An introduction to the ESRC new
Environment and human behaviour
by Paul Ekins
Policy Studies Institute Programme Academic Co-ordinator
2.1 Root causes of human behaviour towards the environment
2.2 Popular responses to environmental change
policy responses to environmental change
and human behaviour
3. Key issues for environment and
3.1 Rapid Climate Change
Vulnerability, adaptability and resilience
3.2 Global Environmental Change
and Food Systems
3.3 Sustainable Mobility and
3.4 Urban Systems, Long Term Climate Change and Human Behaviour
3.5 Tourism and the Environment
3.6 Natural Capital
3.7 Other Research Areas
A New Opportunities Programme is the ESRC Research Priorities Board's
mechanism for synthesising existing research, and /or engaging in preliminary
research to set the agenda for future research investment. This introductory
paper to the ESRC's Environment and Human Behaviour New Opportunities
Programme combines and brings up to date two documents that were available
before the programme was commissioned the ESRC's Call for Proposals,
and a paper 'Some Initial Thoughts and Considerations' written by the
Programme Co-ordinator and illustrates these with some reference
to the projects now commissioned under the programme.
The Call for Proposals concentrated on a number of possible
research areas, in order to illustrate the sorts of topics and questions
with which the programme is concerned. The 'Initial Thoughts' paper focused
on some of the major factors that drive or influence human behaviour,
in these topic areas and more generally. With regard to human behaviour,
the programme is seeking to derive insights into three fundamental questions:
- Why do people behave as they do towards the natural environment?
- How do/will people seek to adapt their behaviour in response
to environmental change, especially rapid environmental change?
- What public policy approaches might persuade people to
change their behaviour, either to mitigate the extent of environmental
change (where it is negative), or to adapt to it in ways that do not
exacerbate it, and to change their behaviour in ways that are least
costly for society as a whole?
Individual research projects are approaching their subjects
in their own ways, and may be concerned only with one, or even a part
of one, of these questions. But it is hoped that the programme as a whole
will be able to draw some broad conclusions about all these questions,
applied to the diverse areas with which the projects are concerned.
Research under this programme will directly contribute to
the priority theme Environment and Human Behaviour, one of seven priority
themes of the ESRC. It is also likely to be relevant to the priority themes:
Work and Organisations; Knowledge, Communication and Learning; Economic
Performance and Development; Lifecourse, Lifestyles and Health; and Social
Stability and Exclusion. It is intended that research will build on previous
work under the Global Environmental Change Programme, and work undertaken
at the Transport Studies Unit, CSERGE and the Tyndall Centre. It will
also be complementary to the Research Groups on Poverty in the Developing
World, the Sustainable Technologies Programme, and the Centre on Corporate
Responsibility. This research will be interdisciplinary, drawing on as
many disciplinary perspectives as possible, including those from economics,
psychology, sociology, environmental planning, geography, transport research,
natural science and engineering.
Discussion of the fundamental questions
2.1 Root causes of human behaviour
towards the environment
Whatever the role of individual factors, human behaviour
towards the environment will be influenced by two more general considerations:
- Genetic predisposition: human genetic characteristics
have changed little since hunter-gatherer days, and it may be that archaic
genetic dispositions, that evolved over that much longer period of human
development, are relevant to modern attitudes and behaviours towards
- Social and cultural context: the social and cultural
norms of the societies in which individuals grow up and live will also
certainly affect their attitudes and behaviours towards the environment.
These norms can change far more quickly than genetic predispositions
(and, together with individual factors, may over-ride those predispositions).
However human behaviour may be formed and determined, there
is widespread evidence that it is currently damaging the environment in
a wide variety of ways. Some effects are purely local and their principal
immediate impacts are on human health (for example, local air or water
pollution). Others, at local, regional or global level, may have profound
impacts on ecosystems and environmental processes. Climate change is obviously
the clearest current example of such an effect, and it may have an impact
on every ecosystem, and hence every human society, in the world. Few people
damage the environment on purpose. Rather environmental damage is the
largely unintended result of a range of interacting trends, situations,
perceptions and motivations. These include:
- Population growth: ceteris paribus a large human population
will occupy more space and use more resources (thereby having a larger
environmental impact) than a small one.
- Economic growth: ceteris paribus a large economy will
use more environmental resources, and produce more wastes (thereby having
a larger environmental impact) than a small one. The distribution of
economic activity (for example, between manufacturing and services)
and which parts of the economy are growing will also be relevant here.
- Scientific ignorance or uncertainty: scientists may
not understand natural systems sufficiently to be able to predict the
results of human behaviour (for example, for the first three decades
of the use of CFCs, scientists did not even suspect that these chemicals
would damage the ozone layer).
- Popular ignorance: even when scientific knowledge about
certain environmental effects is well-established, people may the ignorant
- The existence of the effect
- The nature of the effect
- Their contribution to the effect
- How they can reduce their contribution to the effect, or its impact
- The power of preferences: even when people have full
information about the (negative) effect and the contribution of certain
behaviours to it, the attraction of these behaviours may be so great
that people may not be prepared to change them.
- The force of habit: even when people have full information
about the (negative) effect and the contribution of certain behaviours
to it, these behaviours may be so fundamental to people's habits and
lifestyles that their change is regarded as an unacceptable disruption.
- Different perceptions: people may not have the same
perceptions of what constitutes an environmental problem (for example,
those who drop litter may be expected to be less negatively affected
by heavily littered environments than those who do not).
2.2 Popular responses
to environmental change
The responses of people to environmental change will obviously depend
to a great extent on the change in question. A fundamental issue is people's
perceptions and understandings of the change and its impacts on them.
All the factors listed above under 'popular ignorance' are likely to be
People's understandings of environmental change now, or
likely environmental change in the future, can result in a number of different
kinds of action:
- Self-interested actions: people and organisations
may be expected to minimise their exposure to negative effects. The
impacts of their actions on markets and other social structures may
be profound (for example, recurring flooding due to climate change would
be likely to have a large effect on insurance premia and house prices
in affected areas). Self-interested actions in relation to negative
effects may also include attempts to persuade government to mitigate
the effects' impacts on those affected (for example, through compensation).
- Altruistic behaviour: altruistic behaviour, individually
or through old or new charities or other organisations, may be expected
from some people in response to the negative effects from environmental
change on others.
- Community-based mutual regulation: history provides
many examples (for example, mediaeval or crofting commons, allocation
of water rights, fishery protection) of more or less formal community
arrangements to manage pressure on local environmental resources. Many
of these approaches may still be relevant.
- Pressure for public policy: pressure will build
on governments for public policy changes which will either facilitate
adaptation to environmental change or, where it is negative, mitigate
its future extent. This leads to consideration of the third overarching
question posed at the start.
policy responses to environmental change
Public policy may seek to change human behaviour towards the environment
in a number of ways:
- By changing people's underlying values, beliefs and
worldviews: policy is not generally very effective at bringing about
these fundamental kinds of changes, which tend to evolve more slowly
in society. But it is possible for policy to contribute to such changes
- By providing information: information can both
educate people about, and change their attitudes to, environmentally
relevant issues. Environmental balance sheets or other indicator systems
can evaluate alternative courses of action.
- By changing incentives: policy can give people
incentives (financial or other kinds of positive incentives or negative
sanctions) to change their behaviour. Such policies (for example energy
taxes or those related to motoring) may involve difficult decisions,
which will need careful political analysis.
Even if successful in their immediate objectives, whether
such policies actually succeed in changing behaviour will depend on whether
they are sufficient to overcome the numerous barriers to change that exist
at many different levels, and in different ways for different issues.
The barriers may be institutional or infrastructural, related to social
norms or expectations, derive from existing habits, lifestyles or preferences,
or reflect shortages of time or money, or other priorities. A single barrier
of any of these kinds may be enough to prevent a public policy from having
its desired effect and, if the policy includes a sanction for not changing
behaviour, may generate political opposition so that it cannot be implemented.
Policy making needs to identify these barriers and explicitly
incorporate measures which will overcome them. For example, information
will need to be provided in such a way that it wins attention against
a host of competing messages. To be effective changed values or attitudes
will need to be accompanied by a commitment to action and knowledge how
to carry it out. It may be necessary to generate this commitment, or trust
or confidence, through seeking to inspire leadership locally or by supporting
community institutions or initiatives. Recommended behaviours must be
feasible and acceptable (including being perceived to be equitable) in
daily social life. Incentives to change behaviour must be sufficient to
compensate for disincentives, especially in terms of time or disruption
to daily routines. There must be a clear perceived benefit - to the individual,
local community or wider society - from the behaviour change. Many of
these points seem obvious, but they introduce a complexity into policy
making which is not always effectively addressed.
and human behaviour
Much environmentally relevant human behaviour is carried out through or
on behalf of organisations. Organisations are not just an aggregate of
the characteristics of the individuals which in some sense belong to or
act for them. They have their own aims and objectives, criteria for operation
and success, culture and norms, as well, of course, as being major owners
of land and other assets.
Many of the same considerations discussed earlier in this
section will still apply, but in this case they will need to be analysed
and interpreted in terms of the organisational characteristics above,
also taking into account the social context within which the organisation
is operating and the expectations which society has of it. Relevant issues
include the role of the public and private sectors, scale issues such
as the differences in response between large multinational companies and
small and medium enterprises, and the balance to be struck between central
and devolved action and decision making.
3. Key issues for
environment and human behaviour
The ESRC's Call for Proposals for this research programme. The Call listed
six topics as illustrative, but not definitive, areas for research under
the programme, drawing on the findings of previous ESRC research programmes,
especially the Global Environmental Change programme, where appropriate.
These topics have in common: opportunities identified from, but not covered
by, these earlier programmes, and a requirement for interdisciplinarity.
Climate Change Vulnerability, adaptability and resilience
Many natural scientists suggest that changes in global thermohaline circulation
in the North Atlantic have been the source of past rapid climatic fluctuations.
Ocean circulation has been shown to be highly sensitive to changes in
freshwater discharge even small changes in the amount of freshwater
entering the North Atlantic (as a result of melting polar ice from global
warming, for example) could force a large and rapid shift in patterns
of circulation. The impact of changes in ocean circulation could be catastrophic,
leading to rapid cooling in the climate of Northwest Europe, at the very
least by an average of 2 to 5 degrees, accompanied by a dramatic decrease
in precipitation leading to Siberian winter conditions.
The socio-economic implications of such events would be
enormous, impacting on: fuel poverty, the location of industrial activities;
agriculture, levels of energy demand and supply; transport systems; and
indeed lifestyles and culture within the UK. Previous research has focused
on the impacts of, and ability to adapt to, long term, gradual warming
the social and economic implications of rapid climatic change have
not been researched. Research will focus on: consideration of the social
and economic impacts of rapid climate change in the UK and Europe; the
vulnerability and resilience of the UK to rapid climate change; and the
ability of the UK to adapt to rapid climatic fluctuations.
NERC have recently announced rapid climate change in NW
Europe as a new scientific priority. In 1999 the UK and Norwegian Governments
agreed to collaborate on natural science issues related to rapid climate
change. It is hoped, by including this topic in this programme, to extend
this work to include the social sciences.
Project: Exploring Vulnerability
to Rapid Climate Change in Europe
This project seeks to assess the sensitivity and vulnerability to rapid
climate change of different parts of society and the economy, and to explore
how society might seek to adapt to it.
Project: Crises as Catalysts
for Adaptation: Human Responses to Major Floods
This project will assess the influence of four major flood events, and
their socio-economic, cultural and political contexts, on public policy,
and the mechanisms that were used to effect change in public policy and
human behaviour. Project: Rapid Climate Change in the UK: Towards an Institutional
Theory of Adaptation This project will seek to identify the key elements
of organisational structure and management that could facilitate adaptation
to rapid environmental change, and synthesise these into a theoretical
framework for examining organisations' adaptive potential in these circumstances.
Project: Predicting Thresholds
of Social Behavioral Responses to Rapid Climate Change
The project will seek to understand what constitutes 'rapid' climate change,
whether it involves thresholds of change, and how difference in social
context and background might affect individuals' responses to it.
3.2 Global Environmental
Change and Food Systems
Human activity is leading to globally important environmental changes
such as in change, supplies of freshwater, the cycling of nitrogen
and carbon, and biodiversity. The impact of these biophysical changes
will complicate the task of providing sufficient food of the right quality
to many sections of society.
Not all individuals and sections of society are equally
vulnerable to the effects of global environmental change on the provision
of food. The capacity to cope with existing and anticipated changes in
biophysical conditions, and the ability to perceive global environmental
change and adapt accordingly, is highly variable. Vulnerability of food
provision is a consequence of the interaction of biophysical conditions
and socio-economic factors. Understanding the link between global environmental
change and societal well being, and promoting effective intervention strategies
requires an innovative interdisciplinary approach. Research needs in this
area include: food provision; impacts of environmental change and vulnerability
in selected parts of the world; adaptation and coping mechanisms; and
environmental and socio-economic consequences of adaptations to environmental
Project: Integrating Social
Vulnerability into Research on Food Systems and Global Change
By exploring and synthesising different analytical perspectives, the project
aims to enhance understanding of how concepts of vulnerability of social
aspects of food systems to global environmental change can be integrated
with vulnerability concepts from natural science.
Mobility and Human Behaviour
Historically, transport improvements have offered new opportunities and
choices, not merely reductions in the time and monetary costs of established
journeys. As a result, the spatial patterning of human activity has been
increasingly dynamic. Car ownership has become a central feature of lives
in the West, and further increases in the volume of car traffic have been
projected. This is not simply due to increasing levels of affluence, but
the result of successive generations growing up within a culture characterised
by greater mobility in general, and personal car use in particular. In
a period in which mass car ownership has dominated mobility, there have
been significant changes in other economic and social factors, such as
the nature and terms of employment, the economic participation of women,
leisure activities, and the composition of social networks. This period
has also been characterised by growing levels of traffic congestion and
pollution. Promising topics for research are: choices, preferences and
behaviour; managing supply and demand; acceptable transport alternatives,
especially air and high-speed train; and the role of new technologies.
Project: Taxation Futures for
This project will explore whether it is possible to restructure transport
taxation in order to make it more successful at changing transport behaviour,
while maintaining government revenues.
Systems, Long Term Climate Change and Human Behaviour
Urban environments are particularly important when considering climate
change; they account for a large proportion of carbon emissions; they
are the locations of the wealth-creating enterprises that would be affected
by climate change; and they include large proportions of the population
that would be vulnerable to climate change. A co-evolutionary perspective
is beginning to emerge in which the interactions between social patterns,
cultures, local economies and the physical conditions of climatic variability
and climate change are considered. The impacts of climate change on cities
in the UK may result in beneficial impacts - lifestyle, community and
health improvements. However, impacts may also be detrimental, for example
increases in the incidence of flooding. Response to climate change mediates
the eventual impact climate will have on urban systems. There are two
possible responses mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions, and
adaptation to climate change. Mitigation may be achieved through building
design, energy efficiency measures, new transport strategies. Adaptation
may necessitate the re-design, re-building and re-configuration of urban
spaces. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recently noted
in 2000 that major retrofitting of our urban housing stock might be necessary
to achieve radical (-60%) cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. This challenge
poses major questions for planners, economists, building engineers and
architects. How could such a major programme be implemented? How can mitigation
and adaptation be best designed so that they are mutually compatible and
mutually-reinforcing in their effects? How do we avoid the situation where
the adaptation to climate change results in generation of more carbon
emissions, as in the installation of air conditioning? Key areas for research
in this area are mutually compatible mitigation and adaptation strategies,
and the whole range of issues covered under the general heading of sustainable
Project: Future Comforts: Re-conditioning
This project will explore how social conceptions of thermal need and comfort,
in the context of buildings, have become established, and how more sustainable
conceptions might take root in future.
and the Environment
Since the Rio Earth Summit there has been a steady increase in awareness
of the importance of environmental issues associated with travel and tourism.
As one of the world's fastest growing industries tourism can have widespread
environmental, social and economic consequences. The task of managing
the natural environment and the changes that are occurring will grow in
importance as the demand for tourism increases. The long-term success
of tourism depends not only on the management of cultural resources, built
attractions and infrastructure, but also on the conservation and protection
of the natural environment.
Social science research shows that real growth in tourism
is actually concentrated on domestic markets, contradicting the casual
observer's impression of increasingly dominant international activity.
This has important implications for the environment as the domestic tourist
market targets more environment-oriented activities, and domestic tourists
primarily use private vehicles to reach their destinations, with additional
environmental implications - such as air pollution and increased pressures
on transport infrastructure. Research needs in this area include: understanding
the drivers of tourism - choices, preferences and behaviour; exploring
growth in Eco-tourism; managing the environment for tourism; and environmental
impacts of tourist activities.
Project: Indigenous Peoples,
Environmental Change and Tourism in Extreme Environments
The project will explore a range of issues associated with environmental
change, traditional (indigenous) cultures and tourism development in extreme
environments, including these cultures' socio-cultural perceptions of
the environment and the negative environmental and social consequences
of this being ignored in the development of tourism.
The definition of capital as accumulated wealth in the form of investments,
factories and equipment is a familiar one. Human capital has had increasing
attention over the last 30 years. However, 'natural capital', which comprises
the resources we use both non-renewable and renewable has received
far less attention. Although these resources are often considered in terms
of material inputs, their most important value lies in the services they
provide. These resources include living systems that help provide a healthy
environment: clean air and water, climatic stability and waste processing.
Historically, economic development has faced a number of
limiting factors that have prevented growth, such as access to labour,
financial capital and technology. For the first time however, limits to
increased prosperity are not likely to be due to a lack of manufactured
capital, but a lack of natural capital to provide essential services.
Among other topics in this area, research is needed on the valuation of
natural capital; on the relationship between natural capital and quality
of life; and on growth models based on natural capital.
Project: Natural Capital: Metaphor,
Learning and Human Behaviour
The idea of natural capital has become an important component of the sustainable
development discourse, emphasising the productivity of natural systems
and allowing this to be compared with that of other forms of capital.
But it may also be understood as a metaphor, useful for learning about
and understanding natural systems. The project will explore this role
of natural capital and its implications for education, theory and policy
related to sustainability.
As noted above, the six research areas listed in the Call for Proposals
were only intended to be illustrative of the kinds of areas it was envisaged
the research would cover. In the event, projects were commissioned in
a range of other areas as well.
Project: Listening to Children:
Environmental Perspectives and the School Curriculum
This project will seek to understand how children in a relatively deprived
urban setting understand their environment, and how the relevance of the
school curriculum to these experiences, and the children's environmental
activism, can be increased in a participatory way.
Project: Tilting at Windmills?
The Attitude-Behaviour Gap in Renewable Energy Conflicts
This project will explore the complex human attitudes and behaviour in
respect of proposed renewable energy developments, particularly wind farms,
thereby deepening understanding between these attitudes and behaviour,
and human values and renewable technologies, which may be used to inform
Project: UK Small Firms and
Their Response to Environmental Pressures
This project will explore small firms' attitudes towards, and responses
to, the environment and environmental regulation, in order to compare
these with predictions from ecological modernisation theory and to generate
policy-relevant insights into small firms' environmental behaviour.
Project: Middle Class Environmental
Values in India: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue
This project will explore the environmental values of India's sizeable
middle classes, with reference especially to their dynamism, complexity
and influence in relation to various environmental issues and threats.
Project: Appraisal, Institutional
Learning and Sustainability: Defining a New Agenda
This project will explore the role of appraisal in the political process,
and the ways in which it may help to modify the beliefs, values and behaviour
of individuals and organisations, with a view to developing a new theoretical
framework for appraisal, and appraisal practice that is better informed
by social science.
Project: Environmental Issues
and Human Behaviour in Low-Income Areas of the UK
Focusing on low-income communities, this project will examine the relationship
between human behaviour and environmental issues, and between the environmental
issues that are most relevant locally and wider national concerns with
sustainable development, with a view to informing policy initiatives for
positive social and environmental change.
It is clear that the potential subject matter for this research programme
spans many different disciplines and can be approached in many different
ways. The size of the programme will not allow all of them to be covered,
but the projects between them cover a broad range of the relevant issues.
It is to be hoped that in the course of the programme interesting connections
between the projects will emerge, and the programme as a whole will prove
to be more than the sum of its parts. This in turn may generate a really
rich agenda for further research work, so that this fascinating area may
become much better understood than at present.
Professor Paul Ekins
Policy Studies Institute