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

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

Oct 13, 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 second 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 is about our environmental desires, how they’re changing, whether they’re getting stronger or weaker, and whether we can predict or influence their future strength. We’ll also ask whether a deeper understanding of changing environmental desires can lead us to be wiser in how we manage and communicate about the environment in public policy, business, and our own households and communities.

We choose the word desire deliberately. Desires are the stuff of beliefs, psychology, values, and ethics. Importantly, desires are not equivalent to preferences. To paraphrase the economic philosopher Daniel Hausman: Preferences are the outcome of a deliberative comparison (do I prefer this to that?), whereas desires are the deeper psychological, emotional, and ethical foundations of those choices.

Our environmental behavior and choices have certainly changed a lot over the last few decades. We recycle, drive hybrid cars, and buy organic food. In the United States, our air and water are substantially cleaner than they were 50 years ago. Consider the dramatic decrease in littering. An episode of Mad Men gets a laugh when the Draper family shakes their trash off a picnic blanket onto the grass and then just walks away to their car. It’s funny sixty years on—to viewers of Mad Men at least—because to modern eyes it’s so behaviorally incongruous.

It’s tempting to view these changes in behavior (e.g., buying hybrids, not littering) as evidence that something has changed in us, something in our beliefs, values, and norms that make us more environmental.

Consider people who buy hybrid cars. Many do so out of altruism, a desire to express one’s green values, or to conform to their community’s norms. As one Prius driver told the New York Times, she chose the car because “I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message.” These motivations are akin to what we refer to as desires. As those desires strengthen, so too will the preference for hybrid vehicles.

But behaviors and preferences can change for other reasons. The distinction between preferences and desires is important because it highlights that preferences and behavior can change without a change in underlying desires. Consumers may prefer hybrids simply because they think gas prices will rise. In other words, a change in preferences or behavior is not by itself evidence of changing desires. It may just be that prices or other economic factors are changing.

As another example, we may litter less simply because it’s easier for us to litter less. Companies use less packaging, there are trash cans everywhere, and recycling programs provide us with containers and curbside pickup. Today you’re also more likely to be fined for littering. In other words, the costs of littering have changed over the last 60 years. Are we more virtuous, or is virtue just more cost-effective than it used to be?

Technological development is another confounding factor. We may buy hybrid cars, energy-efficient laundry machines, and renewable power for environmental reasons, but technological advancement is what makes that possible. Similarly, people may increasingly buy those things simply because their incomes have risen—incomes that allow the purchase of more expensive and environmentally friendly products. Again, have our desires and values changed or is it just easier and cheaper to be environmental?

Changing desires can change behavior, but changing preferences, choices, and behavior do not necessarily imply a change in desires—a point we have to keep in mind as the discussion progresses.

Sociology and Economics: An 80-Year
(and Perhaps Unfortunate) Division of Labor

An intellectual debate in the 1930s, led by economist Lionel Robbins and sociologist Talcott Parsons, illustrates the distinction between study of preferences and behavior (the focus of economics) and what we call desires (a focus of sociology).

The two thinkers were trying to reconcile the two disciplines and concluded that integration was not the way to go. Instead, they argued that economics and sociology needed to establish a division of labor when it came to understanding social behavior and policy. Economics was to study the relationship between means and ends, allocation of resources, and take into account various constraints (e.g., scarcity and the availability of substitutes). Sociology, on the other hand, was to explore the nature of the ends themselves. Parsons called on sociology to explore the "ultimate common ends and the attitudes associated with and underlying them, considered in their various modes of expression in human social life."

The argument made so much sense that we’re living with that division of labor 80 years later. But how people define the “ends” that matter to them, and how that evolves over time is obviously relevant to understanding social welfare and improving policy. The “environmental desires and attitudes” explored in this blog series are social ends a la Parsons.

In recent decades, some economists have begun to challenge the “fixed preferences” assumption of modern economics. The challenge has come particularly from economists studying the effect of institutions (markets, communities, families, various forms of state governance) on preferences and their social transmission. In the words of Samuel Bowles, in the Journal of Economic Literature, “the weight of both reason and evidence point strongly to the endogeneity of preferences … [and] economics pays a heavy price for its self-imposed isolation from the other behavioral sciences.”

Up next in the series—What Changes Our Environmental Desires? A Look at Taste Formation.

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