A metastudy of the reasons why people act environmentally starts with the following charmingly simple diagram explaining environmentally-friendly behavior:
We are quickly disabused of any notion that this is correct, as the authors follow it up with:
These models from the early 1970s were soon proven to be wrong. Research showed that in most cases, increases in knowledge and awareness did not lead to pro-environmental behavior.
They list numerous examples: environmental sentiment has no relationship with how frequently people recycle; nor does it predict whether people would be willing to pay more taxes for eco-friendly options, nor how much people drive. The authors conclude:
Most researchers agree that only a small fraction of pro-environmental behavior can be directly linked to environmental knowledge and environmental awareness.
They continue on to wonder why activists maintain the "simplistic assumption that more knowledge will lead to more enlightened behavior."
Environmental problems are a kind of "secondhand reality"... That is, the knowledge people develop about environmental problems is for the most part socially defined by other people.
The conclusion here is not pessimistic: it's not that convincing people to change their behavior is impossible, or even more difficult than activists currently think. It's just different.
People care about things that impact them, and impact them right now. If you want someone to recycle, you have to convince them that their not recycling hurts them, right now. The problem needs to be within their locus of control.
Stern et al. find that the well-being of people and their families is one of the greatest motivators. Perfect. In addition to being bad for the environment, low meat intake is associated with a longer life span. Air pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in America alone, and may well be responsible for most cases of asthma.Want to take down big government and get your tax dollars back? How about the $16 billion that goes to food subsidies opposed to the government's own guidelines?
Nature has blessed us with kindness, and we have not, as de Sade said, wasted it on altruism. It may be unpleasant, but the sooner we recognize this fact, the sooner we can start getting things done.