There is only a small ”I” in environment

Before you got the time to hug a tree, the environment was making front-page headlines. The Kyoto accords ebbed and flowed while Al Gore sailed his Oscar-winning documentary on global warming to standing ovations. Far-flung glaciers became wailing ice cubes, imploring attention lest we be swallowed up by mighty oceans. Recent polls unveiled the environment underdog as the champion issue in the consciousness of Canadians voters, leaving the green party stripped of a raison d’être. Overall, a hefty bucket of new developments.

North Americans are especially made aware about the ticking meltdown clock, surely since they are the biggest polluters of our planet. They are repeatedly touted that, as individuals, they can redeem themselves: buy a hybrid car or commute; recycle consumption outputs; boycott high energy burning products and other cures. During conferences on climate change they bond and clap-clap to each other, fall into trance with a crowd of do-gooders genuinely committed into rumbling the boiling pot. Yet few managed to practise what is preached. Half-hour hot showers, large comfortable cars seated by single souls and lights hunting the dark remain the norm. It is, nevertheless, not due to a lack of goodwill. Our actions, surprisingly or not, are based on common sense. It is irrational for an individual to be environmentally friendly in the state of the world today.

The reason might be simple: there is no effective mechanism that guarantees individuals, companies and countries will stick to their environmental promises. Because of the absence of an environmental watchdog, it pays for individuals to break their engagements and pollute again, leaving others to incur the cost of reducing pollution. Those who invested in their promises and changed their habits watch as their painful efforts swirl down a futile drain and give up. In essence, individuals jump on the bandwagon heading for the clean city without paying a ticket fee because their is no ticket officer. In turn, the ones who were duped into buying a ticket start imitating the free-riders. Eventually, the faithful driver himself abandons his post and joins the camaraderie, leaving the cramped package to drift towards the brink.

(For a more concise explanation, read the brackets below)
[The environmental dilemma theory gives us a clearer picture.



Take two individuals, Raph and Mike. Let’s say both attended Al Gore’s conference on global climate change and each swore they will stop polluting (in reality, it’s impossible, but let’s not mind that). They each earn 30 points and are both in the green bubble.

A few weeks into into their no pollution mantra, the air becomes clean. Both continue to make great effort to avoid pollution.

But then something changes. Mike realizes he can cheat. He thinks no one will notice if he pollutes again and does so accordingly. He ends up with clean air (at least in the beginning) but without doing extra effort. He’s the no-ticket guy on the bandwagon. He earns 40 points. Raph on the other hand is left spending more time cleaning the air and his points drop to 15.

Raph is also witty. He knows he can get away by cheating and letting Mike do all the hard work. Raph hopes to win the jackpot of 40 points.

Both of them know that the other is incited to cheat and will most probably do so since it fits their best interests. And neither one of them wants to get duped and look silly. The lack of trust and the absence of an arbiter to dissuade cheating behavior leads Raph and Mike to break their promise and pollute again. They wind up in the red bubble, lungs pregnant with dirty air.

Two individuals, devoted to saving the planet, take rational decisions and pollute once again. The moral of this game is that preaching to the individual the virtues of cleaner habits is futile if there is no way of preventing them from cheating each other out. ]

There are two ways to ensure committed individuals stick to their guns. The first but least effective is good-old social pressure. If one can be scolded and punished by his social entourage, that person is less likely to cheat. The arbiter is the eyes of society. And it is a powerful force. You don’t throw garbage directly into the street because you are thinking about the environment. It is more because you are afraid of how people will judge you. But the limitations are that social norms and judgments are very slow to change. Driving 140km/hour pollutes much more per liter than when cruising at 100km/hour but no criticism is placed on those who drive over the limit. Not yet anyways.

The second way is government regulations. Individuals should take actions and pressure their governments to change their environmental platform. This communal eye could then act as a powerful arbiter, targeting and punishing potential cheaters. By establishing a norm of conduct that can be buttressed by coercive action, Mike and Raph can establish a trust and stick to the green turf. Harper’s heavy penalty for driving SUV’s and reward for owning a hybrid identifies the potential cheaters and discourages future ones. It is one out of many policies established by a society which can render individuals’ commitments to the environment more tangible.

These two factors are needed to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. It is a powerful reminder that when it comes to intricate public goods, individuals are more often powerless when left to their own devices.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “There is only a small ”I” in environment

  1. Anonymous

    Thats a very intresting theory but im just wondering wether social norms can develop from individual changes or is governement intervention the only mean of shifting attitudes. If thats the case, then is it true that governments shape our morals and values that we believe to be our own?

  2. Anonymous

    Thats a very intresting theory but im just wondering wether social norms can develop from individual changes or is governement intervention the only mean of shifting attitudes. If thats the case, then is it true that governments shape our morals and values that we believe to be our own?

  3. Piotr

    A great many social norms are a direct result of human interactivity. Take for example why cars drive on the left side. You don’t need a government to tell you this, it comes naturally. The cloth you wear is also a product of what is fascionable. Government does have also an effect on social norms. Because it controls education for example, depending on what you learn in class will affect your social norms. If you are taught discrimination in class, it will affect the norms of society overall.
    I think it depends on the degree of how representative the government is to its people. If it is highly representative (good quality democracy) then social norms and government interventions are highly interwined. If it the government is not elected and distant from its people -the taliban in Afghanistan for example- government intervention distorts social norms to suit its own interest and is not a reflection of what society wants for itself. For example, The taliban wanted all women to wear the burqa and refused them access to schools. It became a social norm for woman not leave their houses with a man. But the Afgani people were forced into a social norm.
    It is an interesting question and it would be an eye opener to measure the interactivity of government pushed social norms and society’s pulled social norms.

  4. Piotr

    A great many social norms are a direct result of human interactivity. Take for example why cars drive on the left side. You don’t need a government to tell you this, it comes naturally. The cloth you wear is also a product of what is fascionable. Government does have also an effect on social norms. Because it controls education for example, depending on what you learn in class will affect your social norms. If you are taught discrimination in class, it will affect the norms of society overall.
    I think it depends on the degree of how representative the government is to its people. If it is highly representative (good quality democracy) then social norms and government interventions are highly interwined. If it the government is not elected and distant from its people -the taliban in Afghanistan for example- government intervention distorts social norms to suit its own interest and is not a reflection of what society wants for itself. For example, The taliban wanted all women to wear the burqa and refused them access to schools. It became a social norm for woman not leave their houses with a man. But the Afgani people were forced into a social norm.
    It is an interesting question and it would be an eye opener to measure the interactivity of government pushed social norms and society’s pulled social norms.

  5. Anders

    “why cars drive on the left side”… Wow!?! Is Canada one of those strange countries where cars drive on the wrong side of the streets? Well, at least you use the metric system, so somethings have advanced… A highly meaningless note which I suppose in a way strenghtens what Piotr wanted to say about social norms…

  6. Anders

    “why cars drive on the left side”… Wow!?! Is Canada one of those strange countries where cars drive on the wrong side of the streets? Well, at least you use the metric system, so somethings have advanced… A highly meaningless note which I suppose in a way strenghtens what Piotr wanted to say about social norms…

  7. Anders

    By the way, a much bigger question arises out of all this. Social norms exist, we all agree. Social norms can be problematic, we all agree I believe. So: How solve these kind of problem, let’s call them structural problems? Can they be solved on an individual level? Or do we need structural solutions to structural problems? It seems reasonable. And if so, can these structural solutions develop on an individual level? Maybe, but I doubt it. You drive on the left side. No biggy, but how could you change it, if you would like to? On an individual level? It would be crazy. Change would require legislation (which interestingly enough might not have been required before – although it exists). We actually made that change in Sweden, went from left side driving to right side driving (btw after the people had voted against it – so much for democracy). These questions are, I believe, decisive as to ideological standpoints – and hence on can note that liberals (in it’s european, right-wing meaning) refuse to admit the existence of structural problems…

  8. Anders

    By the way, a much bigger question arises out of all this. Social norms exist, we all agree. Social norms can be problematic, we all agree I believe. So: How solve these kind of problem, let’s call them structural problems? Can they be solved on an individual level? Or do we need structural solutions to structural problems? It seems reasonable. And if so, can these structural solutions develop on an individual level? Maybe, but I doubt it. You drive on the left side. No biggy, but how could you change it, if you would like to? On an individual level? It would be crazy. Change would require legislation (which interestingly enough might not have been required before – although it exists). We actually made that change in Sweden, went from left side driving to right side driving (btw after the people had voted against it – so much for democracy). These questions are, I believe, decisive as to ideological standpoints – and hence on can note that liberals (in it’s european, right-wing meaning) refuse to admit the existence of structural problems…

  9. Professor Howdy

    Hello!
    Very good posting.
    Thank you – Have a good day!!!

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