Assuming Personal Responsibility for Improving the Environment: Moving Toward a New Environmental Norm
There is general agreement that we are nearing the end of achieving major gains in pollution abatement from traditional sources, that a significant portion of the remaining environmental problems facing this country is caused by individual behavior, and that efforts to control that behavior have either failed or not even been made.
The phenomenon of individuals as irresponsible environmental actors seems counterintuitive when polls show that people consistently rate protecting the environment among their highest priorities, contribute to environmental causes, and are willing to pay more to protect environmental resources.
This article is the author's second effort at understanding why people who consider themselves to be “environmentalists” or support environmental causes behave in environmentally destructive ways, and what, if anything, can be done to change that behavior. The first article endorsed expansion of the abstract environmental protection norm to include individual environmental responsibility and concluded that doing this is the most promising approach to overcoming barriers to behavioral change. That article also identified environmental groups as the most effective “norm entrepreneurs” that can bring about widespread change in personal environmental conduct through carefully tailored information campaigns. This article expands on the earlier article’s discussion of the role norms play in influencing personal behavior and why changing them is a critical part of any campaign to make individuals more environmentally responsible.
The best way to change norms is through education, as the first article acknowledged, but supplemental measures may be necessary. This article identifies what those additional measures might be and assesses their effectiveness. A third article will explore how republican theory supports the critical role that education performs in altering public behavior through changing norms. All three articles rest on the premise that the global climate change crisis has created circumstances in which norm change can take place, namely the occurrence of a second environmental republican moment, in which people are open to being educated about their civic responsibilities, including those pertaining to the environment.
To develop these ideas, section II provides background information about individual contributions to environmental problems. Section III discusses various barriers to changing personal environmental behavior, such as the role federal laws play in perpetuating the myth that only industry is responsible for environmental harm. That section also explores certain cognitive heuristics that influence how people process information and personal barriers to changing behavior such as habits, inconvenience, cost, unavailability of alternatives, and self-interest. The role of norms in influencing behavior and how norms are formed and changed are examined in section IV. Next, section V investigates how a new norm of environmental responsibility might arise and displace competing norms. However, that section recognizes that the development of a new norm may not be an easy task because of some of the same barriers identified in section III. In section VI, acknowledging that neither norms nor the happenstance of an environmental republican moment will inexorably lead to changes in personal behavior, various norm and behavior-changing tools, such as public education, shaming and other sanctions, and market-based incentives are identified. Section VI examines the inherent strengths and weaknesses of these tools, as well as particular problems with their application to individual behavior. Section VII concludes that no single approach will work, but a combination of any or all of the above, depending on the source and nature of the problem, is called for. However, any combination of tools must include public education if a permanent new environmental norm is to emerge and change individual behavior in the long term.
33 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 117-175 (2009)
Scholarly Commons Citation
Babcock, Hope M., "Assuming Personal Responsibility for Improving the Environment: Moving Toward a New Environmental Norm" (2009). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 942.