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

What Changes our Environmental Desires? Experience and Learning Matter

Oct 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 fourth 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.

In our recent blog post, we discussed how the formation of our personal tastes, over time, can impact our desire for nature or different aspects of the environment. In this post, we will explore how experience and learning shape our tastes.

“Experience and learning” refers to the acquisition of new concepts, facts, and skills. Learning implies change, at least in our knowledge and understanding, but potentially also in our beliefs and values. Does learning about the environment strengthen or change our environmental desires? Does experiencing nature change our desire for it?

There are both an evolutionary “nature” and experiential “nurture” to an individual’s tastes. Children not only have hard-wired food tastes, but also tend to adopt the diet and tastes of their families (in broad terms, anyway). We not only acclimate to the foods given us by our parents, but we also hold to those tastes as we age. Adult music tastes reflect the musical styles popular when we were in our 20’s (age 24, to be exact, according to one study). In short, experience shapes our tastes.

This also holds true for some aspects of the environment. People tend to exhibit an attraction to the landscape features associated with childhood. For instance, children raised on farms exhibit a preference for working landscapes. But even if we are individually programmed by early nature experiences, the nature and availability of those experiences are changing over time. For example, as more and more children are raised in urban, managed, or even digital landscapes, a taste for wilder, more natural landscapes may decline. This theory is akin to Richard Louv’s description of a growing “nature deficit disorder,” where childhood detachment from the outdoors leads to a range of psychological, educational, and physical difficulties (e.g., hyperactivity and obesity) as well as a weaker affinity for nature.

The role of experience in taste formation runs somewhat counter to the novelty-seeking impulse discussed earlier. Although we seek novelty, we also have good reasons to avoid it, because novelty is associated with the unknown, and the unknown with danger and risk. Experience converts the unknown into the known, and can thus potentially turn dislike into desire. One’s first taste of coffee or beer is often nasty, but just stick with it …

Economists have a drier, corollary concept: “experience goods.” Experience goods are products whose features are not clearly observable or are hard to understand at first. A classic example is beauty products; you can’t tell from a new shampoo bottle if you’ll like the results. You have to actually use it on your hair to figure that out. Consumers tend to shy away from such goods unless offered an opportunity to experience them via free samples, trial periods, test drives, and the like. Once experienced, however, we may realize we want the product, or want it more than we thought we did. In effect, experience teaches us about our own desires.

Environmental economists haven’t thought much about whether or not nature’s goods and services are experience goods. But the fact that outdoor experiences in childhood translate into stronger environmental desires later in life is the kind of thing one would expect from an experience good.

A related take on the role of learning in taste formation comes from Gary Becker, probably the deepest economic thinker about matters of taste. Interestingly, for someone with a lot to say about taste change, he doesn’t believe in it. What he believes in are changes in knowledge that lead to what only appear to be a change in taste. Here’s how he and coauthor George Stigler explain a change in musical taste: “The (relative) consumption of music appreciation rises with exposure not because tastes shift in favor of music, but because its shadow price falls as skill and experience in the appreciation of music are acquired with exposure” (italics added). In other words, experience makes it easier for us to have refined tastes—tastes that were latent in us all along.

Becker calls out economist John Kenneth Galbraith for making the intuitive—but in Becker’s view erroneous—argument that the “central function [of advertising] is to create desires.” Becker argues that advertising doesn’t create desires. Rather, advertising simply provides consumers with information that changes the way we express or act on our wants. Other authors distinguish between “meta-preferences” that are stable and more particular preferences that can be influenced by advertising and other factors. For example, we may have a stable meta-preference for “being fashionable” and unstable preferences regarding what that means (e.g., which shirts and shoes satisfy the meta-preference). Whether or not one agrees with Becker, his framing underscores the relevance of changes in knowledge or experience to changes in desire.

Although Becker doesn’t talk about environmental goods, he might argue that our appreciation for nature is similar to our appreciation of music: appreciation deepens as we become more knowledgeable. He might also argue that the experience of nature can lessen misplaced discomfort we have about its dangers, so that over time, we become less anxious about the bears, snakes, and spiders that inhabit our campsite, for example.

Knowledge and experience are also interesting “desire-drivers” because they can be measured and predicted. Do we think environmental education and knowledge will increase over time? And, if so, can that be related to stronger environmental affinities? Do we think certain environmental experiences are more or less common than in the past, and does that offer clues to future generations’ environmental desires?

Consider the work of our RFF colleagues Margaret Walls and Juha Siikamäki on recreational behavior. Using data on time use and outdoor recreation, they found that a 10 percent increase in leisure time leads to a 6.5 percent increase in time spent in outdoor recreation. As leisure time expands, so too does time spent on outdoor recreation. If that experiential time can be related to changes in environmental desire, it would be possible to relate time use trends to changes in natural resource affinity. If time spent on outdoor recreation reinforces our taste for nature, then national and global trends in leisure time may be a predictor of our taste for nature.

A number of economic studies and surveys show that direct experience with a natural resource tends to have a positive impact on the value given to the resource. And as we noted earlier, there is evidence that childhood experiences can condition people’s preferences for certain environmental settings. However, our sense is that much more empirical work would have to be done to make strong causal predictions.

A distinction should also be drawn between knowledge gained from experience and knowledge gained in other ways, such as through education or marketing. The evidence is mixed on education’s role—environmental or otherwise—in changing desires, preferences, or behavior. In a range of studies, students given environmental curricula afterwards tend to exhibit stronger pro-environment attitudes. Public surveys have detected a correlation between environmental knowledge and positive environmental attitudes, though causation is difficult to prove given confounding factors such as income. And environmental knowledge has been related to consumer preference for a wide range of “green” products. But the intuition that positive attitudes are a function of greater environmental knowledge has also been challenged; a 2006 study of secondary students in Chile, England, Switzerland, and the United States found no significant relationship between the two.

In fact, psychological studies suggest that many attitudes are stubbornly resistant to changes in educational knowledge. One explanation for environmental attitudes’ resistance to “book learning” is that such attitudes are moral and political, related to personal identity rather than knowledge. In fact, if new knowledge challenges one’s identity, it may simply be ignored; conservatives’ denial of climate science or liberals’ denial of the safety of genetically modified food could be seen as examples of this phenomenon. Also, studies have shown that the extent to which individuals process new information can depend on how they view the messenger—whether they believe the person shares their political and moral outlook, for example.

Another form of learning—moral learning—should also be considered because, for many, environmental beliefs are rooted in morality and ethics. Author Michael Crichton is famous for arguing that environmentalism has become a powerful Western religion:

“There is an initial Eden, a Paradise, a state of innocence, and unity in nature; there is a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and, as a result of our actions, there is a judgment day coming. We all are energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek deliverance, which now is called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment, just as organic food is its Communion.”

In case his tone doesn’t make it clear, Crichton wasn’t a fan of this religiosity, in part because he argued it blinds adherents to opposing facts and values.

Leaving that critique aside, Crichton’s observation points to the possibility of a spiritual evolution capable of shaping environmental desire. Think again of the “long moral arc bending toward justice.” If environmentalism is rooted in morality, and if there is moral progress, can we predict a “bend toward environmentalism?” In a recent book, The Moral Arc, author Michael Shermer argues that moral progress is real and continuing. That progress is due to an inborn moral instinct, progress in science and reason, and an ever-growing “circle of empathy” arising from our contact with new people and places (a kind of moral education). The book doesn’t focus on environmental morality per se, but Shermer does argue that advances in environmental science tend to reinforce our empathy for the natural world. To which many environmentalists would respond, Amen.

Up next in the series—What Changes our Environmental Desires? The Impacts of Social Norms.

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