The Urbane Ecologist

Be careful about how “green” you really are…

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I haven’t written in a very long time because so much has been going on! I’ve been learning a lot at work, enjoying Washington, D.C., trying to take various online classes, studying for the GRE, looking up Master’s programs… In my quest for betterment in every aspect of my life, my blog became something I aspired to do sometime in the future when I “got really good”. But I like sharing what I learn too much to let it slide, so I’m making it a top priority again.

I ran an into an interesting idea when reading “The Willpower Instinct“, by Kelly McGonigal. She explored how the way a “green” action is framed can influence a consumer’s perception of their behavior. Yale economist Matthew J. Kotchen found that small “green” actions reduced consumers’ and businesses’ guilt. As a consequence, consumers and businesses gave themselves “moral license” to be less vigilant about the environmental effects of their behaviors and ended up engaging in larger more harmful behaviors. Economists at the University of Melbourne, on the other hand, found that this licensing effect is only present when people pay a penance for bad behavior. When customers replace a harmful act with something good for the environment, they are reinforcing their commitment to the environment. Dr. McGonigal gave the following examples:

  • In the first case, you plant a tree to make up for your carbon emissions over the course of the year. This assuages your feeling of guilt and makes you feel that, as a good person who’s already done a little something, it’s okay to splurge a little bit and leave your lights on overnight or drive your car a little more than necessary.
  • In the second case, you pay 10% extra for electricity in order to use green sources of energy. You feel good about yourself as someone who is consistently environmentally friendly, and you are less likely to consume more.

I’ve been studying plastic bag bans and fees recently. As a result, reading about this psychological subtlety made me consider the effectiveness of various governments and environmental groups in communicating the reasons for plastic bag fees. Some plastic bag fees are very popular (such as the one in Ireland, which was preceded by an impressive public education campaign about the purpose behind the fee) and others cause a lot of controversy.

If governments and other groups promoting plastic bag taxes send the message that they are doing so to make up for the damage already done, they may actually be giving consumers the moral license to consume more, which is at the heart of consumerist, environmentally-damaging culture. However, enacting plastic bag taxes with the clear message that it is done to fund environmental projects in consumers’ communities (which they usually are) may prove more effective. As a longer-term consequence, as consumers pay for plastic bags to fund local environmental project, their attention is likely to be drawn to the ultimate cause of those problems—their wasteful behavior—which is more likely, in turn, to decrease their consumption. Their “green” identity is thus strengthened and more likely to be applied to other issues.

I’m glad to be back to writing! I’m working on a piece about how cities are proving to be more effective at mitigating and adapting to climate change than national governments. I hope to put it up relatively soon!


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