Book review – Why Good People Do Bad Environmental Things

If so many people are concerned about the environment, why do we still behave in ways that harm it? Many environmentalists will quickly argue that people just do not care or need more information. Professor of Environmental Studies Elizabeth R. DeSombre here argues that these answers are often wrong or incomplete. By considering research from a range of disciplines she is looking for a fuller explanation of why we behave the way we do. Only then can we hope to change how people achieve their goals in less destructive ways. And that, she daringly concludes, does not even require people to care about the environment.

Why Good People Do Bad Environmental Things

Why Good People Do Bad Environmental Things“, written by Elizabeth R. DeSombre, published by Oxford University Press in June 2018 (hardback, 252 pages)

There is a paradox at the heart of this book that DeSombre immediately lays bare. She focuses on how individual behaviour creates global environmental problems, yet she does not believe that change by individuals is the solution. Listicles with “ten simple things you can do to save the planet” are not going to cut it. The reason, then, for her focus is that it reveals what the constraints are to behaving in environmentally friendlier ways. But changing individual minds, the way many activists are trying to do, is grossly inefficient. The efficient thing to do, DeSombre argues, is to make systemic changes at the level of institutions, infrastructure, and regulations.

The thing with environmental problems, DeSombre says, is that nobody consciously sets out to cause them. They are so-called externalities: unintended and unpriced consequences that happen while we do something else. And the reason for that is that the political and economic structures of today were not developed with the environment in mind. Additional aspects that make them hard to tackle are that they often affect people far away from us in place or time (read: future generations). And that they often take the shape of “tragedies of the commons” – they affect communal resources that are hard to fence off, hard to police, and vulnerable to free-riders that choose to exploit them anyway (e.g. fish in the open ocean).

Changing the system is hard, and it will only happen is there is enough of a push for it. The bulk of the book considers four approaches to changing behaviour as a prelude to systemic changes, looking at incentives, information, habits, and norms. In the process, DeSombre surveys research from a range of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, economics, and political sciences. All of this verbiage may sound daunting, but what struck me is how understandable the book is. Explanations of research and easy-to-grasp examples are given at every turn, and the structure of her arguments and chapter summaries make this a very clear book.

“[…] the political and economic structures of today were not developed with the environment in mind.”

DeSombre points out many interesting caveats regarding her four approaches. As things stand, doing the environmentally right thing is often harder or costlier. There is often no incentive, no encouragement to behave in the right way. Incentives sometimes even point the opposite way, e.g. government subsidies resulting in overfishing (see my reviews of Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries and All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing). Unfortunately, it is not as simple as making the environmentally right thing easier, quicker, or cheaper. DeSombre argues that people like rewards but respond better to punishments, removing existing subsidies is hard, incentives do not encourage voluntary cooperation, and there is the risk of a rebound effect: money or energy saved through efficiency gains will often be used for other environmentally damaging activities. But at least incentivizing people can get everyone on board, even those who do not have time or resources to normally prioritize the environment.

Though a lack of knowledge is problematic, information is overrated – solving environmental problems is not simply a matter of educating people more, as many activists hope. Frightening people into action rarely works (see my somewhat sceptical review of The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future). DeSombre discusses caveats of options such as feedback, prompts (reminders to e.g. recycle), and labels and certification. An example of useful information is showing people how to do things (e.g. recycling). But people are not necessarily good with information. We suffer from cognitive biases, underestimate risks, and get defensive or deny things that run counter to our worldview (see also Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster).

Another reason we ignore information are our habits and routines, whether as individuals or institutions. They, too, are often formed without considering the environment and are notoriously hard to change. But this can be used against them. DeSombre cites the success stories of organ donation and retirement savings as examples that removing choice by making certain options the default is very effective.

“Social norms can be very powerful […] We care what other people think of us.”

Our attitudes, values, and identities are formed early in life and quite stable, so DeSombre is not sure they are the best route to changing people’s behaviour. Changing them is useful, but doing so is playing the long game (see also Navigating Environmental Attitudes). Social norms, however, can be very powerful (see also Who Rules the Earth? How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives). I was very much reminded of what Mark Manson writes in Everything Is Fucked: A Book About Hope – it is easy to forget that the world does not run on facts but on emotions. We care what other people think of us.

Some of DeSombre’s repeatedly mentioned examples seem rather marginal (taking your own mug to the coffee shop, separating waste for recycling). That is not really going to contribute much, is it? Technological and economic developments have ratcheted Western expectations and lifestyles to levels of unnecessary comforts and choices. Rather than meeting these in more environmentally friendly ways, what about the hard choices? Not doing things in the first place, consuming less, or (my favourite talking point and the reason I am no longer invited to parties) deciding not to have children? How would you apply these approaches there?

“DeSombre’s pragmatic conclusion is that people’s environmental concern need not be the driving factor behind their environmentally-friendly behaviour”

To her credit, DeSombre’s final chapter ties things nicely together and it is here, while giving examples of day-to-day behaviours that could be improved, she touches on these deeper issues. For instance, she points out how addressing the problem of household waste would be best achieved by consuming less to begin with, which means addressing the logic of capitalism with its constant push for replacing of items and increasing consumption. These are big changes that will not happen quickly so it is sensible to focus on the more immediately feasible steps first.

Why Good People Do Bad Environmental Things is a book that will get you thinking and there are valuable lessons in here for the activist community. She concludes that, of course, you should care about the environment. But to really make a difference we need to include everyone, even those who do not care. Environmental concern should not be required for environmentally-friendly behaviour. This might surprise some, but it is a conclusion that I find as ballsy as I find it pragmatic.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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