Closing the green value-behaviour gap

A number of events have serendipitously come together to provide the topic for this week's column.

First, I had the pleasure of being part of Cherise Chrispen's masters thesis defense at UNBC this week. The topic was consumption on the impact on sea turtle conservation. While a significant part of the work was focused on a particular community of consumers (specifically those who are members of sea turtle conservation groups) the work spoke to the general problems that plague sea turtle habitats.

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A serious challenge to most marine life is plastic, including straws. This observation connects with the excellent article that Todd Whitcombe wrote the other day (Breaking down plastic's place, April 12, Citizen). His column outlined the different types of polymers that are used in the making of plastics and their capacity to breakdown after they are disposed. So when I saw the headline on the front page of The Citizen, "Straw poll finds support for reduced waste at local restaurant" I knew what I would write about.

I think that some of the most fascinating scholarly literature is about environmental values versus environmental behavior. There is an excellent body of work that looks at the disconnect between what people believe and value and how they actually behave. I am the first to admit that I am in this category and often I behave in ways that do not support my values about the need to protect the environment.

As I said, there is a lot of literature but for the sake of space here I am going to look at one article that looks specifically at Canadian attitudes and behaviours regarding environmental practices. The paper is called Why We Don't "Walk the Talk": Understanding the Environmental Values / Behaviour Gap, co-authored by Kennedy, Beckley, McFarlane and Nadeau.

It was written in 2009 but is still relevant in terms of its findings. To summarize the piece, the authors completed a nationwide survey to explore the reasons for the value- behavior gap among ordinary citizens.

They discovered that "(a)ppoximately 72 per cent of respondents 'self-report' a gap between their intentions and their actions."

The authors explored three areas of inquiry to see why the gap exists: explanations related to the individual, explanations related to the household and explanations related to society.

There are a few hypotheses about the individual. First the authors note that "(m)ost of us have a number of fundamental values that guide our behavior, and one value can be violated while another is acted upon."

They use the example of choosing the value of frugality over the environmental benefits of choosing organically-grown food.

Our environmental beliefs also might be impacted by which paradigm, or lens, we use in relation to the fundamental relationship that humans have with the Earth: do we 1) believe that humans should dominate nature and that technological advance will fix whatever damage we do or 2) that "...humans and other species are intricately connected, (and) that resources are limited and should be used conservatively..."

Finally, the authors hypothesize that there is an overwhelming amount of information about the environment and some of the information may be contradictory as so individuals are not sure how to behave.

Second, in term of the household factors they wonder about the impact of relationships in the household.

Do other members support or subvert environmental behavior? The authors wonder if time may be an important factor: are individuals constrained by their range of responsibilities "beyond...(those) at work and in the home?" Could household finances restrict our capacity to make certain choices?

Third, there are societal variables in question: first, is the perceived control over the decision and second is the access to community environmental services.

In the first case, individuals may feel that they do not have a broad range of choices about energy alternatives and, in the second case, individuals may not have access to "easy and convenient recycling."

The findings are interesting and I will summarize a few here. Canadians certainly do recognize a gap between their values and their actions.

Thus, I come full circle back to the headline about local businesses phasing out straws. Our environmental value-behavior gap might, at least in part, be solved by the choices of others to guide us to the right actions.

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