by Xue Ni Koh
The last Saturday of the third month at 8.30pm, lights will switch off all around the globe, for this one hour.
That’s tonight. Earth hour’s tonight.
It first started in one single city, Sydney. What started as a way to bring the community to acknowledge the importance of conserving Mother Earth’s natural resources, became a global symbol of hope and movement for change. In 2010, Earth Hour has created history as the biggest voluntary action yet, with 128 countries and more than 4500 cities.
So what makes people switch their lights off? Why do they care? What motivated them to act environmentally? Why do they go through the trouble of sitting in the dark for 60 minutes? Would their action go beyond these 60 minutes?
Over the last 30 years, psychologists and sociologists have been searching for the answer to these questions, or in particular, the answer to the questions: “Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour?” By “pro-environmental behaviour”, it means the behaviour that consciously seeks to minimize the negative impact of one’s actions on the natural and built world (e.g. minimize resource and energy consumption, reduce waste production). However, the answers to those questions are extremely complex and cannot be visualised through one single framework.
Kollmuss and Agyeman had analysed the factors that were found to have some influence, positive or negative, on pro-environmental behaviour.
A few of the factors they mentioned were external factors, mainly the institutional, economic, social and cultural factors. I personally thought the institutional factors have quite an influence on people’s decision and behaviour towards the environment. As Kollmuss and Agyeman mentioned, many pro-environmental behaviours can only take place if the necessary infrastructures are provided, infrastructures such as recycling bins or public transport. I mean, if you had the choice, would you take a bus with broken seats and no air-conditioning, or would you rather be comfortable in your own car?
Of course, there are also the internal factors: motivation, environment knowledge, awareness, values, attitudes, emotion, locus of control, responsibilities and priorities. In my opinion, these are the true factors that strongly influence a pro-environmental behaviour. But, how often do people say “I shall bike to work today, even though it’ll rain.”? It was proposed that people choose the pro-environmental behaviours that demand the least cost. People who care about the environment tend to engage in activities such as recycling, but they do not necessarily engage themselves in activities that are more costly and inconvenient, such as driving less.
Barriers, these are the ones stifling one’s pro-environmental behaviour. Kollmuss and Agyeman hypothesized that primary motives, such as altruistic and social values, are often covered up by the more immediate selective values, which revolves around one’s own needs.
So is this why people act environmentally? Are these factors really encouraging pro-environmental behaviours? Or are these just causing people to act pro-environmentally without doing it out of environmental concern? Whereby, you are taking the bus solely because you do not want to spend time finding a parking spot, and then having to pay for a parking ticket. What is more, by taking the bus, you get to save petrol too. This, I think, is not a pro-environmental behaviour. You do not say, “I shall take the bus to save Mother Nature!” Ecological economists like to take advantage of this fact. By imposing taxes on environmentally harmful activities, people will automatically search for alternatives. For example, in countries with high gasoline tax, people tend to drive significantly less. From this, some cautioned that such unconscious environmental behaviour can easily be changed to a more unsustainable pattern because it is not based on fundamental values.
However, not all is bad. We can still make changes. As Mahatma Gandhi had said,
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
I’ll be switching off my lights tonight. Will you?
Kollmuss, A and J Agyeman. 2002. Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research 8(3): 239- .