Culture drives attitudes about climate

PENN STATE (US) — Consumerism and contraception have a significant impact on people’s attitudes about climate change, according to a new study.

“Engaging in one type of environmentally friendly behavior can predispose one to engage in similar behaviors, inhibit other behaviors, or even increase environmentally harmful behaviors,” says Janet Swim, professor of psychology at Penn State.

The research, published in the journal American Psychologist, finds that growing consumption and growing population factor into the state of the environment as they both substantially increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

People’s perceptions of how their behavior affects the environment influences how they act, Swim says. If people don’t believe that the choices they make will substantially improve the environment, then they are less likely to participate in activities like recycling, turning off lights when leaving a room, or car pooling.

Some behaviors offset environmental gains. If a family buys a fuel-efficient vehicle but chooses to drive more miles than they previously did, there is no gain for the environment. Also, while the average U.S. household size is decreasing, Americans are generally choosing to live in larger homes, counteracting the energy savings on heating and cooling that could be made in smaller spaces.

Decisions about environmental consumption and behaviors that use environmental resources are influenced by culture as well as an individual’s abilities and motivations, Swim says.

Some cultural factors are structural. As people began moving further away from city centers, cars become important for transportation. Other cultural factors, however, influence perceived needs and desires. The types of cars people drive and how fast people drive influence how much gasoline is consumed. People’s cars and speed are often both influenced by advertising and others’ purchasing and driving behaviors.

People adjust their explanations for behaviors in ways that allow them to maintain their consumer lifestyles. Carpool lanes decrease carbon dioxide emissions and lower costs of commuting. But an earlier study, found that prior to the existence of carpool lanes commuters said carpooling was too expensive. After carpool lanes were available, commuters were surveyed again and reported that flexibility prevented them from carpooling.

Contraceptive use is also influenced by cultural and individual abilities and needs. Population growth in India has in part been attributed to the importance placed on male children, creating a cultural need to have more children in order to increase the number of sons.

Individually people often consider the emotional value of children when determining how many children to have. However in some circumstances people consider the environmental effects as well, Swim says.

“For example, in Nepal if people felt that “environmental destruction had influenced their agricultural productivity (they) were more likely to use contraceptives.”

Researchers from the College of Wooster and the University of Notre Dame contributed to the study.

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