Can research in political psychology be harnessed to speed uptake of ecological economic theory?

By Tom Green

(Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the CANSEE Newsletter in 2013).

We associate truth with convenience – with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal wellbeing or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. – John Kenneth Galbraith

Almost three decades have passed since ecological economics became formalized as a discipline. Despite scholarly progress and the development of pragmatic tools such as Ecological Footprint analysis, given humanity’s environmental predicament it is hard to feel much satisfaction when one evaluates the field’s influence on public policy, on economic thought generally and in economics education. For instance, at the principles level, economics courses give a blanket endorsement of economic growth and respond to the limits to growth question with arguments that, already unconvincing in the 1970s, are increasingly dubious 40 years on.

Why then has ecological economics had such limited impact?

One way I have explored this issue it to examine the reception of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study, authored by a group of MIT scientists in 1972 headed by Donella and Denis Meadows.

Limits was initially well received by the growing body of environmental scientists: it was the first time interactions between the global economy and the biosphere had been systematically assessed. The authors assembled extensive empirical datasets and built a model, running several simulations. However, it took little time before economists and business commentators slammed the report. Many of their critiques suggest they had not understood the report nor delved into the underlying model.

Over time, dismissals of Limits accumulated, more recent ones tied to the fact that, as the year 2000 came and went, the mineral depletion the MIT team had purportedly projected had not occurred and there was little sign growth was facing ecological headwinds. A few details are inconvenient to the critics. The MIT team never wrote that industrial minerals would run out by 2000. Their model runs suggested the collapse in industrial output would likely happen sometime between 2030 and 2070. Furthermore, with the right mix of policies, the model suggested collapse could be avoided over the simulation’s 100-year timescale. Finally, the authors were clear that their model was not intended to generate predictions, but rather as a tool to better understand the behaviour of a complex system.

In the end, it did not matter that the criticisms were unfair or off target. Politicians and the general public came to believe that Limits had been disproven and the fears that there might be limits to growth were thus unfounded.

For a more recent example that parallels the reception of Limits to Growth, climate scientists have been dismayed by the extent to which climate science has been rejected and researchers’ motivations impugned. Sadly, the end result was that climate policies have not been aggressive enough.

In the US, much public confusion was seeded by right-wing think tanks funded by fossil fuel interests; Republicans block federal action on the climate file at every opportunity and their candidates for the Presidency reject the need for action. In Canada, we have just suffered through a decade where a conservative government censored federal scientists, cut back on environmental research, gutted environmental laws and reneged on international commitments. Thankfully, voters finally turfed out Harper and many of his cabinet ministers, and the newly elected Liberal government, while still somewhat conflicted by pressure to get oil to market, has acknowledged the severity of the climate change and promised policy.

Society’s apparent ineffectiveness at tackling difficult environmental questions leads me to two interrelated questions. First, why is it that empirical evidence implying climate change is human caused and the prospect of capping carbon emissions been so ill received by many of those on the political right? Second, why is the concept that there might be limits to growth so anathema to mainstream economists? I have turned to psychology and the newly emerging field of political psychology in search of new insights.

Researchers have found that dissonance avoidance behaviour appears especially strong in the political domain, with those on the right of the spectrum more likely to avoid information that causes cognitive dissonance. A related behaviour, motivated reasoning, occurs when an individual shoehorns information they are interpreting to ensure consistency with a broader goal unrelated to accurate appraisal of the evidence. Thus, if one identifies with a group that ascribes to a given public policy stance, motivated reasoning may kick in such that new information is dealt with in a way that does not perturb one’s affinity with the group. For example, if a political party is largely formed around the view that the best way to organize society is to use the free market, and if prominent members of the party publically reject climate change, the rank and file members are likely to do the same, even in the face of evidence that undermines these positions.

These psychological phenomena provide a plausible explanation of why so many market enthusiasts come to believe that scientists are engaged in mass conspiracy to get more research funding by fudging the data.

System justification theory proposes that one’s motivation to justify the dominant social-economic system increases the more one feels dependent on the system, believes it to be inevitable, or senses that it is under threat. Political conservatism appears to be linked to uncertainty avoidance, wherein ambiguity is poorly tolerated and novel experiences are generally disliked. Research suggests those on the right are more likely to subscribe to the Protestant Work Ethic, believe in the fairness of free market outcomes, accept (right-wing) authoritarianism, show resistance to equality and to agree that the environment should be moulded to meet human needs. Accepting climate change or that there are limits to growth raises questions about the viability of the current economic system and implies an unfamiliar future.

Of course, the above literature points to tendencies rather than ironclad causal linkages between political orientation and willingness to accept the science and proposals for remedying environmental ills. Furthermore, most parties to the left also remain committed to growth and have provided ample evidence they too can despoil the environment. There are also many instances of workers who, perceiving their jobs were threatened, vigorously opposed environmental initiatives.

There are also examples of environmental initiatives coming from the right that seem to run counter to the tendencies found by political psychologists, such as when then Premier Campbell brought in BC’s carbon tax and California’s former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger climate policies. And it is worth noting that conservative mainstream economists like textbook author Gregory Mankiw support putting a price on carbon, since correcting market failures is consistent with the economic canon since Arthur Pigou. In these cases, it seems that these conservative thinkers could see ways in which effective climate policies would be good for the economy in the long run.

Turning now to the case of mainstream economics, one can observe that much of the theorizing is underwritten by the presumption that further economic growth in rich countries remains inherently desirable. No account is taken of rising ecological footprints or the fact that in the rich world, levels of human wellbeing stopped tracking GDP decades ago.

The same psychological phenomena explored above may help explain why so many intelligent people, who have many years of training in the critical assessment of theory and data, apparently find it so difficult after getting a PhD in economics to entertain the proposition that there might be limits and to impartially evaluate theory and evidence pointing in this direction. This is a pity. Mainstream economists would benefit from engaging with, for instance, Tim Jackson and Peter Victor’s research on how prosperity might be achieved without growth. In the long run, a severely degraded environment and its consequent collapse are not in anyone’s interests, regardless of political orientation.

Ecological economists can redouble their efforts to advance theory and to teach more students. Yet, the above insights from psychology suggest that merely adding to the ecological economics literature will do little to change minds—or at least it will not change them fast enough. Ecological economists need to pay more attention to research into the psychological processes that influence how people evaluate and adjust to new theory and empirical data to ensure our field has greater influence in the realm of public policy and amongst economists more generally.

Tom Green is an ecological economist with a PhD from UBC, where he studied how mainstream economics education influences student understanding of the environment-economy nexus. Prior to undertaking his PhD, he worked as Director of Socio-economics for a coalition of environmental group promoting conservation and economic alternatives in the Great Bear Rainforest.


The opinions expressed here in no way reflect those of CANSEE.

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