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

Are We Becoming More Environmental? An Introduction

Oct 9, 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 first post of eleven in the series: Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental DesireThis series is a result of an RFF New Frontiers Fund award for thinking creatively about pathbreaking research to advance RFF’s mission.

Do you care more about the environment now than when you were a kid? Do you care more than your parents did? You may think that the answer to both questions is an obvious “yes.” After all, people used to litter, live with dirtier air and water, and not recycle. Our grandparents probably never uttered the word “sustainability.”  But does society as a whole, including people in other countries, care more than a generation ago? And—as you log yet another hour on your mobile device—are you sure you care more about nature than your parents did? How strong is your environmental desire, really?

The strength of our environmental desires—how much we care about water, species, open spaces, and so on, as well as the natural resources we bequeath to future generations—is of central importance to developing efficient and effective environmental policies. Yet the typical assumption in economics is that our desires don’t change over time. We think about our behavior and choices changing, as environmental, technological, and economic conditions change. But economists operate as if our deeper environmental desires—our fundamental attitudes, beliefs, and values—are static. Might our hearts and minds be as changeable as those other conditions?

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. Along the way, we’ll explore what “environmental desire” even means and ways we can tell if our environmental dispositions are shifting, getting weaker, or getting stronger. Can we predict changes in our environmental attitudes? Does it matter if we can predict changes? Can environmental desires be changed and should they be? Do we need to change our approach to policy evaluation if our desires are changing?

Martin Luther King, Jr. (paraphrasing nineteenth century philosopher and abolitionist Theodore Parker) famously observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The quote describes humanity’s spiritual progress toward an ever stronger embrace of civil and human rights. Might there be analogous progress toward a deeper sense of environmental stewardship and responsibility?

The discussion matters because it goes to the heart of some basic questions: are we over- or under-protecting the environment? Are we protecting the right things and doing so in the best ways?

Up next in the series—Growing Environmentalism: The Difference between Desires, Behavior, and Preferences.


Read the entire 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?

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