The natural world doesn’t care what
humansthink. But it responds forcefully to what we actuallydo. 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 Attitudes, by 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
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.