When it comes to ecology, do we get what we pay for?
Falling behind on economic development in relation to the “world” (Western world) is regularly mentioned as one of the main reasons for the deficiency of systemic and individual action in the field of environmental protection in the region because, supposedly, we cannot care about the environment if we don’t reach a certain material standard of living first.
This commonsensical and ideological package derives from Inglehart’s hypothesis of post-material values, which essentially claims that people in materially richer societies are more aware of environmental problems and care more about the environment than people in poorer societies. Causal logic can be displayed аs follows:
MATERIAL WELL-BEING → POST-MATERIAL VALUES → CONCERN FOR THE STATE OF THE ENVIRONMENT → PRO-ENVIRONMENTAL BEHAVIOR
The problem is that the research that confirms this hypothesis measures so-called pro-environmental behavior, which primarily refers to consumer behavior and changes in simple habits in private everyday life. This means that the concept doesn’t contribute to the understanding of environmental behavior outside the framework of consumerism (green consumerism). It doesn’t recognize behaviors that occur when people are faced with a potential socio-ecological disaster, environmental conflict, immediate environmental pollution, etc. For example, environmental activism is most often significantly negatively correlated with the age of social actors who practice it as a form of environmental behavior, and the amount of their income.
Pro-environmental behavior in poor societies is often caused by necessity, an immediate threat, and comes as a reaction to uncontrolled, inadequate and unoptimized economic growth. Social actors in this context feel the consequences more directly and intensely, they are physically closer to the environmental problem and are often highly dependent on the immediate environment. In third world countries, being environmentally active in meaningful way is often life-threatening, but we see that people do it no matter the risk. However, they don’t satisfy the criteria of indicators which are most often used to measure pro-environmental behavior.
The results of problematic research therefore depend on the way we define environmental awareness, and the questions asked to respondents are generally not aligned with specific social contexts. What they actually show is that people who have a low material standard of living are largely unwilling to bear the financial costs of narrowly defined pro-environmental behavior and vice versa.
IN COUNTRIES THAT HAVE HIGH MATERIAL STANDARD OF LIVING, RESPONDENTS GIVE UP SOME THINGS MUCH MORE EASILY BECAUSE THEY CONSUME INCOMPARABLY MORE.
So, to the question “would you be willing to pay higher taxes if you knew that the additional percentage would be used to solve a certain environmental problem?” the respondent in e.g., Norway says “yes”, and in e.g., Moldova, he says “what taxes?”. Person B simply does not have the provided mechanism to meet the criteria of such defined indicator of pro-environmental behavior, even though his ecological footprint is most likely incomparably smaller.
For example, the average citizen of Serbia emits about 4 tons of carbon dioxide per year, while the average resident of the USA emits about 14.5 tons per year. If we consider that we should reduce carbon dioxide emissions per capita to 2.3 tons per year by 2030, we can conclude that affluent countries are quite unsuccessful in the grand scheme of things.
Now we can ask the following question: “Why do citizens in so-called rich countries fail to significantly reduce their individual environmental footprint, even with their supposed environmental awareness and good intentions?” There are many reasons for this, and all the answers generally lead to one common consequence, unsustainable green consumerism. Green consumerism is the practice of buying products that are somehow labeled as having a reduced negative impact on the environment. If we are already buying a certain product, why not buy one that pollutes less and thus fulfills a personal need and contributes to the social interest at the same time?
In addition to the fact that we have already exceeded the sustainable limits of consumption, it is fundamentally about our fallacious decision-making patterns. For the purposes of this text, we will describe perhaps the most important one in this context, the tendency to use decision-making mental shortcuts which have evolved over thousands of years in the context of relatively small number of interpersonal relationships, to contemporary social challenges that, due to their abstraction, spatial and temporal distance, do not correspond to established models of reasoning. Interpersonal relationships are largely based on the principles of reciprocity. If I do you a favor, I expect it returned in a certain way, at a certain time. If I do you wrong, I owe you as I strive for redemption. Otherwise, our relationship is seriously compromised by the created tension. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but social relations always tend to establish a certain balance. If we do something bad to someone, we usually have the opportunity to make up for it on another occasion and to restore the balance of our relationship without permanent consequences.
When we use these mechanisms that we practice and apply for generations and from a young age in the context of mitigating the consequences of climate change, we don’t get the expected result. We actually equate good and bad deeds with sustainable and unsustainable/polluting behavior. This is where we run into a problem; because the environment doesn’t respond to our balancing attempts as, let’s say, our friend does. The purchase of a “sustainable product” doesn’t cancel out the purchase of a “non-sustainable product”. If we travel somewhere by plane, we can’t redeem ourselves by using a bicycle instead of a car in the future.
SUSTAINABLE AND UNSUSTAINABLE CHOICES ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE, THEY ARE ACCUMULATED BECAUSE EVERY CONSUMPTION INEVITABLY ADDS A CERTAIN VALUE TO OUR TOTAL ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT.
Therefore, we often intuitively and mistakenly try to “balance” between choices that pollute less and pollute more and thus actually maintain the overall ecological footprint at the same level or even increase it. Of course, it is hard to believe that as intelligent beings we fall into such obvious cognitive traps, but current data and research confirm it. There is even evidence that people have a greater tendency to cheat and steal after buying a “sustainable product”, believing that they have some kind of “moral credit” because they consider buying a “sustainable product” as a good deed. There are well-known social experiments in which participants estimated that the ecological footprint of a certain meal is smaller if that meal, in addition to the usual ingredients, also contains an additional ingredient labeled as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”. This works the other way around as well. By doing things that pollute, people feel so-called eco-guilt which is a form of cognitive dissonance because they believe that environmental protection is a social priority and do things which pollute it at the same time. In tease cases, individuals often go for the purchase of “eco-friendly” products as a form of a fast solution, thus paradoxically increasing their overall ecological footprint.
People also tend to change their behavior when the energy efficiency of a particular technology or product is increased. The earliest formulation of this phenomenon is known as the Jevons paradox, and the most famous example of this paradox refers to the increase in the efficiency of the steam engine in the second half of the 19th century, which was not followed by reduced coal consumption or energy savings. The exact opposite happened.
A CHANGE IN THE EFFICIENCY OF A PARTICULAR TECHNOLOGY IS OFTEN FOLLOWED BY A BEHAVIORAL CHANGE THAT COMPENSATES FOR THE POTENTIAL RESOURCE SAVINGS.
Recently, in Serbia, we often talk about replacing doors and windows in order to increase energy efficiency. This kind of intervention is absolutely justified if users, stimulated by a lower energy bill, for instance, don’t decide to pour that much more fuel into their cars. Any uncontrolled increase in energy efficiency is accompanied by certain behavioral reactions, it is only a matter of numbers and variations.
Ultimately, we can’t expect to achieve some kind of environmental awareness that will result in solving global environmental challenges by simply increasing the material standard of living. It is paradoxical to expect that social systems based on uncontrolled growth and consumption will help us to reduce the global ecological footprint, and it is irrational to rely on technological progress as the primary solution to the global ecological crisis. The goal of the green transition is not energy efficiency per se, but the reduction of total consumption, i.e., the ecological footprint. Increasing energy efficiency is part of a wider puzzle, but we must be careful while attempting to solve it because one-dimensional solutions usually draw various unintended consequences. Technological progress in every sense must be accompanied by well-thought-out social and behavioral changes, if we want to avoid feedback effects, because the issue of sustainability is not a question of the level of wealth, but primarily a question of social organization, i.e., meaningful cooperation, optimization of social processes and consumption of resources, and improvement of our capacity for collective behavior.
Author: Sinisa Borota, sociologist