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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities
of these compounds in the United States were reduced by 92 percent, with the result that backyard barrel burning, which was the source of 4 percent of emissions in 1987, had become the source of almost 60 percent of national emissions 15 years later (Institute of Medicine, 2003).
Individual behaviors have significant direct impact in the aggregate in the areas of transportation, housing, energy-using appliances, solid waste, water, and food. Individuals also influence environmental quality indirectly, in their roles as citizens, investors, and members of organizations that make environmentally important choices. And to an important degree, small businesses and nonprofit organizations have impacts (and make decisions) much like individuals and households. However, these latter areas are not central to the scope of the panel’s consideration of individual environmental choices.
The environmental impact of an aggregation of individual consumer choices is circumscribed because, in many cases, the links from individual behavior to its environmental consequences are indirect and conditioned by a variety of forces and constraints in complex social, economic, institutional, and technological systems (Shove, Lutzenhiser, Guy, Hackett, and Wilhite, 1998; Lutzenhiser, Harris, and Olsen, 2001). For example, individuals who want to make green choices may find options limited and costs prohibitive because of a lack of the relevant products or infrastructure, as is generally the case in the United States with alternatives to petroleum-burning private motor vehicles for personal transportation. When green choices are more readily available, the potential for environmental improvement may be limited because of the difficulty or cost of acquiring trustworthy and timely information about the environmental consequences of decisions. This continues to be the case, even though an increasing number of products and services are marketed with claims that they are environmentally benign or beneficial.
The links from policy to individual behavior are also weaker than sometimes supposed. For example, governments sometimes provide information in their efforts to promote greener individual behavior—increased recycling, more careful use of household chemicals, purchase of energy-efficient appliances, testing for radon in homes, reduced use of motor vehicles during air pollution crises, and so forth. They presume that, with better information, people will act in more environmentally beneficial ways. But the record of environmental information programs is unimpressive (Hirst, Berry, and Soderstrom, 1981; National Research Council, 1984, 2002a). Information can be more effective, however. Research has identified some of the ways in which information, usually in interaction with a variety of other factors, influences environmentally significant choices (e.g., National Research Council, 1984, 1997a, 2002a). It shows that environmental information can be effective in influencing behavior if it is delivered