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The Next Frontier: Individual and Household Environmental Behavior

On April 22, 2005, the Environmental Law Institute co-sponsored with the Vanderbilt University Law School, Owen Graduate School of Management, and Vanderbilt Center for the Study of Religion & Culture a symposium entitled: The Next Environmental Frontier: Individual and Household Environmental Behavior. The Symposium focused on the emerging problem of individual and household environmental behavior. It reached across academic disciplines, and across the academic, policy, non-profit and business worlds to explore the current state of theory and practice. The morning session brought together scholars from a range of disciplines to examine the extent to which individual and household behavior is an important source of environmental harms, and the theories and methods available to reduce those harms. The afternoon session focused on individual and household contributions to water pollution, and expanded the discussion by adding the views of government, non-profit and business leaders. The afternoon session tested the academic understandings articulated in the morning against the experiences and activities among environmental practitioners. The Symposium provided an unusual opportunity for an interactive dialogue between the academy, law, policy and business to identify promising new measures and critical research needs regarding the environmental effects of individual and household behavior.

View the Symposium Agenda

Related Articles:
The following articles related to the Symposium appeared in the November 2005 issue of ELR News & Analysis. Purchase the entire November 2005 issue.

“The Individual as Polluter” by Michael P. Vandenbergh
Editors’ Summary: Individuals are the largest source of dioxin emissions, contribute almost one-third of all ozone precursor emissions, and are a far larger source of several other air toxics than all large industrial sources combined. Thus, after more than 30 years of regulation largely directed at industry, individual behavior has emerged as a leading source of pollution. Prof. Michael P. Vandenbergh argues that treating individual behavior as a discrete source of pollution can lead to the development of viable, innovative regulatory instruments that have the prospect of achieving pollution reductions at a relatively low cost. The creation of an individual toxic release inventory, for example, is one such tool. Drawing on the work of norms scholars and leading social psychologists, Professor Vandenbergh argues that environmental norm activation theory can identify the information that is most likely to induce changes in environmental behavior and can help policymakers develop new tools for inducing such change.

“Controlling Pollution by Individuals and Other Dispersed Sources” by Daniel A. Farber
Editors’ Summary: Because many of the factors that make it difficult to control pollution by individuals also apply to small businesses and farms, Prof. Daniel Farber argues that individuals and owner-operated businesses should be considered as part of the same universe of dispersed sources. Effectively dealing with such dispersed sources will involve many techniques, some of which avoid the need to rely on motivational mechanisms. Nevertheless, the motivations of such “mini-polluters” must be explored, and lessons from the corporate world are quite instructive in this regard. Pressure fromoutsiders seems to play an important role in motivating environmentally friendly corporate behavior. Thus, Professor Farber recommends putting similar pressure on mini-polluters by increasing the availability of critical information to surrounding communities. Alternatively, the problem of controlling mini-polluters could be “outsourced” to large firms experienced with influencing consumer behavior.

“Individual and Household Environmental Behavior: What Does Economics Contribute to the Discussion?” by Mark A. Cohen
Editors’ Summary: This Article looks at the issue of individuals and their impact on the environment from an economist’s perspective. Prof. Mark Cohen reviews the underlying economic theory of individual behavior as it relates to environmental issues and examines two categories of consumer environmental behavior: individual and household behavior in response to government activities, and consumer purchase behavior in response to product marketing and advertising campaigns. He finds that rational, utility-maximizing individuals might find it in their own interest to take actions that protect the environment—even if they do not personally receive the full benefits of that environmental improvement.

“Social Norms and Individual Environmental Behavior” by Ann E. Carlson
Editors’ Summary: In this Article, Prof. Ann Carlson argues that although appealing to environmental values as a means to instill behavioral change will, in most instances, work less well than reliance on other regulatory tools, voluntary behavioral change may nevertheless be necessary either to achieve marginal environmentally friendly behavior or because no good regulatory alternative exists. She therefore evaluates those circumstances in which there may be no alternative but to rely on voluntary behavioral change and suggests ways to increase such change. Professor Carlson finds that social norms may work well for convenient, one-shot behavior requiring no real sacrifice on the part of the individual. Conversely, a social norm is less likely to succeed in inducing behavior change if the requisite behavior is onerous or cumbersome, if the behavior requires sustained behavioral change, or if the individual gains something from engaging in the environmentally harmful behavior.

“Norms as Limited Resources” by Steven Hetcher
Editors’ Summary: Despite its need for a constant supply of altruistic behavior, recycling has grown steadily in the United States over the past few decades, making it the most successful—and most puzzling—of the environmental norms. In this Article, Prof. Steven Hetcher uses the recycling norm as a means for teaching us about motivational assumptions regarding human behavior. In the past, scholars have taken an all-or-nothing approach toward the methodological assumption regarding human motivation; either people are basically narrowly self-interested or people are basically moral. This Article argues that the study of the recycling norm supports a third position, one that falls between these two extremes.

“Understanding Individuals’ Environmentally Significant Behavior” by Paul C. Stern
Editors’ Summary: Individual behavior impacts the environment, but what impacts individual behavior? Effective laws and regulations, strong financial incentives and penalties, social pressure, and the like leave little room for personal values to influence behavior. It is only when these contextual influences are weak that personal factors are likely to play a larger role. Paul Stern therefore argues that the best way to change behavior depends on the behavior and its context and that interventions in the context are more effective than targeting individuals directly with verbal appeals, information, or other efforts to change attitudes or beliefs. And because a variety of factors influence behavior, creative approaches involving multiple influences on behavior offer the greatest potential for change.

“Driving Change: Public Policies, Individual Choices, and Environmental Damage” by Trip Pollard
Editors’ Summary: Transportation and land development patterns are a primary cause of many pressing environmental problems, including air and water pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and wetlands, and global climate change. These patterns result in large part from individual decisions such as whether to drive, what to drive, how much to drive, and where to live. Yet changing environmentally harmful individual behavior is particularly difficult when the government subsidizes such behavior and when public policies present barriers to less environmentally damaging alternatives. In this Article, Trip Pollard argues that halting subsidies for destructive behavior, removing barriers to less destructive alternatives, and providing more sustainable alternatives would provide individuals with a broader range of less environmentally damaging transportation and housing choices.