We have met the enemy . . . and they is us

mountain-home.jpgWhy is the world in the trouble that it’s in? We could cite a long litany of reasons, but ultimately it boils down to the large and increasing number of people on earth, and our large and increasing appetites, broadly speaking. The first of these reasons is why population control is the elephant in the room in all our discussions about achieving a sustainable future. It is transparently clear that the ship, and we the passengers, are going down if global population is not stabilized, and even reduced. But the subject is so exquisitely sensitive, politically and culturally, that few people will touch it with (to quote the narrator in “The Grinch”) a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.

So we turn to the other term in the equation: per capita resource use. Most of us in the “developed” world understand, with a sense of more or less acute discomfort, that the glare is on us here. I saw on a TV program not long ago that the average American has the ecological footprint of some 90 Bangladeshis. Ouch. Think about that the next time you (I) pontificate about population control, necessary as it is.

Now there is a new study out to make American environmentalists even more uncomfortable. In a recent issue of Conservation Biology, Peterson and colleagues basically asked the question whether environmentalists are putting their money (not the odd check to World Wildlife Fund but their big money, in the form of home construction) where their mouths are.

The answer, in a word, is no.

Peterson et al. worked in the Teton Valley of Idaho and Wyoming, an area that is developing extremely rapidly, and largely due to influx of people looking for “natural amenity value” — beautiful landscapes, outdoor activities, and so on. The authors collected data on age, income, education level, and other demographics from a randomly selected sample of 416 households, and also scored the individuals on the “New Environmental Paradigm” (NEP) scale:

“The NEP measures broad attitudes toward the environment that influence attitudes toward a wide range of more specific environmental factors (e.g., forests, erosion, pollution, endangered species . . . ). The NEP addresses 5 theoretical dimensions with 3 questions for each: endorsement of limits to growth, antianthropocentrism, belief in future ecocrisis, belief in a fragile nature, and rejection of human exemptionalism (i.e., the notion that humans are free to do as they please because they are exempt from the laws of nature). Scores can range from 15 to 75, but are often positively skewed. Environmentalists (e.g., members of known environmental organizations) consistently score higher on the NEP than the general public or members of nonenvironmental organizations.”

peterson.gifIn a nutshell, the authors show that more educated, and environmentally oriented individuals are much more likely to build houses in environmentally sensitive areas, whereas individuals with less education and less environmentally aware attitudes are more prone to settle in existing residential developments, where their per capita impact is less (the graph at left shows the “selection ratio”, i.e., propensity to build a home in a sensitive area, in relation to age, education, and NEP score). To make matters worse, those homesteading in formerly wild areas tend to have smaller household sizes and therefore, more house per person, amplifying their per capita impacts. In other words, educated, environmentally conscious Americans have more, not less, detrimental impacts on the environment.

Interestingly, these direct data from household location contrast with prior indirect evidence suggesting neutral or positive effects of education and pro-environment attitudes on impact. To quote the cartoon strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Another somewhat unsettling finding was a weakly negative relationship between environmental sensitivity (as indexed by NEP score) and the length of time as a resident in a natural area. This presumably reflects assimilation into the local culture (in the same way that I occasionally use the word “y’all” despite having grown up in northern Virginia suburbia, the son of solid midwesterners). But, on the surface at least, it seems to go against the conventional wisdom that contact with nature engenders respect for it and action to protect it.

Being an older (?), overeducated, environmentally conscious individual, I naturally became defensive. So I took a look around: OK, I live in a house on the water, admittedly. But it was built in 1920 — so I’m not to blame! I’m recycling! And it’s certainly quite a bit smaller and less grandiose than the new houses of many of my acquaintances over in the “big city” in Williamsburg, where forest has been giving way to McMansions at an alarming rate over the last decade or two.

But that is not much comfort. The real messages are that we need to be aware of what we are doing, and we need to practice what we preach. Walk the walk, in the current parlance. As the authors note:

“A household perspective for biodiversity conservation expects environmentalists with higher levels of education to sacrifice what they want (e.g., a home on a river, on a mountain side, or on fragile desert soils) before expecting the poor or individuals with lower levels of education to sacrifice what they need for basic living (e.g., heating, health care, college education for their children) in the name of biodiversity conservation.”

There is one more issue that bothered me while reading this, and it brings us back to the first term in the equation above, that of population growth. This analysis addresses per capita impacts — it is essentially a snapshot of what is happening at a single moment in time. What happens if we wind the tape (an archaic analogy nowadays, I realize) forward? How do these trends translate to population-level impacts? To answer this, we need to know the population trajectories of the different demographic groups — their average numbers of children, age at first reproduction, etc. If, as seems likely, individuals with more years of education tend, on average, to have lower reproductive rates and/or later age at first reproduction, their per capita impacts will be partially offset by their lower contribution to future population growth. So their (my) long-term impacts may be less egregious than this analysis suggests. It would be interesting to supplement the analysis in this paper with population projections of the different demographic groups. But I will leave that to the modelers.

[Source: Peterson, M.N., Chen, X.D. and Liu, J.G., 2008. Household Location Choices: Implications for Biodiversity Conservation. Conservation Biology 22: 912-921.]

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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