The environmental footprints of conservationists, economists and medics compared

16 Jan 2018

Many conservationists undertake environmentally harmful activities in their private lives such as flying and eating meat, while calling for people as a whole to reduce such behaviors. To quantify the extent of our hypocrisy and put our actions into context, we conducted a questionnaire-based survey of 300 conservationists and compared their personal (rather than professional) behavior, across 10 domains, with that of 207 economists and 227 medics. We also explored two related issues: the role of environmental knowledge in promoting pro-environmental behavior, and the extent to which different elements of people's footprint co-vary across behavioral domains. The conservationists we sampled have a slightly lower overall environmental footprint than economists or medics, but this varies across behaviors. Conservationists take fewer personal flights, do more to lower domestic energy use, recycle more, and eat less meat - but don't differ in how they travel to work, and own more pets than do economists or medics. Interestingly, conservationists also score no better than economists on environmental knowledge and knowledge of pro-environmental actions. Overall footprint scores are higher for males, US nationals, economists, and people with higher degrees and larger incomes, but (as has been reported in other studies) are unrelated to environmental knowledge. Last, we found different elements of individuals' footprints are generally not intercorrelated, and show divergent demographic patterns. These findings suggest three conclusions. First, lowering people's footprints may be most effectively achieved via tailored interventions targeting higher-impact behaviors (such as meat consumption, flying and family size). Second, as in health matters, education about environmental issues or pro-environmental actions may have little impact on behavior. Last, while conservationists perform better on certain measures than other groups, we could (and we would argue, must) do far more to reduce our footprint.