Out of 40 nations that were polled in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, most considered climate change a serious problem. Over 50% considered it a very serious problem. So, the good news is that across the globe, nations are decidedly in agreement about the impact that humans are having on Mother Nature.
There’s bad news, though. The same survey revealed that China and the United States, two countries with the highest amount of CO2 emissions annually, are among the least concerned about what needs to be done about global warming.
Knowledge Does Not Equal Action
Out of the 40 countries surveyed, 39 reported that more than 50% of their citizens were definitely aware that climate change would cause them personal harm during their lifetime. Most of the world’s people know that the environment is in danger, and that the dangers have the potential to directly affect them. Yet not all enjoy the same level of gung-ho about actually doing something about it.
So what makes one nation more proactive than another? Which factors have the greatest influence on how a country’s leaders and citizens respond to the harm that’s being done to the environment? Why does one country care deeply about joining the environmentalist movement, and another… not so much?
Some speculate that it has to do with culture.
The Impact Of Culture
Most of us have never deeply studied culture, but we understand that cultural differences exist. Every day, we experience cross-cultural phenomena in many different ways – awkward handshakes, variations in holding eye contact, confusion about whether to stand or remain seated when certain people enter the room, etc. When it comes to how we respond to the environment, it turns out that there are several theories about the influence of culture on a nation’s response to climate change – or lack thereof.
Marianne Waas, energy and environment writer for the Chicago Policy Review, speculates that the cultural dimensions of “power distance” and individualism have the greatest influence on a country’s beliefs about what (if any) actions should be taken toward ecological efficiency.
Professor Geert Hofstede is one of the world’s leading experts in culture. In his 2010 book entitled, “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind,” he – along with Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov – addresses issues that are relevant to the dimensions that distinguish one nation’s viewpoints from another’s. Hofstede defines power distance and individualism as follows:
Power distance is defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” Countries with a small/low power distance believe that power is something that is to be spread among the people.
In contrast, countries that are described as being large/high power distance are characterized by the belief that less powerful people should be dependent, and those in power – such as teachers and doctors – should be held in very high regard, taking the initiative and being honored for their expertise. Power belongs to an individual, or a small group of individuals.
Individualism vs. Collectivism:
Countries that score high on individualism are those with “societies in which the ties between the individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him- or herself and his or her immediate family.”
Collectivist countries, on the other hand, are those in which “societies … from birth onward are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” Collectivists stick together.
What does all this have to do with the environment?
Well, Waas – citing a 2013 study that ranked the ecologic efficiency of 72 countries – believes that the groupthink that’s inherent in collectivist cultures does little to encourage its people to take action in the direction of eco-efficiency. Individualist countries, in contrast, encourage citizens to have “a greater sense of duty and self-empowerment,” which has proven to result in (for most, at least) “a greater tendency toward environmentally conscious behavior.” Interesting.
CO2 Emissions: Examining The Biggest Offenders
Let’s first take a look at China. According to Hofstede’s cultural scales, China scores high on power distance with a score of 80 out of 100. Authority is highly valued, and not shared among the people. With an individualism score of only 20, however, China is “a highly collectivist culture where people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves.”
Comparing these dimensions to the United States, we find that the U.S. scores much lower on power distance with a score of only 40, and much higher on individualism, with a whopping 91 out of 100.
Perhaps China’s “lack of concern” about CO2 emissions is due to its citizens’ lack of self-empowerment because of the highly collectivist culture, and the U.S.’s lack of concern is due to its low power distance culture? It gets pretty fuzzy pretty quickly.
This information demonstrates the complexity of culture, especially as it relates to environmental practices. In these cases – observing China and the U.S. – it is difficult to make sense of Waas’s observations that countries scoring high on power distance and individualism displayed a “greater tendency toward environmentally conscious behavior.” The study examined the relationship between the emissions of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and four aspects of culture. But, even those researchers had to acknowledge that “it is apparent that not all cultural variables affect countries uniformly.”
Blame It On Another Dimension
Another cultural dimension may help us explain the behavior of individuals toward the environment: indulgence versus restraint. This dimension has not been written about often, but when applied to issues like climate change, eco-efficiency and environmental sustainability, one can arguably make some pretty accurate predictions about how they correlate.
Indulgence vs. Restraint:
Hofstede defines indulgence as “a tendency to allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun.” This is the category under which the enormously inefficient, but shiny, gas-guzzling Cadillac Escalade might fall.
The Huffington Post published a list of 14 “little” indulgences that are harming the planet, including buying multiple pairs of jeans (each of which require about 3,000 liters of water to make!) as well as consuming and disposing of beauty products. Indulgent cultures tend to throw caution to the wind for the sake of immediate gratification – often to the detriment of our air, water and ozone.
Restraint, in contrast, is defined as “a conviction that such gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict social norms.” Restraint is precisely the cultural dimension that the Environment Protection Agency aims to enforce through its policies.
The bottom line is this: Dr. Hannah Rudman, business transformation and change management specialist, says “climate change is anthropogenic: human-made,” so humans are the ones that need to do their part to fix it.
Great News: The Tide Is Turning
In his preface, Hofstede alludes to our ability to culturally “re-program,” loosely comparing the human brain to a computer. This comparison is the basis of the book’s subtitle, “Software of the Mind.” Unlike computers, however, humans can unlearn certain patterns, and we have the ability to “deviate from [patterns] and to react in ways that are new, creative, destructive or unexpected.” Therefore, culture is something that continues to transform.
We can change. And this is awesome news.
In April 2016, leaders from over 160 countries got together in New York to sign a document created at a December 2015 meeting in Paris, pledging to slow down their country’s greenhouse gas emissions. China and the U.S. were in the room … so it appears the apathy is surely dissipating. China committed to plateauing or reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and it pledged to have at least 20% of its energy come from non-fossil fuel sources by that time, as well. The U.S. also made promises such as committing to cut greenhouse gas pollution by 26-28% by 2025.
The current presidential election may hugely impact America’s ability to follow through on its promise, however. Apparently, political affiliation is another factor that impacts our eco-friendliness. A March 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 74% of U.S. adults said “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” while 23% said “the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.” The same study revealed that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to feel that the government should do “whatever it takes” to protect the environment.
Generationally, the same story exists. We see things differently. American millennials are less likely than older generations to identify as environmentalists. The next year will be very telling.
How To Do Your Part
How can you do your part? The answer seems to be a combination of individual and collective awareness coupled with decisive action, which can range from small steps to huge commitments. Rudman says, “The window for averting climate change is narrow. If we want to choose our own path, not have one forced upon us, we need to take responsibility and act now.”
Here Are Some Ways For Everyone To Begin Taking Individual Responsibility:
In the age of information, it’s so much easier to find a ton of suggestions for ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Let’s pay attention, let’s talk about, and let’s do something. Oh, and let’s stop buying so many jeans.