Collective Action, Environmental Activism, and Air Quality Policy

Article excerpt

This article attempts to respond to Ostrom's call for a behavioral model of collective action by generalizing the collective interest model of mass political action to explain citizen policy support and personal behavioral intentions in the context of air quality policy. The collective action problems inherent in air quality policy provide a critical research setting for testing hypotheses of the collective interest model. Key elements of the collective interest model-perceived risk, trust in policy elites, knowledge of the policy problem, and efficacy-are found to be directly, and positively, related to support of government policies and intentions to engage in personal behaviors that might improve air quality. The article discusses the implications for using the collective interest model as general behavioral theory of collective action.

In her presidential address to the American Political Science Association, Elinor Ostrom (1998) argues that social scientists have not yet developed a behavioral theory of collective action that is sufficiently grounded in empirical inquiry. Accomplishing this task requires two critical ingredients. First, the discipline needs a theoretical model that purports to explain collective-action behavior. second, we need empirical examples of collective-action problems in which to test the hypotheses of the model. This study offers both of these ingredients in order to further develop the behavioral approach to collective action.

Our behavioral theory is adapted from the collective interest (CI) model used to explain protest behavior and social movement participation (Finkel and Muller 1998; Finkel, Muller, and Opp 1989; Gibson 1997; Klandermans 1984). Protest behavior entails a collective-action problem because the benefits of protest are non-excludable, and thus create incentives for individuals to free ride on the efforts of others. The CI model posits that people will participate in a collective endeavor when the expected value of participation is greater than the expected value of not participating. People judge the expected value by assessing the total value of the public good, the probability their participation will affect collective outcomes, and the selective benefits and costs of participation. We feel the Cl model deserves more attention from students of collective action, and one aim of this study is to show how the model can be generalized to other types of collective-action problems.

Citizen environmental activism in air pollution policy provides an excellent laboratory for studying collective action behavior. We examine two dimensions of "air policy activism": 1) citizen support for more stringent air pollution policies and 2) expressed willingness to engage in costly personal behaviors that reduce air pollution. These dimensions are linked together psychologically, substantively, and theoretically. Following Ajzen and Fishbeins (1980) theory of reasoned action, we argue that people employ similar considerations to evaluate behaviors and to form attitudes towards policies that target those behaviors (see also Stern and Dietz 1994). Air pollution policy will only succeed if citizens support these policies in a variety of political venues, and are also willing to implement these policies by engaging in recommended conservation behaviors. Air policy activism entails a collective-action problem because the benefits of policy support and environmental behavior are non-excludable. Because individual decisions have only a small influence on collective air policy outcomes, the rational citizen has an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others.

One important goal of our analysis will be to establish the relevance of the CI model as an explanatory framework by linking core concepts of the model to central themes in public and environmental policy research. First, research in other policy subsystems has demonstrated the importance of policy elites in collective dilemmas like taxpaying, where elites not only make decisions that can affect outcomes, but also provide information and opinion cues to citizens (Scholz and Lubell 1998a,b; Zaller 1992). …