and community immediately around them:

  • Recycle and reuse
    • 30%–34% (under 35)
    • 43%–48% (seniors)
  • Saving energy and conserving water
    • 25% (under 35)
    • 33% (seniors)
  • Bicycles or public transport
    • 15% (under 35)
    • 3% (seniors)

Earth, Wind, and Water

Thinking about the environment and the climate in all its complexity is impossible to do. Like every complex topic, it is best to break it down into its components. To better understand the NAM attitude toward the environment, it is also helpful to see how they respond to the components.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

John Muir

Environment—A Tangled Subject

The early proponent of conservation and proto-environmentalist John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We all find this true when we first approach this subject. Where to start? How to see the subject clearly? The following section explores the challenges and speed bumps the NAM has had envisioning and engaging with environmental issues.

Environment Is a Dynamic, Entangled Complex Where Everything Touches Everything Else

The only way to find our way into the topic is to understand that climate is the total expression of the main components of earth, air, and the water. It also helps to understand there are global, top-down macro problems and solutions. Then we can and must work the other end too. The bottom-up grassroots local challenge. Thinking in layers and in parts, and thinking in a time scale, is the only way to deal with the environmental challenge. And pulling data from multiple sources is the only way to assess the importance of the environment among the overall population, from which we must extrapolate the value on the NAM.

Transactional Data

Surveys are great, but when answering surveys people often express their aspirations rather than their actual behaviors. Yet surveys are our main tool when it comes to this topic. Why? Because attitudes on the environment are not based on tangible transactional data. Our NAM research is closer to a trend report than hard primary research. We have our own data, but many times we must rely on existing reports, looking for NAM characteristics inside the report. As with any trend report, there is intuition and some educated guesswork. Transactional data do not exist on attitudes, at least not like what is available for consumer goods or other recurring payments, such as public utilities. Other than surveys, the best evidence we have on the public’s attitudes is circumstantial.

NAM vs. Middle Class

Since the NAM is not yet a universally recognized demographic cluster, specifics regarding this enormous population are buried in existing studies. Remember, the NAM can be subdivided by demographic data, but the NAM is set apart by how they think about things, not the usual metrics of household income (HHI), location, educational attainment, etc. Plus, the stereotypes of what constitute middle class go far beyond just HHI ($120,000, plus or minus, by most common standards).

We regard most middle-class stereotypes as being reinforced by influences within the East Coast and West Coast echo chambers (i.e., big media and advertising, big brands, big finance, and big government). Just listen to any comedy routine in New York or from Saturday Night Live and you’ll get a good idea of how the middle class or Middle America is perceived. Even though they consider themselves different from these common “middle” stereotypes, the NAM still feels the sting. They activate against the dismissive nature in many ways. See our article titled “BIG and Its Impact on Brands" to explore more.

Big and Little, Chicken and the Egg

Understanding the environmental challenge must take place at both the large and small scales. Macro, micro. We see the big results and know they are the result of millions of smaller inputs, but where to start?

Every part influences every other part. Everything is everything. Working up and down this kind of scale—melting glaciers to microplastics—makes it hard to measure, respond, or even feel responsible. The problem of scale makes it tough for any of us to know where to start. Chicken or the egg? When it comes to the environment, both the chicken and the egg are really just metaphors and they are both equally important if we set aside the semantic conundrum.

The NAM thinks about environmental issues at both ends of the scale, but only the smaller end is accessible to them:

  • There is obviously a big set of problems associated with global climate and environment. Therefore, while being suspicious of big government and corporations, The NAM knows that the global environment is the legitimate responsibility of these big influences.

Government, corporations and institutions.

Big influences should be all about cleanup, prevention, response, enforcement—nationally as well as globally.

  • As recycling services become more commonplace, and products take real steps toward sustainability, the public has both hope and practical support for what they know they must do. They will use their dollars to support brands that really make a change.

The environment is where my family lives.

Community—“One person can make a change,” agreed millions of people.


Warnings about global warming came by the mid 1900’s, but the individual couldn’t do much about the warnings. “Early” environmental solutions were stark. Stop coal. Stop nuclear. Stop burning fossil fuels. Turn our front lawns into a lettuce patch, or at least native grasses. (Now if the neighborhood association would just stop sending those letters to cut my “weeds.”) Not many of us had our own personal smokestack or nuclear power plant. “I’ve never even seen a seal, et alone one choking on plastic.” But they could buy from big brands that support true sustainability, punish those who merely claim it without doing it, and vote for sensible politicians. Until there was a solution set that was within reach, most of the solutions just looked like job killers to the working-DIY-NAM population. The solution for the bigger problems has to be the job of the federal government. If they would only do something.


For the longest time, warnings about environment seem to come from the sources most responsible for the pollution. Stop telling us about your problem. This news is your news.”

  • New York? East Coast? You dump barges full of trash in the ocean, then complain when medical waste washes ashore. Too many people? Too much trash? Well, duh! Solve that and then you can tell the rest of us what to do.
  • LA smog? Don’t just sit in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway. Move!
  • China? We moved a lot of our dirty work to China. So you deal with it, China.
  • Oceans? I’ve never seen a plastic bag over a turtle’s head in Indiana.

The NAM is not confronted with the failing industrial infrastructure of the East Coast or even the Midwest inner city. Nor do many of them choose to live in the petrochemical fog of Southern California. They understand there is urgency, but what is urgent to them is not always what is urgent to marketers who tend to live in the most challenging places of all. Messaging relevance is what this book is all about. This is an important point.

When it comes to the environment, the motto for the NAM is If everyone swept in front of their own door, the whole world would be clean.

Political Smog

Currently, most “discussion” on environmental issues is split right along political party lines:

  • The big Right “wants” to support big business with smaller government controls.
  • The big Left “wants” big government to place limits on big business.
  • Neither side wants the other guy’s version of big.

When it comes to the big side of the environmental problem, everyone off-gases their own point of view. As they say, “When everything is said and done, more is said than done.” But everyone does agree on what to do when it comes to their own basic responsibility. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Partner with brands that believe the same.

The frame around our historical perception of environmentalism is our next subject. There is a dichotomy that has caused confusion for a long time. The topic is influential enough that we have pulled into its own section. For marketers who want to understand the public’s mixed perception of environmentalism, and especially the NAM’s, this next section is required reading.

Conservation VS. Environmentalism

One of the biggest barriers to understanding any discussion on environment is the historical frame around the topic. This is a subtle point that makes a big difference. We must understand the difference between conservation and environmentalism. Once we see the difference, we will recognize it. Like the other “obvious” Core 4 definitions, in order to become current we must stop, set aside some assumptions, and refresh what we already think we already know.

Conservation has been a concept in the public’s mind ever since the formation of the National Parks System on March 1, 1872. Yellowstone was the first national park. Sequoia and Yosemite followed in 1890. By 1916, there were 10 such parks, each protecting some of the most beautiful and wonderful landscapes in the country. In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, nature was mostly a romantic notion. Mother Nature, like the “weaker sex,” had to be protected. You know, appreciated for her beauty and charms. Conserved.

We are not suggesting that conservation of beautiful or pristine lands is an error. Far from it. But environmentalism says all lands are beautiful in their native form and are required for not only physical beauty but also maintaining a beautiful balance of life. Conservation and America’s perception of the importance of natural places was based on an aesthetic more than the environmental function.

During the 1900s, a few voices spoke out about the environment, but for much of the first half of the century we were busy blowing nature up into the air through two world wars. From our modern vantage point, we are all proud of these early commitments to conservation. But, as great as they were, they were exercises in conserving specific aesthetic geographies. For most of the 1900s few Americans recognized the difference between conservation and environmentalism. The two words are not synonyms for each other. The conflation of these two concepts may help to explain the slow response older generations may have had to the environmental crisis. The terms changed meaning and they missed it.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her landmark book, Silent Spring. In the book, she made a radical proposal: technology and progress are destructive to the natural process and should be stopped. In particular, pesticides poisoned the food web from the bottom up. Silent Spring implied a world without birds. That kind of lonely planet, devoid of the lower end of the food web, implied that soon the world would be without humans too. The environmental message was first carried by the academic elite and those rascally hippies. Eventually, Carson’s book brought the problem to the mainstream. But in the early days, the discussion was all problem and not many solutions, other than to subscribe to Mother Earth News and return to the farm. Most proposed solutions were radical and meant a loss of jobs—the same jobs that boomers were counting on to benefit their families. From the beginning, the environmental message was associated with a deeply embedded sense of classism. The working middle class—the boomers—caught in, well, the middle.

Early environmental voices included a 1950s campaign in Vermont to reduce single-use packaging. In response, a few large corporations forged the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. While consumers responded, in retrospect there was a cruel circular thought process behind the campaign. It shifted the responsibility for ugly litter onto the consumers and away from the producers. In essence, the thinking went like this:

  1. We make stuff the “best” (cheapest) way we can.
  2. There is naturally waste and pollution in our production and distribution. Oh well.
  3. Consumers buy what we make, then use it and irresponsibly throw away all the cans and plastics and paper packaging we use to help sell the goods at the point of purchase.
  4. Consumers, don’t be a litterbug! Buy more trash cans and make bigger dumps to put the trash we make—that you buy and don’t/can’t use.

The term litterbug and the tagline Every Litter Bit Hurts are said to have been created in the late 1940s. It’s hard to tell how much of their creation was meant as a cover for the industry, and how much was built with the best of intentions. The campaign moved the public forward in some ways by using peer pressure and the ad industries’ favored trick: personal guilt.

You smell bad, your breath stinks, your shirt is seriously so wrinkled that other people avoid you, and you are surrounded by your own refuse.

Nice. Is it any wonder that during the 70s, 80s, and 90s there was a huge increase in the public’s use of therapists? Behavior therapies in particular teach that mental processes are less relevant to feeling better than, are healthy behaviors:

  • We’ll feel better if we do not litter.
  • We’ll feel worse if we think about the life cycle of the products we buy because we can’t do anything about that.

Makes sense. But that, right there, is why brands that help answer that consumer conundrum are likely to become favored.

I remembering yelling out the car window at one of my friends throwing a Popsicle wrapper on the grass: “HEY, LITTERBUG!” He shrugged, picked up the sticky paper, and stuffed in his pockets for his mother to find later. The litter wasn’t on the ground anymore. It had just changed places. Now we know we can’t throw anything away—there is no away. It is still on the planet; we just can’t see it at the moment.

Then there was the “Crying Indian” ad featuring a “Native American” paddling a canoe down a river filled with trash and garbage. A close-up reveals a single tear rolling down his cheek. “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It doesn’t specify which people, but it implies it was people just like you and me—consumers—who littered. Smokestacks and factories are shown in the background but never mentioned. Those factories are the places that create the stuff we all throw away, as well as the real nasty stuff we can’t see flowing in the river beneath the canoe. The focus is on consumer litter. The ad also neglects to tell us that the Native American was actually an actor of Italian descent (Espera Oscar de Corti) known as Iron Eyes Cody. The seeds of middle-class distrust in big influences were being sewn in an enormous scale in the 1960s. Big corporations. Big media. Big politics. All actors playing a role.

The “Litterbug” campaign is how we all learned it’s yucky to throw trash out our car windows. So we’ve got that going for us.

The term litterbug and the tagline Every Litter Bit Hurts are said to have been created in the late 1940s. It’s hard to tell how much of their creation was meant as a cover for the industry, and how much was built with the best of intentions.


In January 1965, Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, wrote this in her diary:

Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool. All the threads are interwoven -- recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks -- national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.

Perhaps she was prompted by the undercurrents of nascent environmentalism, or she had come across John Muir’s comments about “everything in nature touching everything” else at a national park. Or perhaps as first lady, beautification was still the primary role as wife of the president. Maybe a Silent Spring devoid of birds concerned her since her name was, well, Lady Bird. I can’t really tell. Your guess is as good as mine.

President Johnson was deeply involved in what he called “the Great Society” and Lady Bird intended to make a contribution to this noble cause. So she sent an invitation out to attend a White House meeting to “stimulate new interest in making our city truly beautiful for the people who live here and come here.”

Make America Beautiful

The results of Lady Bird’s White House meeting unfolded over time, and in many ways. The signature campaign was “Make America Beautiful.” It seems naive these days—beauty and aesthetics instead of using the world as our own personal trash can. One tagline was “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” It sounds almost Victorian.

The Highway Beautification Act was known as the “Lady Bird Bill.” All good and noble causes. I recall as a kid, sitting in the back seat at McDonald’s (15-cent burgers, kids!), with waves of paper blowing in the wind. The airborne trash seemed like the obvious answer to to Bob Dylan’s question. Even I knew one of the questions was how to stop this tornado of waste. I also knew (or hoped) that beauty is only skin deep and that there were deeper problems, but those answers were beyond me at the time.

On the bright side, people will defend the things they love. Mrs. Johnson got that part right. People avoid lectures. To love America was to take care of it, at least once we figured out what that meant. But the efforts of the First Lady Lady (Lady Lady. I did that on purpose) is a good example of the conflation of conservation and the aesthetic form of beauty with the invisible function of environment.

The National Parks

Lady Bird Johnson made progress due to her position as first lady. Likewise, early programs were begun because of personal preference. There was little public debate when Teddy Roosevelt declared his love for certain geographical locations. His government “declared” the national parks movement into being. It was the right thing to do, but the decisions were autocratic and left out public discussion. Happily, Teddy Roosevelt loved actual beautiful places and protected them. Suppose, instead of Yellowstone and Yosemite, Teddy was a big fan of just swamps and bogs? Anyway, very few people disagreed with his choices.

John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club protested the flooding of Hetch Hetchy—Yosemite’s beautiful twin valley—to provide water for San Francisco and Northern California. But even that protest was largely based on the notion that Hetch Hetchy was beautiful (i.e., esthetic conservation). There were plenty of localized squabbles regarding the land that was selected for most new parks. But overall, the NPS was for “the people” and with a few exceptions, the people appreciated it.

While American we presented with spacious skies and purple mountains majesty, Americans lacked the reminders of a long human history stacked around them. Europeans had reminders of both human glory and folly all around them as they visited ruined castles, medieval villages and examined their legacy of records, documents and literature. Middle America sniffed the smog, fueled by leaded gas, and thought it smelled more like progress. Yes. Shortsighted and aggressive but progressive, US citizens missed the environmental clues seen by Europeans every day. Where actual bombs from the last world war had a visible effect on the “environment.” Except for fighting among ourselves and a few ineffective balloon bombs floated over from Japan in 1945, Europeans fought on their own soil. The memories are still top of mind. Especially anytime someone digs a new hole and finds unexploded munitions. As a result, Europe has led the charge for recycling and non-GMOs and even privacy rights—perhaps a new kind of digital environmentalism?

In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated by over 20 million people. By 1990, the Earth Day movement went global. Today about 35 percent of Americans say they recycle, compared to 7 percent in 1970. But environmentalism still represented a big threat to the economy, not only to the US and all its big corporations but also to emerging economies. The easiest solution in 1970 was to use lead-free gas, fill their new energy-efficient automobiles, and drive everywhere they could before their cars rusted away beneath them.

For the people? Well, OK, mostly the white working class people. The National Park’s system was less than welcoming to minority visitors. In a publication called "See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940-1940", Marguerite S. Shaffer wrote that “In 1922, NPS park superintendents decided: “We cannot openly discriminate against [African Americans], [but] they should be told that the parks have no facilities for taking care for them.” 

Earth Day—Rising Tides Lift All Boats

In April 2022, a Pew Research Center survey was done. Insights on the environment were pulled out to commemorate the anniversary of Earth Day. Here is our summary. Check out the link for more detail:

  • 4 in 10 US adults responded that climate change is a top priority for Biden and Congress.
  • A wide gap exists between Democratic (65 percent) and Republican (11 percent) respondents as to priority of climate change. The wide margin seems to reflect a difference of opinion on the effects of climate change on the economy.
  • 7 in 10 Americans support alternative energy sources over expanding existing oil, coal, and gas, with ideological divides between political viewpoints.
  • Three-quarters of Americans are interested in international climate change alliances.

Our opinion is that the NAM would more align with the Democratic position if separated out as a survey cluster. We think they would also be interested in international cooperation with the caveat that American sovereignty would not be superseded by an international agreement. The NAM is practical, but also very independent. They are not generally flag wavers, but are patriotic at heart.

The Earth is kind of personal to the NAM, since the EARTH is where they, you know, live.

Environmental Catastrophes—Rubbing Our Noses in It

The environmental message really hit home, when it actually hit OUR home. A few key national catastrophes focused everyone’s attention.

Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River catch fire a dozen times. Everyone knew the river was polluted, but it meant jobs, so just don’t fall in. In 1969, the river caught fire again. It happened just a few months before the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and in time for the first Earth Day. The river became the poster child for the environmental movement. By this time all those students and hippies had become legislators, accountants, teachers, and entrepreneurs. They had been busy, but they still carried rumpled copies of Silent Spring along with them. They begin to take action as they watched midwestern cities start to rust and water burn.

In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown. This was due to a bad valve, poor instrument design, and substandard employee training. Radioactive gases and radioactive iodine were released into the atmosphere. It wasn’t as bad as Chernobyl or Japan’s Fukushima meltdowns, but this was home. Now it’s serious.

In 1978, the Love Canal story broke. A toxic website for Hooker chemicals had been buried and sold to the city for $1 in the late 1950s. By 1979, 100 homes and a school had been built on the site. Then, toxic chemicals began leeching out. Kids had burns and sores from playing outside. Gardens turned black and died. There were birth defects. The air smelled bad. Everyone agreed that there were thousands of such sites. But nobody really knew where they were. Everyone started looking around at their own neighborhoods, with the thought that this could happen anywhere. Hooker Chemicals ruined Love Canal. We’ll never exit the age of irony at this rate.

In 1989, The Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of oil on the pristine coast of Alaska. The tragedy even had a local angle we could all relate to, as we watched workers wash thousands of animals with Dawn dish soap, like we had by our own sinks.

New Orleans, Hurricane Sandy

Storm intensity is put forth as further evidence of global warming’s impact on how and where we live. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 breached 23 levees, dams, and seawalls and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans with as much as 15 feet of water. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the residents had to be evacuated. The flood exposed a host of shortcomings and inequities, but in the end, it came down to the ferocity of this superstorm event.

Then in October 2012, the Northeast watched in disbelief as Hurricane Sandy roared up the coast. The storm did not dissipate as storms have typically done in the past. Forty-three people died in New York City, 53 in the state. An estimated 250,000 vehicles were destroyed. The subways flooded. Long Island was a mess. An estimated $33 billion was required for restoration across the state.

After storm surges up the Thames flooded London in the mid 1950s, Londoners decided to constructed “The Barrier.” The Thames Flood Barrier Defense system is a series of monumental dams that can be opened and closed to protect London and the population along the Thames. The barrier was predicted to be used maybe two to three times a year, but by the mid-2000s it was being used six to seven times a year. It was actually put to use 50 times in 2013 and 2014 alone! A similar strategy is being set in place to help protect Venice, Italy. The fact is, something has changed, and anyone near the sea shore would be hard-pressed to deny it.

While the country’s imagination had been captured, environmental issues remained a hot-potato game tossed back and forth between politics and industry. Most answers to the problem still looked like pathways to economic disaster. It would take decades before the threat of environmentalism was quantified and new economic opportunities could be imagined. The sense of resistance has persisted until recently. Now most Americans are aware and agree it is a problem. How long does it take to turn an oil tanker with a single oar? I guess it takes about 60 years.

Erosion of Trust

While we are on the subject of the 1960s and 1970s, we must pause for a moment and mention President Richard Nixon. Until the threat of impeachment forced his resignation, most Americans generally trusted the government. But as Americans learned that the big trusted brands were quietly taking advantage of the environment, they also learned the holder of the highest office in the country was just another crook. By resigning, the 37th President of the United States basically admitted he had approved or directed a criminal break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972. The presidential office, and politics in general, has never really recovered. Political integrity had been broken. Today, election fraud and outright lies seem to be explained away with a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s just politics,” jest former opponents after making the most outrageous claims about each other. The rest of us realize that the “truth in advertising” tagline is just another untruthful ad purchased by untruthful politicians.

Having learned skepticism, Middle America caught on to the manipulations of other big societal influencers. With the advent of the personal computer and the internet, anyone who wanted to find out what was going on could do so. With access to both, the NAM was among the best informed. But when the voices of environmental disaster raised their decibels, the older members of the NAM responded negatively. They took the message of personal responsibility to heart, but they were not convinced by the louder voices. They recognized many of the following lessons:

  • Advertising was the voice of big business. They could not be trusted to handle important truth.
  • Advertising was the voice of political campaigns. They really could not be trusted to tell the truth, ever.
  • Conservation gave us the guilt complex, when real environmental harm was being done by industry—and its alliance with enabling politicians, who cannot be trusted. See Robert Gottlieb’s excellent book Forcing the Spring for an exploration of the history of environmentalism.
  • Government conservationism meant granting contracts for logging, oil exploration, and “managing” natural resources, meaning selling the people’s country for private profit.
  • How come it is privilege and social status that guide the environmental discussion away from their own homes and businesses? Look around! Environmental hazards are worse in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Flint, Michigan, has lead in the water? Urbanized downtowns? This environmental thing just works on money?

Historically, U.S. environmentalism has not been an inclusive or democratic social movement. Rather, it’s been shaped by the affluent and professional elites, often more concerned with promoting a romanticized vision of sublime nature than protecting the people and places most at risk from environmental degradation.

Research suggests that people of color may be more concerned than Whites about climate change because they are often more exposed and vulnerable to environmental hazards and extreme weather events.

Numerous studies tend to skew our NAM cohort away from a traditional white population, but how far we cannot yet tell. More research will need to be conducted; in the meantime, it is safe to say the NAM does not just describe a white American population. The ethnic segment of the NAM experiences the environmental crisis in more personal ways

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The following chart from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and helps us visualize this point:

More insight on the subject of selective environmental treatment may be found from IPSOS, among many other online resources.

Everyone wants green spaces and parks, whether national, state, or local. We want nature preserves, hiking and bike trails, and any beautiful place that we can defend from being overrun. But environmentalism is not about just conserving a beautiful place or even getting access and use of a “place”. The difference between the two is that environmentalism considers all places, deserts or prairies or the empty lot down the street to be beautiful and intrinsically useful. Environmentalism is about eliminating pollutants from anywhere. We cannot just throw junk away, because once we stood on the moon and watched our “little blue ball” rise, hanging there in space, we recognized that there is no “away.”

All right! All right! All right!

It took a while for the general public to see the difference between conservation and environmentalism. It took everyone a while to see that even though the message may have been co-opted and manipulated by big forces beyond our reach, we are still all truly in this together. We understand why the richest people in the world have rocket ships and an interest in Mars as a hobby, but in the meantime, we all have to do something about the place we live. Unless we own our own space exploration company, most Americans can agree with Matthew McConaughey and Salesforce when they told us, “It’s not time to escape, it’s time to engage. It’s time to plant more trees. Build more trust, make more space, for all of us. While others look to the metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours. The new frontier? It ain’t rocket science. It’s right here man!”

For the NAM this means beginning at home and in nearby neighborhoods. We think the NAM took the environment concept onboard earlier than most. They travel more. They are curious and tend to be better informed. They may live all cross the country, but they are not the “stupid local” stereotype portrayed by comics and big coastal media. It is still hard to say how thoroughly the NAM cohort accepts the bigger climate-change narrative. Those tending toward the political left appear to do so more than those on the right, but this might be a baked-in assumption on our part. More research needs to be done to draw the lines. Besides, we see plenty of evidence that the NAM is politically moderate despite repeated stories about a singular national political polarization. But we do find plenty of evidence that the NAM accepts responsibility regarding these matters on the personal level. They are do-it-yourselfers after all, focused on family and community and looking for ways to grow outside their own selves through expressions of faith. The NAM is a responsible bunch. Despite all the off-gassing, the NAM are optimists at heart. They believe everything will all turn out all right. All right? All right.


The main goal of our NAM exploration and this publication is commercial application on behalf of our clients. There seems to be ample opportunity for sociological studies, but we are out of our league when it comes to that level of inquiry. There are also political implications when it comes to consumer groups of this size. We’ve been approached, but have declined, with multiple requests for political-campaign work. So it is with fear and trembling that we stick a foot in the political gene pool for a moment. There is a reason for this besides the desire for being burned in effigy by some readers.

We believe that the NAM is moderate and politically placed in the center 30 percent or so, with a slightly higher percentage on the right than on the left. The middle is not the place often visited by either of the uncompromising binary (on/off) political parties. “Meeting in the middle” has become a kind of political kill zone.

Politics has become very polarized. This helps to explain why the NAM is opposed to most big influences telling them to take political sides. Pollsters and media surveys all imply we are on one side or the other. This “assigned” polarization also helps us understand why the NAM is skeptical of big media. The NAM is moderately centrist. They know they are poorly served by politics and the media “brands” as they distribute their editorial positions thinly disguised as unbiased news.

As our agency searches for insight, we conduct our own research. But our group is not big enough to tackle all aspects of our NAM theory. We must use existing sources to help guide us. Because the NAM cohort is not yet recognized as a proper cluster, we must peer into existing research, and glean trends from the mass of information that is out there. (i.e., footnotes). Remember, our assertions in this publication are more like an emerging trend report than primary research. Editorials can be just as useful as hard facts in this regard. We see more commentators looking for common ground in the center. At least more are sighing and wishing out loud that there was some place in the middle of the mayhem to just sit down and rest for a while. We also see evidence of growing NAM activism with new crops of centrist politicians, many loosely known as “liberty” candidates. Let’s watch!

 The American Communities Project

The American Communities Project and the Harwood Institute are also sources we have come to value. Read their study “Civic Virus: Why Polarization Is a Misdiagnosis.” In December of 2018, the American Communities Project released an article by Megan Jula acknowledging the reported bifurcated public view of climate change. When they made this claim, we felt like they had found research soulmates

Climate change has become an increasingly polarized discussion over the last decade, but America is not as divided as it may seem. Across the country, concern about climate change is growing. About 61% of Americans now report they are worried about global warming and 70% believe it will harm future generations, according to a national survey conducted in 2018 by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication.

It is of interest that the survey uses the term global warming over climate change, perhaps because they found the term resonates emotionally with the public. There’s a tip for copywriters!

The report and the links in this article are well worth the exploration.

News Media Brands

The NAM tends toward middle management. The group includes many smaller entrepreneurs. With visibility into business operations, maybe they’ve picked up a few basic marketing concepts? If not, mere curiosity and patience have taught them that there is some real news behind the various brands of news. Successful marketing to the NAM means understanding that they have a few things figured out.

Branding: every brand (including news brands) carves out a unique market position that targets a specific audience. They then deliver what that audience expects from that brand:

  • The brand position must be differentiated from the other “competitors.” The position is based on a core target audience. The brands search for more core to increase their market share.
  • Almost all news media has been consolidated into one or another of the larger family of brands.
  • Any news I watch will be branded. The truth I get is the kind of branded “truth” expected by the specific network’s audience. The truth may not be blatantly false, but the audience expectations and context demand that information be presented from the brand’s point of view. Editorial outrage may or may not be included. I have heard this said: “If I could just take Fox and CNN and mash them together. After they explode like matter and antimatter, we might have something useful left.”

Now out of this political rabbit hole and back to the main subject.

“It’s not time to escape, it’s time to engage. It’s time to plant more trees. Build more trust, make more space, for all of us. While others look to the metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours. The new frontier? It ain’t rocket science. It’s right here man!”

Matthew McConaughey

A Brief Summary

The complexity of the NAM’s Core 4 environmental value has resulted in a longer paper than is typical for us. So, just in case you’ve drifted, here’s a brief summary to this point:

  • There has been a clumsy history confusing the lines between conservation of beautiful places and the global need to protect the environment as an integrated, functional necessity.
  • An erosion of trust has thwarted efforts to get all Americans on board with the environmental topic.
    • Blame shifting by industry (systemic pollution and wasted resources) to the consumer who has “mindlessly” littered industry’s disposable packaging and products.
  • An erosion of trust in big government that does not manage their corporate partners or act fast enough, or with sufficient will.
  • Consumers know that despite mismanagement at the top end, they must, we all must, still do what we can on a local level (i.e., sweep in front of their own doors).
  • The impact of global warming and the immediate environment are more often felt by the urban poor or ethnic groups, and especially third-world neighbors.

The NAM may be summarized in the following ways:

  • Caught up, and hidden, in surveys and polls conducted on the public middle
  • Forced to choose between two political parties while they are more independent
  • Aware of the environmental disaster playing out before them, but reduced to acting locally
  • Do not want to be stereotyped or seen as a middle-class statistic by the news media or advertisers or marketers of their favored brands (even though there is some truth to it).

In an ambitious article published by the Conversation, author Bradley Cardinale attempts to bring balance. Aesthetic pleasure, redefining conservation as biodiversity of species, quantifying the economic value of nature’s “services” to humans including “happiness”, warnings and various motivations for sustaining the environment. The environment, that works for all of us, is presented an integrated system that has helped us progress, but has paid a price and must no longer be compromised. It’s refreshing and recommended reading.

Differences of Opinion among the NAM Subgroups

The NAM in the center of the country tends to resist messaging centered on East Coast and West Coast perspectives. It applies to the environmental warnings as well as other topics. As an agency, we sometimes see this with consumer goods:

  • “Yes, I know you have palm trees in Southern California, but there are maples and oaks where I live. So you don’t know anything about me, your consumer? I don’t care if you get to surf. I just need something for fall.
  • Images of shopping bags choking sea life are not understood or appreciated when you live in the center of the country. So when plastic bags are unavailable in Iowa grocery stores, it will invariably produce eye rolling-skepticism and complaint. It doesn’t mean they don’t support environmentalism. It’s a matter of relevance.
  • Older consumers, who have already waded through an age of greenwashing and waves of trust erosion, might be slow to adapt. The NAM is largely immune to the environmental fire drill from big coastal media.
  • It’s hard to care about the trash on the Jersey shore when New York has been dumping barges full of trash into the Atlantic for decades. It is the same mindset hillbillies take when they roll their old refrigerators into a ditch. No difference. Out of sight out of mind. “Sweep in front of your own door before you tell me how to take care of mine.”

Much of the marketing messaging heard by the NAM originates from the echo chambers of the big coastal centers. What is missing is the local angle. The secret to getting environmental traction with Middle America is to understand them as a consumer. (Why does this need to even be said these days?) Get to the “local” angle. Assuming we love everything done in LA is delusional. Heck, the smoke from those Western wildfires actually creates beautiful sunsets in the Midwest. They feel bad about it, but the Midwest is used to making the best with what LA sends them. But here I am guilty myself of conflating the NAM with Middle America. Truth be told, we do not know how the NAM responds to wildfires, or sunsets, for that matter. We’ve never asked them.

As has been pointed out multiple times, the NAM is not a synonym for the Midwest. We sometimes use data based on the Midwest as a starting point. Each brand must do some segmentation work in order to draw lines between the NAM values mindset and the communities into which they are mixed.

The NAM travels quite a bit, is educated, and practices a mostly unofficial method of lifelong learning. Their perspective is fairly broad. They see that problems in one area connect with everything else. Knowing that we must deal with this, feeling personal responsibility and working too hard to act on so many fronts, there is anxiety and they look for help. They expect their community leaders to facilitate recycling services. They’ve been expecting this since the 1980s. Service is still uneven. (I have two bins of recyclables sitting behind my garage because the recycle pickup failed to show up on my road for a month.) But for all the shrill warnings coming from East and West Coast media, the bulk of recycling takes place elsewhere. It is true that smaller rural locations are still less likely to recycle, in part because systems do not yet exist to accommodate the practice. But at least rural folks now think twice before they roll the old refrigerator over into the ravine.

Despite the exceptions and lag time, the environmental message has worked its way deep into the NAM community:

  • They buy organic when they can, unless it costs way too much.
  • Farm to fork cannot just mean an overpriced meal at a trendy downtown restaurant. I recently had one overly enthusiastic waiter point out the lettuce leaf that had a big bug bite out of it, saying it was proof the farm used no pesticides. That little side salad was about 10 bucks.
  • Patio and indoor gardens are offered from Amazon to IKEA to Walmart. They are actively supported by vegetable starters from big-box home centers and countertop quick canners, like those offered by Ball.
  • Seed companies have far more out-of-stock notifications than in previous decades.
  • NAM seniors are aware of the environmental issues. They are motivated when they think of the world their grandkids will inherit.
  • Parents and school teachers are keenly aware.
  • Some urban school kids are sometimes surprised carrots grow in “dirt,” but most are aware the “world needs our help.” Although, given the amount of glitter (microplastic) used by school kids everywhere, there is still room for improvement.

Our own home state of Indiana is usually used as an example of backward-thinking-corn-growing-grass-stalk-chewin’-pioneer-folk. A 2019 survey revealed that

“Hoosiers believed that climate change was real and was happening. Around 80% of respondents reported believing that climate change was occurring “somewhat” or “to a great extent.”

Even Hoosier misunderstood themselves.

“On average, (Hoosier) respondents underestimated by about 24% how many Hoosiers accept climate change. Doubters thought that most others shared their skepticism, estimating that only around 43% in Indiana held the opposite opinion.”

Eventually all consumer brands will need to address sustainability. Pressure will come from consumers, governing bodies, industry pressures, or shareholders. A few will escape out the bottom, but few will care about them. Sooner is not always better. If your brand is not yet ready, make refinements before you begin to make claims. It will probably backfire. If your brand is not known for activism, then putting a fine point on an issue like environmentalism is probably not sustainable and may actually work against you.

Some brands are founded with environmental as a primary mission and business driver. A good example is Everlane. For many brands, green issues are expressed in a variety of degrees. Many brands claim sustainability, but as an afterthought. And some brands might make claims but have little to no commitment.

Older, established legacy brands seldom have green issues baked into their DNA, but they can still make progress. Mindful consumers will soon root out brands with false or disingenuous claims. Make sure that you communicate your progress along with admitting your struggles to help build consumer confidence and loyalty.

The cost of becoming more sustainable is the cost of doing business these days. Making sure that our consumers are aware of advances (authentically) is the best method of assuring a payoff. Each brand, by definition, is unique, so how you tell your story must reflect your own brand context. But there is guidance out there. One leader in this global movement is the nonprofit network B Lab. Becoming a part of the B Global Network or becoming a certified B corporation may be a good way to successfully move forward with the New American Middle and the knowledgeable global market place.