Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Barriers to Individual Environmental Action: The Influence of Attitudes and Social Experiences

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Barriers to Individual Environmental Action: The Influence of Attitudes and Social Experiences

Article excerpt

Widespread environmental concern has not disappeared among the public as predicted by social scientists, such as Anthony Downs, in the early 1970s. Instead it rose dramatically in the 1980s, and by the spring of 1990 public environmental concern had reached unsurpassed levels (Dunlap and Scarce, 1991: 652). Most authors in Canada and the United States now agree that although there will be differences in the degree of concern across specific issues, broad public support for environmental protection and reform in general exists in North America (Dunlap, 1989: 124; 1991: 12; Morrison, 1986; Hays, 1987: 530; Bozinoff and MacIntosh, 1989; 1990; Roper Organization, 1990). Recent research, however, suggests that despite high levels of "green" attitudes, environmental concern has failed to translate into widespread environmental action (Roper Organization, 1990:31; Dunlap, 1991).(1) As a result an increasing number of researchers are turning their attention toward the strength of public commitment to environmental quality as measured by the actual behaviour people are willing to engage in to solve environmental problems (Dunlap, 1991: 16; Uusitalo, 1990).

This study aims to contribute to the examination of the strength of public behavioural commitment to environmental quality, and to the development of an understanding of the barriers to such action. In line with this intent, the effects of attitudes, situational factors and social structure on two measures of individual environmental behaviour (recycling behaviour and consumer attempts to purchase organically grown foods) are examined.(2) Given that environmental attitude-behaviour consistency is generally accepted to be low, the factors that influence the consistency between attitudes and behaviour are also explored.

Specifically, based on data from a 1990 random sample survey of Edmonton residents, this study uses explanatory variables derived from past research findings and theoretical insights in the areas of social psychology, social inequality, social movement theory, and theories of rational choice to compare the direct and indirect predictors of each individual environmental behaviour.(3) This is accomplished through the use of structural equation models that include attitudes as a mediating variable. While hypotheses regarding the determinants of environmental concern(4) will be tested within each model, and a brief summary of the literature on environmental attitudes provided, the main focus will remain on extending an understanding of the motives and barriers associated with individual environmental behaviours.

Environmental Attitudes

More than two decades of environmental attitude research has resulted in a multitude of studies dedicated to discovering the social determinants of environmental attitudes (Van Liere and Dunlap, 1980; Buttel, 1987). Recent studies indicate that the variation that does exist in environmental attitudes, as in the past, remains positively related to higher education, liberal political ideology, younger age and urban residence, and these variables continue to explain only modest levels of variance, seldom over 10% (Jones and Dunlap, 1992; Buttel, 1987: 473-474).(5) Much of the social scientific investigation of environmental attitudes in recent years, rather than remaining focussed on demographic predictors, has turned instead to explanations for the widespread popularity of environmental issues.

Cultural change theories that have been advanced to explain widespread environmental concern revolve around the concept of post-materialist value change, the most influential proponent of which has been Ronald Inglehart. Inglehart suggests that the economic security enjoyed by the post-World War II generation of young adults in industrial societies, during their formative years, has resulted in a widespread shift in values away from economic and security concerns toward what Maslow characterized as higher order needs. …

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