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

Are We Becoming More Environmental? The Answer is Yes . . . or Maybe.

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 final 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.

This blog series has surveyed a large and intriguing body of theory on factors that change our tastes, attitudes, and desires to address the question, “Are we becoming more environmental?” Some of these theories have been explored empirically (such as the effect of childhood experiences on adult attitudes or the effect of group beliefs on the beliefs of individuals). Outside of the economics profession, the idea that our desires change and do so for understandable reasons is uncontroversial. It seems intuitive that our knowledge and experience affect our attitudes and that our community’s attitudes affect our own. But the implications of changing desires have been given little attention by the environmental policy community.

Changes in humanity’s environmental desires matter. If we predict stronger environmental desires in the future, then policy choices based on our current strength of desire will tend to under-protect the environment. And, conversely, if we expect a weakening, current policy will tend to over-state the benefits of environmental improvement. Moreover, if environmental desires can be manipulated by policy or advocacy, that possibility raises knotty questions about whether they should be manipulated.

So is humanity becoming more environmental? Yes. Maybe. We hope so. Our survey of theories, historical observations, and data leads us to bet on a continued strengthening of environmental attitudes. But clearly we have failed to provide a definitive answer. Pertinent data are sparse and over a decadal scale limited to US opinion polling that suffers from a host of interpretive challenges. Empirical measurement of our underlying environmental attitudes and tastes is possible. But empirical assessment of long-term, cross-cultural changes in environmental desires would require a fairly heroic commitment to new data and empirical methods.

We’ve emphasized that evidence of environmental conditions and behavior is not evidence of changing desires, whether you feel the evidence is positive (improved air and water quality in the developed world) or negative (biodiversity loss and atmospheric carbon concentrations). That’s because environmental conditions and behavior are a function of more than our desires and attitudes. They also depend on the cost of environmental protection, technological options, and economic growth. The search for evidence of “changing hearts and minds” requires us to look elsewhere.

Our survey, as well as our own personal intuitions, lead us to conclude that our desires change, and in some situations can be changed deliberately. The difficulty for prediction, however, is the variety of factors that buffet our psychology and attitudes. Do our childhood experiences trump the norms of our adult community? Are our attitudes more affected by learning and social messaging or by institutions that govern the way we interact with one another?

Consider the pronounced global trend toward urbanization and its effect on our environmental desires. One argument is urbanization is likely to weaken environmental desires, via our increasing detachment from natural experiences in childhood or psychological adaptation to nature’s unobtainability. On the other hand, urbanization is also associated with educational opportunities and social interactions that could strengthen environmental desire.

Given such countervailing winds, prediction requires deliberate strategies to empirically measure trends in our environmental desire. The difficulty of doing so largely explains why the environmental social sciences have so far not provided adequate evidence one way or the other. But difficulty isn’t a great excuse for ignoring something so fundamentally pertinent to our environmental policy choices. Our hope is that this blog series will encourage greater attention (particularly among our colleagues in economics) to the way humanity’s deeper environmental desires, values, and attitudes may be changing.

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

10. Are Policies That Reinforce Environmental Attitudes Economically Defensible?