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Whose ecological footprint is bigger: Medics, economists, or environmentalists?

A new study suggests that conservationists could do a lot more to lower their own carbon footprints. But the best way to do this might be to advocate for making environmentally friendly choices more attractive and easier to adopt across the board.
October 17, 2017

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Conservationists have a smaller carbon footprint than economists or biomedical workers. But the differences are surprisingly modest, researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Vermont report in the journal Biological Conservation. The results suggest that the best way to get people to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors isn’t merely education — or even hectoring — but rather making it easy for people to do the right thing.

When conservationists fail to perform pro-environmental actions, this can lead to charges of hypocrisy and undermine the credibility of the conservation movement – witness the furor over Al Gore’s household energy bill.

The researchers set out to see whether or not conservationists typically walk the save-the-planet talk in their own daily lives, and to test the relationship between environmental knowledge and environmental action.

To do this, they sent a questionnaire to members of conservation, economics, and biomedical organizations. The survey asked respondents to gauge the importance they attach to the environment relative to other public policy concerns; quizzed their knowledge about environmental issues and carbon footprints; and probed 10 different environmental behaviors such as commuting to work, air travel, and recycling.

A total of 300 conservationists, 207 economists, and 227 people in the biomedical field responded to the survey. Overall, the environmental impact of conservationists is 16% lower than that of economists and 7% lower than that of biomedical workers, the researchers found.

Conservationists took fewer personal flights, took more actions to lower household energy use, recycled more, and ate less meat than either economists or biomedical workers. Still, on average conservationists took nine flights per year, ate meat or fish five times a week, and rarely purchased carbon offsets. They also owned more cats and dogs than the other groups.

“I don’t think conservationists are hypocrites, I think that we are human – meaning that some decisions are rational, and others, we rationalize,” says study co-author Brendan Fisher of the University of Vermont.

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The analysis showed that socioeconomic and demographic factors such as age, education level, and nationality predict the size of a person’s environmental footprint. But the researchers found little connection between knowing more about the environment and undertaking more environmentally friendly behaviors.

They also found fairly weak associations between different pro-environmental behaviors. This suggests that, contrary to what many people had hoped, relatively easy environmental actions such as recycling don’t tend to have a “gateway” effect promoting shifts in other behaviors.

On the other hand, values do matter. Across all three professions, people who say they care a lot about the environment also tend to have a smaller footprint. Economists who value the environment highly have similar environmental behaviors to conservationists.

The results suggest that conservationists could do a lot more to lower their own carbon footprints. But the best way to do this might be to advocate for making environmentally friendly choices more attractive and easier to adopt across the board.

“Structural changes are key. For example, providing more affordable public transport, or removing subsidies for beef and lamb production. Just look at the effect of improved collection schemes on the uptake of recycling,” says lead author Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge.

“The idea of ‘nudging’ – encouraging particular choices through changes in how cafes are laid out or travel tickets are sold, for instance – might have untapped potential to help us lower our footprint.” Balmford says. And that goes for conservationists as well as folks in other professions.

Source: Balmford A et al. “The environmental footprints of conservationists, economists and medics compared.” Biological Conservation2017


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