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How green are conservationists: Comparing environmental footprints

Nov. 30th 2017
Environmental footprint

Conservationists often focus on trying to change people’s behaviors by encouraging people to do pro-environmental actions, like eating less meat and cutting back on flying. Researchers, including University of Vermont Associate Professor Brendan Fisher, conducted a study to test whether conservationists are “practicing what they preach” by regularly incorporating these pro-environmental actions into their lives. Their aim was to understand conservationists’ own behavior and shortcomings and use this to shed light on ways to improve behaviors of those inside and outside of the conservation movement.

This study asked those self-identifying as conservationists to fill out a questionnaire. The results of these questionnaires were compared with those of self-identified economists and medics, groups chosen based on shared characteristics with conservationists, such as educational attainment, to help put the findings into context.

Respondents were asked to rank the environment’s importance compared with education, the economy, healthcare and immigration. Over 700 participants filled out multiple-response questions focused on behaviors that positively or negatively impact the environment and over which individuals have some level of control, like walking or biking to work, use of bottled water, and recycling habits. Assessments were adjusted to take into consideration participants’ demographics and other variables that may influence pro-environmental behaviors.

Overall, conservationists had a somewhat smaller footprint, and ranked the environment as more important compared to economists and medics. Conservationists performed somewhat better regarding pro-environmental behaviors with a more significant contribution to people’s footprints, such as reducing amount of meat consumed. However, there was no difference across the three groups for less impactful pro-environmental behaviors, like reducing bottled water use.

Researchers also explored the associations between environmental knowledge and pro-environmental behaviors. They assumed conservationists had more exposure to environmental knowledge, which would impact their individual footprint scores. Notably, environmental knowledge scores were no different between conservationists and economists. The study found that there was no strong evidence that knowledge about the environment promotes adoption of pro-environmental actions. These results reflect findings from other studies, which indicate factors like social norms, income, and infrastructure have more of an effect on shaping behavior than knowledge does. Focusing on influencing peoples’ values, rather than increasing their environmental knowledge might improve the impact of conservation education.

Furthermore, the study examined whether pro-environmental behaviors that people undertake in one aspect of their lives carried over to other domains. The results showed that promoting less impactful behavioral changes, like recycling more, do not carry over into other pro-environmental behavioral domains. Based on these results, the researchers suggest that efforts to encourage people to undertake pro-environmental behaviors should center on audience-specific strategies targeting those behaviors (such as flying, diet and family size) that have the most impact on the environment.

Overall, while the results showed that conservationists had lower footprints when compared with the other two groups, especially regarding high-impact actions, there is still room for improvement. Encouraging societal wide behavior changes would be best if conservationists led by example and improved upon the environmentally beneficial behaviors they are already doing by continuing to take steps as a movement to reduce their footprints.