Why People Who Care About the Environment Sometimes Act Like They Don’t

by Amy Marcott on April 5, 2011 · 2 comments

in Energy

Credit: Matt Picio, Flickr

Question: Why do people who say they care about the environment sometimes act as though they don’t when it comes to a specific change?

Reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal couldn’t help but ask that after she thought about the slew of environmental initiatives she’d covered in Europe—high-speed rail lines in Spain, urban congestion charging in Stockholm, bike-sharing programs in dozens of cities. And yet, she noted in her New York Times blog post, similar projects have been extremely contentious in the United States. Note the Cape Wind controversy in Massachusetts and the bike lane lawsuit in Brooklyn.

We at Slice posed Rosenthal’s question to three MIT alumni: a policy fellow from Oakland, a VP of sustainability in Chicago, and a foreign service officer in D.C.. Here’s what they said:

Ruth Miller ’07
Policy Fellow, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland

I think a lot of this apparent dissonance comes down to the feeling of “us” versus “them” within the broad “liberal” labels. Not every “environmentalist” can picture themselves on a bike. Maybe they see “cyclists” as old, white men in spandex with clicky shoes riding $1,000 bikes. Or maybe to them, “cyclists” are aggressive hipsters on fixies. Well-intentioned, “left-leaning” neighbors can feel that a bicycle lane will make it more difficult for “us” to get around while bringing “them” into the neighborhood.

One of the challenges for bicycle advocates is to change the image of the average person on a bicycle. Biking should be a safe, accessible, and fun mode of everyday transportation for everyone from 8 to 80 years old. As so few US cities have the infrastructure to make this a reality, even the greenest people can understandably feel excluded.

As advocates, we also need to diversify our reasons to support things like bicycling, recycling, and transit-oriented development. They’re more than just green and healthy: they’re also cost-effective. Bike lanes create more jobs per mile than highways at a tiny fraction of the cost. Many of these economic arguments appeal to “conservatives” – even George W. Bush was an avid cyclist while in office.

The old “liberal” versus “conservative” dichotomy just doesn’t apply here – it’s a different “us” and a different “them.”

Joyce Coffee MCP ’99
Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, Edelman

As consumers, we are all varying shades of green.  And we generally have the choice to be deep green where it suits us.  So thrift-store shopping and hyper recycling may be paired with driving versus public transiting our children from school.  For many of us who like to think of ourselves as deeper green, that balance between personal activism and convenience are part of how we manage our environmental conscious.

While green for the good of the commons, and for the good of an ethereal climate future, sits on that same shaded continuum, it often adds complexity by removing choice. The paradox is, of course that, we need deep green good-for-our-future solutions, like bike-centric streets, competitive alternative energy and communities dense enough to support public transit, to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which will affect us all depending on where we live on the globe or in the topography of our cities.

Like any sudden change, bike lanes, wind turbines and mass transit that relatively suddenly become a part of my every day will become more welcome, even celebrated, as influential community leaders actively champion them; catastrophic events  illustrate their value;  and the turn of generations shifts perception of garishly new to an anticipated comfort.  In the meantime, perhaps claiming to having done a green thing first, (as long as someone else has done them first before us), is a convenient way to remind us of how commonplace and pragmatic these unchosen deep green elements of our surroundings are– changing the tenor from a community change thrust upon me to a choice that I’ve made based on someone else’s good judgment.

Gary Shu MCP ’10, SM ’10
Foreign Service Officer, Environment, USAID

Visiting my suburban hometown after living in cities for several years, I was shocked at the new McMansions with solar panels.  Several dynamics were at play here.  First, there were two (and only two) of these renewable systems on houses standing next to each other. This demonstrated the social competition and personal one-upmanship that some behavioral economists are trying to exploit to “green” communities.  Second, these photovoltaic systems were located in New Jersey, a state that doesn’t get as much sunlight as the Southwest, but a place that has experienced explosive growth in solar electricity because of the personal benefits that local government subsidies provide.

More importantly, the calculus of installing solar panels on large suburban housing demonstrates the large cultural education and reformation that would be required to make real impacts on energy consumption.  A suburban household certainly uses more energy on heating, cooling and transportation than a city dweller would who mostly rides public transportation and lives in a more modest house.  Conspicuous, visible efforts like expensive photovoltaic systems are easier decisions than wholesale lifestyle changes.  This is especially true when such changes are not voluntary, such as a bike lane on your already congested road to work.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Leo April 5, 2011 at 10:09 am

I’m very disappointed if this is the level of thinking we have on this topic. I think we can do better than pulling speculations about peoples’ motivations out of thin air. Did you *ask* the people with PV panels on their houses why they put them there, or what the payback time would be? Did you poll people who are against bike lanes, or is that just the most memorable criticism you face?

I think Ms. Coffee is the one who gets it right here. Changing their habits makes people uncomfortable. When you know change is necessary it’s a lot easier to applaud it when somebody else is dealing with the practical impacts. It’s not that people are hypocrites, it’s just the way human cognition works. We pay a lot more attention to things that make *us* change our way of doing things, and we tend to overestimate the costs.

It doesn’t matter what the underlying issue is. People underestimate their ability to adapt, and once that natural resistance to change becomes a personal or political conflict, opposition to change can get downright irrational.


Beez April 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm

There is also a corollary to this – there are people who are opposed to “political environmentalism” who live in a more sustainable fashion than many professing environmentalists. It is rarely to the advantage of either “side” to involve them in the fight, however.


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