Are Our Assumptions About Ecological Footprint Statistics Backwards?

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photo: SuperFantastic/Creative Commons

It's very near central dogma of the contemporary environmental movement that providing people with more information about their energy usage, consumption of consumer goods, their food choices, their lifestyle choices will lead to reducing their impact. If people just had more accurate information they will reduce their ecological footprint. What gets measured gets managed, right? A new study in Social Influence (highlighted amply by Miller-McCune) finds that is far from always being the case--the results largely dependent on whether you already have a commitment to environmental protection.From the journal article:

Only people who had invested their self-esteem in environmentalism...reacted to negative environmental feedback by engaging in a pro-environment behavior. Others were less likely to engage in a pro-environment behavior after negative feedback. [...] Environmental-footprint feedback only promotes sustainable behavior or people who are already committed to environmentalism and may discourage sustainable behavior among people who are not already committed to environmentalism.

Check out the Miller-McCune article for a summary of the research methodology.

In many ways this insight doesn't reduce the importance of calculating ecological footprints or the usefulness of those stats in a limited context, but one thing it does do is illuminate the short-comings in assuming that if people are presented with enough information they will naturally come around to a particular point of view. They will believe what's been put in front of them.

This has all to often been the assumption of environmentalists, sometimes stated, sometimes unstated--and on climate change in particular. If we only had more data, if we only communicated that data better, people would act differently, people would care about the environment more.

Perhaps we've got it backwards?

People don't start caring about the environment because of more stats, but rather they care about the stats because they start caring more about the environment.

More on Ecological Footprint
Population Growth and Ecological Footprint - It's About Equity, Environment & Preventing Collapse
China's Ecological Footprint - We'd Still Need 1.2 Planets If Everyone Had It

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