2 September 2009

Ecological One-Upmanship

If only we could convert all those faceless automata who make up the corporate persona to approach the environment as if, rather than seeing it as something outside the window, they felt that we were truly a part of it. We would not then need to introduce policies to prevent companies from polluting because their employees would intrinsically resist poisoning their own air. If we were truly embedded in our environment then protecting it would become a personal commitment rather than something governments needed to devise policy to force us to do. This is the approach of environmental philosophers who develop the concept of ‘ecological citizenship’.

Ecological citizenship suggests that strict policy-making might militate against our best environmental behaviour. Two Swiss academics analysed a mass of international research into the effect of compensating people financially for acts and services they performed freely had on their willingness to continue in their virtuous behaviour. They distinguished between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, i.e. those things that people do because they are ethically motivated or just feel good about them, rather than those things they do because there is some material incentive or disincentive. In the case of volunteering, they found that paying volunteers actually reduced the amount of volunteering. In similar vein, an Israeli childcare centre that began charging parents who picked up their children late found that more were doing so. The explanation is that, once it became a financial matter, they felt they had an implicit contract; whereas when they felt guilty about their lateness they tried much harder to be there on time.

The example of research most relevant to the theme of this book concerns the willingness of communities to accept the siting of a noxious facility in their backyard, in this case a nuclear waste repository in Switzerland. Conventional economists would suggest that the solution is to provide financial compensation. Initially, 50.8% of residents agree to have the repository in their community, with 44.9% in opposition. The next stage was to offer variable rates of compensation to local residents, who were then surveyed again:

The respondents were asked the same questions, whether they were willing to accept the construction of a nuclear waste repository, but it was added that the Swiss parliament had decided on a substantial compensation for all residents of the host community. While 50.8% of the respondents agreed to accept the nuclear waste repository without compensation, the level of acceptance dropped to 24.6% when compensation was offered. The amount of compensation has no significant effect on the level of acceptance. About one quarter of the respondents even seem to reject the facility simply because financial compensation is attached to it.

The findings have important implications for policy in this area, since we may conclude that taxation or charging may be expensive in itself but may also be inefficient if it discourages people from undertaking environmentally friendly behaviour they might have undertaken anyway, without the incentive. And in other areas they might now look for incentives before changing their behaviour. Policy-makers should beware of crowding out people’s natural motivations to do good, to respect each other and their environment. The danger with applying tools such as cost-benefit analysis is that they assume a selfish motivation which may not exist. However, assuming such selfishness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and can then train citizens to be self-serving and less virtuous.

So if policy-makers might do more harm than good by their restrictive policies, how might they encourage the sorts of shifts in behaviour and moral (spiritual, even?) outlook that would enable a protective ethic towards the planet? Dobson suggests the rewarding and celebration of pro-environment behaviour—perhaps the designation of environmental ‘champions’ or the rewarding of particularly well-embedded citizens through the award of medals. Rather than struggling to live within our carbon quota perhaps we might find ourselves receiving the Order of the Lapwing or being designated Green Man of the Year?

1 comment:

  1. I've felt like library fines were me paying them for leniency. "Yeah ok, I broke the rules, but if I rent the book off you for that period of time, can I stay in the club?" Many people will pay for flexibility, so if you just fine you have to make sure you use the money to actually be that flexible!

    On the nuclear waste side, I would ask this question: Substantial compensation? What is it going to do to me that I need compensating???

    I couldn't care less about medals. Show me a working ecosystem producing artistic as well as life-support value to people while they are able to do satisfying work and play in and around it, and show me a path there? I'm there!

    People don't need rewarding to do what they want, they just need to see why it is good, in the most visceral and lip-licking way.

    Fear causes repulsion, but only hope gets people to build, so long as that hope is linked to options that people can take action on. The closer and quicker the hope->action->reality cycle is, the more encouraged and ambitious people will get.