Saturday, December 21, 2013

Attitudes and Behaviors

          The natural world doesn’t care what humans think. But it responds forcefully to what we actually do. Climate change was no threat for the first million years of human existence, not because we paid more attention then to the atmosphere’s carbon level, but because we hadn’t discovered fossil fuels and their energy potential. We hadn’t started burning them.

Conversely, as the Stanford surveys show, people can have positive environmental attitudes, and even strong worries, without changing their own behaviors. The U.S. EPA has 87,050 Facebook “likes,” and “Environmental Working Group” has 249,252 likes. “Ecology” has 183,751. (Are those a lot? Colts: 1,700,000 likes. The Beatles: 37 million.) Who knows how clicking “like” corresponds to other behaviors? I’m guessing it corresponds mostly to the likelihood of  “liking” other Facebook sites.

I’m reading a new book called Navigating Environmental Attitudesby Thomas A. Heberlein, an environmental sociologist retired from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He uses the metaphor of whitewater rafting (pictured on the cover) to describe such problems as the obstacles under the surface, the ones you can’t see, that affect the swirling waters the most; the slow changes that happen to rocks in the river over the course of eons; the need to “go with the flow” of attitudes, and so on.

He tells fascinating research stories showing that attitudes
—what people say they think—are important, but not sufficient, to explain behaviors. One chapter title says it all: “Educating the Public ... and Other Disasters.” There he cites studies showing that additional information does not change behaviors about electricity use, for example. Instead, what encourages changed behavior is structural change, such as charging more for electricity at peak use times. By making strategic choices in environmentally favorable structures, households will opt to save money. Even information that accompanies such structures fails to accelerate changes. We basically do what benefits us personally.

          So, if information changes behavior so little, what are so many environmentalists doing trying to educate the public, the churches, school children, their families? Would we do more good by turning off our computers and saving electricity? Since structural change isn’t likely to come from the U.S. Congress, should we be spending lots of time in mayors’ offices, or running for mayor, or training environmentalists to become CEO’s of large corporations?

          Stay tuned for the rest of the book. In the meantime, I’ll just shut the computer down and go hang my clothes out to dry.

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