Inspiring not just conservation – but the right conservation

Water faucet

March 24, 2014

People need more than good intentions to reduce their environmental footprint. In fact, scientists are learning that a personal footprint is hard to see.

Environmental sociologist Thomas Dietz, says it’s becoming painfully obvious that good intentions aren’t enough. Research is showing that people consistently miss the mark when estimating household energy use. Beliefs and values tend to affect individual’s estimates about how much of resources, in this case water, households use.

And it turns out our great intentions about saving the Earth can become muted when the costs or hassle factors emerge.

Dietz, a member of the Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and professor of sociology, environmental science and policy, and animal studies, points out the need to more fully understand how people make decisions in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences opinion piece “Understanding environmentally significant consumption.

“What each individual does to conserve resources is very small, but if that behavior is replicated by others, it can have a huge impact,” Dietz said. “But what we need to do to have effective policies is to both understand how people are motivated and how to educate them so they’ll know what to do.”

Both, he notes, are tricky matters. In his commentary inspired by the work of Shahzeen Attaari at Indiana University, published in PNAS, Dietz notes her findings about how people miscalculate their use of household water and how that accuracy varies by age and gender. Her work also points out that people are better at estimating water consumption than they are energy consumption, perhaps in part boggled by the relatively abstract nature of a kilowatt versus the concrete nature of a gallon.

Dietz says individuals can make a difference. The United States could reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by more than seven percent with policies that encourage more efficient energy consumption. That would be akin to eliminating all of France’s greenhouse emissions, he said.

But getting there means understanding the subtleties of how people make decisions. Motivating a consumer has dubious benefit if the person doesn’t know what to do. And even the best intentions can be dashed if obstacles seem greater than motivation.


Sue Nichols, (517) 432-0206,