By Josh Woods, PhD, Bill Newman and Vic Allen ~
Environmentalists can be found in all major sports, but they seem especially common in outdoor activities that depend on a clean, sustainable environment.
For instance, as global warming has turned mountain snow to slush, snowboarding legends like Gretchen Bleiler and daredevil ice climbers like Will Gadd have been using their sport as a platform to raise awareness about climate change. With coral reefs declining and plastic waste amassing in the oceans, surfing gods like Kelly Slater are pitching in to clean things up.
It seems plausible that most athletes who are deeply engaged in the natural world are interested in preserving it. But is this true of all outdoor enthusiasts? What about disc golfers? In this article, we’ll examine the environmental attitudes of disc golfers and compare them to the views of the average American.
Maybe Disc Golfers Aren’t Environmentalists
Aside from sentimental references to the sport’s counter-cultural roots, little is known about the politics of disc golfers. Based on their demographics alone, they should probably lean right. Most studies show that whites tend to be more conservative than blacks and Hispanics. Men lean right, women lean left, and middle America is more conservative than folks on the east and west coasts. Given that disc golfers are disproportionately white, male and midwestern, we might expect most players to hold conservative views on the environment. (For more information about the deep partisan divide in the US on environmental issues, check out this Pew report).
And let’s face it, disc golf is not exactly a boon to the natural world. If you want to play disc golf in the woods, trees must be cut down to shape fairways. Cement is often poured where grass once grew. Garbage is sometimes left as disc golfers stream through the wilderness. As seen in the cases of Rifle Camp Park and 80 Acres Park, both in New Jersey, local communities have cited environmental damage as a reason to block the development of disc golf courses in public parks.
Today, the sport depends greatly on the oil industry, which provides the materials necessary for making plastic-based disc golf equipment. Jeremy Rusco, the Founder of Dynamic Discs, put it this way: “Life without oil and gas would definitely be life without disc golf.” Roughly two years ago, Mr. Rusco made this statement in a video produced by the oil and gas marketing firm Kansas Strong to educate people on the benefits of the oil and gas industry.
We reached out to Mr. Rusco via email and asked about the video and his general views on the environment. Mr. Rusco said that he had wanted to add the phrase “as we know it today” at the end of Kansas Strong’s “Life Without Oil” slogan. “Disc golf could still exist,” he said, “but it would be very different as all of our products are currently produced through some means of oil and natural gas.”
“I feel strongly about sustainability in our world/society and believe that most disc golfers are environmentally conscious as we value and appreciate the outdoors,” Mr. Rusco said. He went on to describe his company’s sustainability efforts, including using recycle bins, limiting energy consumption and researching renewable energy sources.
Does Disc Golfing Influence People’s Environmental Attitudes?
There are reasons to believe that many disc golfers lean left on the environment. Several scholars, educators and policymakers argue that participating in outdoor recreation creates a commitment in people to protect nature. This idea has inspired government efforts to improve environmental education and fund grant opportunities to promote outdoor recreation and leisure.
Although the causal mechanism that links environmental experiences to people’s attitudes and behaviors remains unclear, almost all studies show that spending time outdoors is at least associated with having pro-environmental attitudes. There is also solid evidence that the link between outdoor recreation and environmental concern is strongest when it comes to natural resources that are necessary for pursuing the favored outdoor activity.
As discussed in a previous post, a survey of veteran disc golfers showed that many are environmentally conscious and willing to protect the environment on disc golf courses. But, what about the problems beyond the disc golf course? What do disc golfers think about climate change, pollution and the need to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth?
Disc Golfers Versus the US Public on Six Environmental Concerns
Parked recently teamed up with the PDGA Environment Committee and distributed a survey to PDGA coordinators as well as course designers on the 3DISCgolf Facebook group (a total of 151 respondents; go here for more information about the sample). Matching the wording in Gallup Poll questions, we asked respondents if they worried about six environmental problems and compared their answers to those of the US public.
As shown in Figure 1, disc golfers reported roughly the same level of worry as the general public on three issues (pollution of rivers, pollution of drinking water, extinction of plants/animals), voiced more concern about the loss of rain forests and climate change, and appeared to be less concerned about air pollution than the average American.
Disc Golfers Break with US Public on Prioritizing the Environment over the Economy
Economic considerations often play a role in debates on the environment. According to Gallup, Americans have shown increasing support for protecting the environment, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Today, 65 percent of the US public favor environmental protection over economic growth compared to 38 percent who said the same thing a decade ago.
Yet, while Americans haven’t shown this much support for the environment since the late 1990s, disc golfers appear to be well ahead of the curve. When asked to choose between two statements, roughly nine out of ten disc golfers said that “protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth” (see Figure 2). Only 6 percent of our respondents said that “economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.”
This nearly 30-point gap between disc golfers and the general public is both substantial and statistically significant.
Calls for More Government Protection are Common Among Disc Golfers
Disc golfers also part ways with the ‘average Jill’ when it comes to calls for more government protection of the environment. While 61 percent of Americans said that the US government is doing “too little” in terms of protecting the environment, 90 percent of our sample held this belief. As illustrated in Figure 3, four times more Americans than disc golfers said that the government is offering “too much” protection.
Our study shows that disc golfers share the views of the US public on some environmental issues, but they are significantly more willing than the average American to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment and support government efforts to safeguard the planet.
These findings are relevant to the ongoing discussion among public park officials, natural resource managers and environmental groups about the impact of disc golf on the environment. Although our results cannot be generalized to the general disc golfer population, key disc golf organizers and course designers appear to be strong advocates of environmental sustainability.
In our next article, we’ll catch up with more than a dozen pro disc golfers and ask them about their environmental attitudes. Never miss a story. Like Parked on Facebook for notifications and more; subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address below.
Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.