Published: March 24, 2014

Conservation needs more than simply good intentions

Contact(s): Layne Cameron Media Communications office: (517) 353-8819 cell: (765) 748-4827, Thomas Dietz Sociology office: (517) 353-8763, Sue Nichols Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability office: (517) 432-0206

People need more than good intentions to reduce their environmental footprint. In fact, scientists are learning that a personal footprint is hard to see.

Thomas Dietz, Michigan State University environmental sociologist, says it’s becoming painfully obvious that good intentions aren’t enough. Research is showing that people consistently miss the mark when estimating household energy use. Beliefs and values tend to affect individual’s estimates about how much of resources, in this case water, households use.

It turns out that pledges to save the Earth can become muted when costs or hassle factors emerge. Dietz points out the need to more fully understand how people make decisions in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What each individual does to conserve resources is very small, but if that behavior is replicated by others, it can have a huge impact,” Dietz said. “But what we need to do to have effective policies is to understand how people are motivated and how to educate them so they’ll know what to do.”

Both, he notes, are tricky matters. In his PNAS commentary, inspired by the work of Shahzeen Attari at Indiana University, Dietz notes that Attari’s findings about how people miscalculate their use of household water and how that accuracy varies by age and gender. Her work also points out that people are better at estimating water consumption than they are energy consumption, perhaps in part boggled by the relatively abstract nature of a kilowatt versus the concrete nature of a gallon.

Dietz says individuals can make a difference. The United States could reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by more than seven percent with policies that encourage more efficient energy consumption. That would be akin to eliminating all of France’s greenhouse emissions, he said.

Attaining that level, however, means understanding the subtleties of how people make decisions. Motivating a consumer has dubious benefits if the person doesn’t know what to do. And even the best ideas can be dashed if obstacles seem greater than motivation.

“If you leave people to themselves, there’s no guarantee they’ll pick the best things to do,” Dietz said. “It’s important to know how people misunderstand what the potential is of what they do. We’ll always get the wrong answer if we look only at part of the picture.”

Dietz’s research is supported by MSU AgBioResearch.

Thomas Dietz, MSU environmental sociologist; photo by Kurt Stepnitz

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