Green Weenies All Around

So you know how environmentalists like to tell us endlessly to “reduce our carbon footprint” and such? And how you’ve long suspected that you don’t even have to be a Hollywood star (like Leo di Caprio) to be a hypocrite about it? Now we have science to prove the matter.

Biological Conservation has an article just out that reports the results of a survey of consumption patterns of conservationists, economists, and medics. Don’t ask me why they chose economists and medics—I’m just here to report. Anyway, enjoy the results:

The environmental footprints of conservationists, economists and medics compared

Andrew Balmford, LizzyCole, ChrisSandbrook, BrendanFisher


Many conservationists undertake environmentally harmful activities in their private lives such as flying and eating meat, while calling for people as a whole to reduce such behaviors. To quantify the extent of our hypocrisy and put our actions into context, we conducted a questionnaire-based survey of 300 conservationists and compared their personal (rather than professional) behavior, across 10 domains, with that of 207 economists and 227 medics. We also explored two related issues: the role of environmental knowledge in promoting pro-environmental behavior, and the extent to which different elements of people’s footprint co-vary across behavioral domains. The conservationists we sampled have a slightly lower overall environmental footprint than economists or medics, but this varies across behaviors. Conservationists take fewer personal flights, do more to lower domestic energy use, recycle more, and eat less meat – but don’t differ in how they travel to work, and own more pets than do economists or medics. Interestingly, conservationists also score no better than economists on environmental knowledge and knowledge of pro-environmental actions. Overall footprint scores are higher for males, US nationals, economists, and people with higher degrees and larger incomes, but (as has been reported in other studies) are unrelated to environmental knowledge. Last, we found different elements of individuals’ footprints are generally not intercorrelated, and show divergent demographic patterns. These findings suggest three conclusions. First, lowering people’s footprints may be most effectively achieved via tailored interventions targeting higher-impact behaviors (such as meat consumption, flying and family size). Second, as in health matters, education about environmental issues or pro-environmental actions may have little impact on behavior. Last, while conservationists perform better on certain measures than other groups, we could (and we would argue, must) do far more to reduce our footprint.

That last bit—that hectoring people endlessly about their “footprint” does little to change behavior—totally misses the point. Hectoring people is the whole point. I think we need some social science research on the environmental footprint of virtue signaling.