When environmentalism does more harm than good

In general, people will pay three times more for an energy efficient CFL light bulb than a traditional incandescent. But, stick a “Protect the Environment” label on the energy-efficient option and conservatives become much less likely to buy the CFL.1

What happened? There’s no difference in the economic or environmental benefits from the sticker. Lots of people are just turned off by environmentalism. The sticker’s environmental plea invokes a spiteful response: I’m not going to choose the money-saving option that I would have otherwise, because those damn environmentalists want me to.

And this doesn’t just happen among really conservative folks; it actually reaches across the political center. In the graph, which goes from politically “left” to “right,” the “Protect the Environment” sticker starts doing more harm than good at the point where the lines cross. That happens well over on the left side of the political spectrum. It’s only among the far-left that the sticker makes people more likely to buy the energy- efficient option.

What is the environmental movement doing to invoke this spite? Probably several things, and some of it may be intrinsic to environmentalism’s conflict with this culture’s current conceptualization of quality of life. But one thing we can point to is the doom-and-gloom warnings that are so common among environmentalists and environmental scientists.

Dire warnings invoke fear and make people defensive. They’re great for grabbing attention, but terrible for motivating change.2

So I was happy to see this op-ed in the New York Times. It’s written by a potentially shady group called the Breakthrough Institute, and they egregiously conflate dire projections with exaggerated claims, but they nail this critical point: Showing people how bad a situation is–which has become the environmental movement’s modus operandi–turns them off.

If we’re serious about motivating change, we need to deliver positive messages that contain “[n]onthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals’ everyday emotions and concerns.”2

I’m not saying that’s easy. There’s plenty to be dire about. But we need solutions. And if we’re not careful about how we engage with the public, we’re as likely to do harm as good.

Relevant literature:

  1. Gromet, D.M., Kunreuther, H., and Larrick, R.P. (2013). Political ideology affects energy-efficiency attitudes and choices. PNAS 110, 9314–9319.

  2. O’Neill, S., and Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations. Science Communication 30, 355–379.