BioScience report: Public policy can guide pro-environment behavior

Signs at Homecoming for Garbage and recycle

Many have studied how the climate is changing—melting ice caps, rising sea levels, increased pollution, and higher temperatures. Countless researchers, scientists, and experts have dedicated their work to recording numbers, collecting samples, and writing reports that show evidence of climate change. But has anyone studied how humans are changing their commitment to the environment?

You may recycle because you care for the environment and would hate to see it littered, but did you also know you may do it because your neighbors or colleagues are doing it?  In a recent BioScience article, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Arizona State University’s Ann Kinzig explores the impacts of human behavior towards the environment and how policies can promote environmentally friendly behavior.

In the article, “Social Norms and Global Environmental Change: The Complex Interaction of Behaviors, Values, and Policy,” the researchers theorize that advancements in sustainability can come from policy changes that alter public behavior in the short-term, while simultaneously creating public pro-environmental values in the long-term.

People engage in what researchers call “pro-environmental behavior” when there are advantageous reasons to do so. These reasons can be due to deep-seated environmental values, but they can also develop due to regulations (e.g., automobile fuel-efficiency standards), economic costs (e.g., recycling to avoid garbage fees), or because people want to fit in and do what others are doing (e.g., planting native vegetation in front yards). Repeating these behaviors can lead to new personal pro-environmental norms for individuals.

“Often we believe that we behave in a certain way because we hold certain values,” says Kinzig, a sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and a professor in the School of Life Sciences. “But our values may also shift based on our behaviors. We may initially engage in recycling, for instance, because of an economic incentive, or because we believe our neighbors want us to, but the repeated act of recycling may create a personal value for recycling.”

The researchers argue that policymakers must consider both the short-term potential for changing behavior and the long-term potential for altering values. Often policies are evaluated according to short-term viability, and that may not be enough to effectively shift personal values towards the environment.

There is a lack of research about how behavior, policy, and values interact with one another. The research team—consisting of economists, policy scientists, and biologists—suggest life scientists and social scientists work together to fill the research gap.

“We really don’t have enough systematic information about how policies change behaviors, or what policies can successfully be promoted given societal values,” says Kinzig. “If we are to achieve socially desirable outcomes with policies that have broad support, we need to understand these relationships. Each group has important insights to bring to this.”

Policymakers won’t be the only ones to manage behavior. The researchers themselves note that the scientific community must adjust their own norms and communication in order to collaborate with policymakers.

“To positively and effectively engage with the public and policy leaders, the academy must familiarize itself with practices and goals of those outside the scientific community, and value the researchers who engage in such activities,” says Kinzig.

Life scientists and social scientists won’t only fill the proverbial research gap, but perhaps also shine light on just how important and critical our individual actions can be.

Natalie Muilenberg, [email protected]
Global Institute of Sustainability