Can voluntary behaviour save our environment?

7 March 2011

New research shows that governments will need to persist with regulation, pricing and incentives, writes Peter Newton

RECENT newspaper articles overseas and at home have been pointing to the need for a change in our lifestyles and behaviour if we are to confront and overcome a number of key challenges confronting us this century. Foremost among these are a resource-constrained world and a climate constrained world. ‘Constrained’ is code for having to learn to do things differently. In relation to the first-mentioned constraint, Paul Krugman, American Nobel prize winner in economics suggested recently in the New York Times that: “What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world, in which the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices… So what are the implications of the recent rise in commodity prices? It is, as I said, a sign that we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding. This won’t bring an end to economic growth, let alone a descent into Mad Max-style collapse. It will require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources.”

In relation to the second-mentioned constraint – associated with global warming and climate change – and the pressure this is beginning to place on societies to alter their long established energy use practices, the Age’s Shaun Carney has observed that “there’s a gap between accepting a theory [of man made climate change] and embracing the real economic, social and lifestyle costs that inevitably flow from taking action. In other words, when its just an idea, its easy to endorse. When it looks like it will cost money and force changes in behaviour, it starts to become less attractive.”

The point that both columnists are making is this: we must be prepared, as members of high income developed societies, to change our behaviour in relation to how we consume.

Voluntary behaviour change is a much favoured instrument of government when it comes to altering how its constituents consume: water, energy, housing, domestic appliances, urban travel etc. The dominant neo-liberal philosophy tends to be one of providing information so individuals can make rational decisions about what it is they need to change… in their own interest. Regulation, pricing and incentives are less preferred by government as avenues to behaviour change. Millions of dollars are spent on such information campaigns. But to what effect?

In a parallel universe we find the marketing and advertising professions hard at work creating ‘lifestyle’ segmentations of the population that are meant to connect consumers to the next big thing being manufactured for ‘people like them’. Product manufacturers pay handsomely for these ‘insights’.

So, how do governments ‘sell’ the notion of the need to change our (consumption) behaviour for the good of our planet as well as our future generations… two concepts viewed by many at present as beyond comprehension or interest. Shaun Carney speculates that Greens voters “will have no trouble with this message… But when you move past that segment of the society, most of which resides in the inner suburbs of the big cities, an effective carbon pricing regime starts to become a harder sell”. Are there lifestyle groups that are already sensitised and are displaying different patterns of behaviour?

A recently completed study on consumption behaviour in Melbourne funded by the Australian Research Council throws some light on this question. From interviews with over 1200 Melburnians, three environmental lifestyle segments emerged to which residents could be assigned. The Committed Greens cluster was the only group whose members indicated a willingness to pay more tax as well as higher utility charges if it would benefit the environment – indicating a willingness to personally outlay hard cash if environmental benefits will accrue. It was in this group that a high percentage agreeed that the environment should be the highest priority even if it hurts the economy. This group also strongly disagreed that the expense is not worth the benefits, affirming the need for environment to take higher priority over economy.

This group was highly consistent with its ‘green choice’ behaviours related to purchase of green labelled products, declining use of plastic bags and volunteering time for green projects. In terms of environmental beliefs, this group strongly disagrees with statements such as ‘The environmental crisis is exaggerated’, ‘I have more important things to do’, ‘There is no regulation requiring me to’, ‘Reducing my household’s energy and water consumption is not worth the trouble’ and ‘It’s not my responsibility’. In summary, Committed Greens were: strongly pro-environment in beliefs, in behavioural preferences and in indicating a willingness to sacrifice economically for an environmental benefit. Demographically, this cluster tends to be university-educated, on higher incomes and live in inner Melbourne.

The Material Greens cluster was vehemently opposed to paying more taxes or higher utility charges from their household budget. There was a moderate level of support for the view that the environment should have a high priority vis-à-vis the economy and a sense that the balance of nature is delicate and easily upset; but a majority agreed that the expense is probably not worth the benefits and – as a bottom line position – they are not willing to pay! Members of this group will be pro-purchase of green labelled products and will avoid use of plastic bags, but are unlikely to donate the hours to voluntary environmental work that characterises the ‘committed green’ cluster of households. In terms of environmental beliefs, this group tends to fall between the ‘committed greens’ and the ‘enviro-sceptics’, viewing the environment as important, but not worth paying for, especially by themselves as individuals, either in terms of dollars or time – basically, only when it does not ‘cost’ them. Demographically, this cluster is linked to families with children, on lower incomes and living in outer Melbourne.

The Enviro-Sceptics group has a low level of preparedness to make higher personal payments for the environment and a high level of agreement that the expense would not be worth the benefits. It is also the group that has the lowest level of agreement with propositions that the environment should be the highest priority. This translates into attitudes and practices towards what could be termed ‘green choices’, with the lowest proportions choosing to buy green labelled products, give up plastic bags or donate time for voluntary environmental projects. In terms of environmental beliefs, a relatively high percentage in this group believe that the environmental crisis is exaggerated, that they have more important things to focus on, that there is no regulation requiring them to change and that it’s not their responsibility. Demographically, this cluster tends to be male-dominated as well as older and is dispersed across the city.

So, are lifestyle groups purporting to being aligned to environmental sustainability values, attitudes and intentions actually exhibiting lower rates of consumption of water, energy, housing space, domestic appliances and urban travel? The answer was: no (at least at aggregate level). Voluntary behaviour change will be no easy task – even for ‘committed greens’. Governments will need to persist with regulation, pricing and incentives. •

Peter Newton is Research Professor in Sustainable Urbanism at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology. This article is drawn from Consumption in a Growing and Urbanising World (CSIRO Publishing, forthcoming August).

Photo: Andrew Jeffrey

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Peter Newton, 2011, Can voluntary behaviour save our environment?, Uncategorised, viewed 28 July 2016, <>.

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