Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental Desire

Are Policies That Reinforce Environmental Attitudes Economically Defensible?

Nov 23, 2015 | James W. Boyd, Carolyn Kousky

The strength of our environmental desires is of central importance to developing efficient and effective environmental policies. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be hosting a conversation that explores whether environmental desires are changing and what that means for environmental economics and policy. This is the tenth post of eleven in the series: Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental Desire. This series is a result of an RFF New Frontiers Fund award for thinking creatively about pathbreaking research to advance RFF’s mission.

The fox who longed for grapes, beholds with pain

The tempting clusters were too high to gain

Grieved in his heart he forced a careless smile

And cried ,‘They’re sharp and hardly worth my while’

    Aphra Bein (1687), translation of Aesop

In an earlier post, we discussed how to evaluate policies that alter desires. The discussion implicitly assumed that the change in desires was not the explicit goal of the policy, but a by-product of it. It follows that policy could be developed to explicitly alter underlying desires. But should it?

Let’s start from the proposition that a policy to change desires should only be undertaken if such a change makes people better off. The question, however, is better off according to which preference— the preference held prior to the policy or after it? Or, as mused by Hausman: “Does one increase Jill’s welfare just as much by changing her preferences so that she now wants what she gets as by changing the world so that she gets what she wants?” Along similar lines, our RFF colleague Tim Brennan has written that “adding preference change to the policymaker’s toolkit creates a huge range of ambiguities for the economist’s appraisal of policy effectiveness.” It raises again the difficulty of policy evaluation we discussed in earlier posts.

Deep truths are in play here. It’s not just academics that have thought about the malleability of our desires and how they can be altered (even deliberately) to improve welfare. Buddhists seek wellbeing via the extinguishment of desire, desire being the source of all suffering. St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer offers a more limited, but similar, piece of advice: “Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Or consider the idiom “sour grapes,” which comes from an Aesop Fable about a fox trying to eat an enticing bunch of grapes hanging just outside its reach. The fox desires the grapes, but upon realizing they are unattainable, changes his attitude. Now the grapes are sour and undesirable: a rationalization contrived to lessen the pain of their inaccessibility.

Only timeless psychological truths make it into Aesop’s oeuvre, so one wonders if there is an environmental analogy. If we can no longer grasp the grapes of wilderness, disappearing flora and fauna, and pristine waters, will we just rationalize away our desire for those things? The sour grapes hypothesis runs counter what we normally assume in economics: that the harder something is to come by the more we value it. The parable suggests that when something becomes unobtainable (really scarce) we psychologically extinguish our desire for it.

The sour grapes hypothesis is disturbing, though, for anyone who values nature and environmental quality and thinks those things are becoming unobtainable. Consider the second and third lines of St. Francis’s prayer. We would argue that it would be a real tragedy to advocate that people simply try to alter their desires when they find themselves in unjust conditions or, to our topic here, a polluted environment or vanishing natural spaces. We may still have rivers on fire if activists had not fought to change the things they could. Also, if you’re an environmentalist, it means you want to encourage conservation and engagement with nature for a political reason: to make sure others’ desire for nature doesn’t weaken.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term nature deficit disorder to describe the negative effects of childhood disengagement from natural experiences. Louv’s main concern is with childhood psychological and physical health. But the idea of a growing experiential deficit and its effect on environmental attitudes has also taken hold in the conservation community. Conservation scientist Peter Kareiva, in a piece on “ominous trends in outdoor recreation,” states the concern this way: “The finding of declining wilderness experiences and nature experiences for people around the world is one piece in a broader picture that entails humans increasingly disconnected from nature and as a result less likely to value nature” (emphasis added).

The idea that natural experiences strengthen environmental attitudes strikes many, including us, as intuitive. It also implies a clear policy agenda for environmental advocates: protect and provide access to nature for the greatest number of people in order to reinforce their environmental values. The dream is a kind of “environmentalist’s virtuous circle,” where reinforced values lead to political gains that lead to yet more conservation and further reinforcement of environmental values (the alternative being a “vicious circle” where detachment breeds political apathy and yet more detachment).

As environmentalists, we’re on board with the idea of encouraging environmental experiences both for their immediate benefits and because they might reinforce pro-environmental attitudes. But we’re also trained in welfare economics, which requires us to raise a couple of red flags about policies designed to reinforce (manipulate) desires and values.

Consider the fox. Why should we care that it changed its attitude? By extinguishing its own desire, the fox solved its own welfare problem! By analogy, if people have extinguished their desire for wilderness in the year 2100, that may be a problem for us, but it’s not a problem for them. It’s a problem for us because we want future generations to embrace our current values. But our values today are irrelevant to welfare in a hundred years.

Also, not everyone today would agree that environmental attitudes need strengthening. It’s not hard to imagine political opposition to policies designed to reinforce environmental values. We’re reminded of the reaction to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’ s attempt to restrict sales of large-size soft drinks in New York City. “Control freak,” “nanny,” and “dictator” were some of the kinder epithets directed at him. The public policy case for such a policy is defensible, but the idea of government manipulating behavior—even arguably self-harming behavior—struck many as condescending. We predict a similar reaction (at least in the United States) to government proposals aimed, even obliquely, at reinforcing environmental attitudes. (Some conservative opposition to environmental education programs currently exists.)

That is too bad, because there is a public policy case to be made for environmental attitude reinforcement. The environment presents society with a host of potential “market failures.” Environmental goods are often public goods, susceptible to free rider and tragedy of the commons problems. Many social behaviors generate environmental externalities (environmental costs not borne by those responsible for them) that can lead to excessive environmental degradation. And information is often poor because environmental goods are usually not exchanged in information-generating markets. These problems motivate environmental regulation in general. But they could also be ameliorated by stronger environmental attitudes, particularly attitudes that lead to less self-serving behaviors.

As an example, Noble prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in a talk he gave at RFF, discussed the fact that all desires are not equal when it comes to the environment. He observed that as income increased, the United States and Europe used the increase in income to different ends. The United States invested it in increased consumption, whereas in Europe, citizens invested it in greater leisure time. The former is more likely to create environmental harm than the latter. Policies to encourage US citizens to choose more leisure versus more consumption may not be good for the economy (conventionally defined), but might be better for our overall welfare.

Up next in the series: Are We Becoming More Environmental? The Answer is Yes . . . or Maybe.

Read previous posts in this RFF blog series: Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental Desire.

    1. Are We Becoming More Environmental? An Introduction

    2. Growing Environmentalism: The Difference between Desires, Behavior, and Preferences

    3. What Changes Our Environmental Desires? A Look at Taste Formation

    4. What Changes Our Environmental Desires? Experience and Learning Matter

    5. What Changes our Environmental Desires? The Impacts of Social Norms.

    6. Do Our Social Institutions Affect Our Personalities?

    7. Can We Measure—and Predict—Changing Environmental Desires?

    8. How to Evaluate Policies That Change Our Desires

    9. Evaluating Long-Lived Policies When Our Desires Change