Monday, December 12, 2011

You May Be “Green” If You’re Reading This

If you’re reading this post, you most likely consider yourself at least in small amount an environmentalist. Since you think of your self as pro-environmental does that mean that you perform pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs)? Well, maybe. According to research performed by Whitmarsh and O’Neill (2010), it depends on the behavior and on your specific view of yourself (or identity).

We can think of our identity as having many pieces when it comes to environmentalism – there are specific identities (“I’m a recycler”) and then there’s a general identity (“I’m an environmentalist”). A specific identity is more predictive of a specific behavior, whereas a general environmentalist identity is more predictive of general PEBs. These PEBs can include decreasing domestic energy and water use, decreasing wasteful behaviors, and increasing eco-friendly shopping behaviors (Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2010).

One would think that if a person values the planet or, say, clean air, that they would more likely perform PEBs (and maybe have a general environmentalist identity) but these authors found that was not the case – values (as assessed by a questionnaire) did not predict PEBs. Being aware of the risks associated with climate change was not a significant predictor of PEBs either (Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2010). So values and knowledge are not enough to kick humans in the tush regarding the environment.

What else did these authors find? Visible consumption behaviors are more likely (Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2010) – in plain English that means that people are most likely to change their shopping behaviors in a more eco-friendly way, and they are especially likely to do so when others are watching. Take into account other findings that previous behaviors are important in predicting future environmental behaviors, and there’s some good evidence that you should take your non-enviro friend shopping next time you go and guilt them into buying eco-friendly. They may just do it again (and start thinking of themselves as an environmentalist).

Last but not least, Whitmarsh and O’Neill (2010) tell us that there are certain things in our context (i.e., environment, family, etc.) that constrain or decrease our PEBs even if we have a general environmentalist identity. A lack of available options makes increasing our PEBs difficult. So if you don’t have bike trails or safe bicycle riding areas, you’re not going to reduce carbon emissions by riding your bike to work. If eco-friendly shopping products aren’t available near you, guess what? You’re not going to buy them.


So what does all this mean? The fear-inducing educational campaigns aren’t working folks. Al Gore’s “here comes the sun…to kill us all” stump speeches are getting nods from the people who already have the knowledge, and are getting ignored by those who do not (because he’s a nut job – thank you cognitive dissonance). Rather than guilting or “fearing” people into PEBs, we should start small with offering eco-friendly shopping products to more consumers and increasing the availability of environmentally friendly options in cities. I know you’re probably thinking, “Well it’s too late for that now. We need major change right now.” And to that I say, “I agree. But good luck with that.” Changing minds with a hammer breaks the mind; changing minds with a chisel and small, strategically placed cracks eventually gets the mind to recognize the change (and own it as their own rather than simply conform, i.e., the hammer method). Chisels create identity change. And according to Whitmarsh and O’Neill (2010), identity change is the way to go.

Get To It

How can you start small? How can you encourage others to start that small, strategically placed crack?

Whitmarsh, L., & O’Neill, S. (2010). Green identity, green living? The role of pro-
environmental self-identity in determining consistency across diverse pro-
environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 305-314.

**The post is the beginning of a series of posts relating to articles I'm reviewing for my dissertation. So not only do I get to learn, so do you! Rockin'!**