Why Countries Invest Differently In Environmental Issues

We're not just talking about measures to combat global climate change — we're talking about investments in clean water, forests and biodiversity. A new study explores a novel theory about these differences.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Across the world, countries make very different investments in the environment. We're not just talking about measures to combat global climate change. We're talking about investments in clean water, forests, biodiversity. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to share interesting new research, and he's here to tell us about an unexpected factor that seems to influence environmental stewardships. Shankar, welcome back.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So, what's the unexpected factor that surprises you, here?

VEDANTAM: Well, the X factor appears to be the age of the country, David.

GREENE: Which is something we sort of think about as Americans around Thanksgiving, when our country was settled.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And it turns out that the longer a country has been around, the more it seems to invest in environmental stewardship. Now, there's both correlational, as well as experimental evidence. I spoke with Hal Hershfield at New York University. Along with Min Bang and Elke Weber, he's found that there's a correlation between how long countries have been around and their willingness to invest in environmental issues. Here's how he explains it.

HAL HERSHFIELD: Our thinking is that the countries who have a longer past are better able see further forward into the future and think about extending the time period that they've already been around into the distant future. And that might make them care a bit more about how environmental outcomes are going to play out down the line.

GREENE: Shankar, I could imagine that the countries that have been around longer have more money. They're richer, which would be one reason they're able to invest more in protecting the environment.

VEDANTAM: Sure. So, I mean, you would certainly expect that countries that are wealthier would be able to invest more in the environment, so Hershfield and his colleagues controlled for that. They controlled for wealth. They controlled for GDP. They controlled for political stability. And they tracked about 130 countries and still found the age of the country predicted investments in things like clean water, forests, the environment. They also drew on a Pew survey, David, of more than 200,000 people in 128 countries, and they found that people in countries with older political ages were more aware of environmental issues.

GREENE: What do we mean, exactly, by political age?

VEDANTAM: So, that's an interesting aspect of the study, David. Hershfield is not using the historical age of the country, but when it got started in its present form, when its current form of government got started. So he's saying the U.S. got started in the year 1776. He's saying China started in the year 1949.

GREENE: Ah, the current political system in China.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: So, we're actually - the United States is actually older than China, by that definition.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, China, of course, though, is thousands of years old in historical terms, but Hershfield is using the political birth of the country as the starting point for his analysis. Now, this is potentially problematic, because for some countries like China, there's a very big disparity in the historical age and when the current form of government got started. But Hershfield finds even when you eliminate those countries from the equation, there's still a strong connection between the age of the country and its willingness to invest in environmental issues.

GREENE: And you mention experimental evidence. They actually studied people and sort of how they think of the age of the country and it relates to all this?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, David. So, Hershfield said that he was somewhat skeptical about his correlational findings, so he decided to conduct an experiment. They recruited a large amount of Americans. Some people were asked to think about the United States as being a relatively young country, and some people were asked to think of the United States as being a relatively old country.

GREENE: They were told to think of it in two different ways.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And what Hershfield found was that when he gave volunteers $50, the volunteers were far more likely to devote the money to an environmental cause when they were led to feel the United States was an old country, compared to when they were led to feel that it was a young country. Here's what Hershfield thinks is going on.

HERSHFIELD: Any time we have to make a sacrifice, there's some risk involved. There's a risk that this sacrifice will be meaningless, because it just might not matter. But if we start thinking that, you know, the country that we're a part of has this rich past, a rich past that will carry out into the distant future, then any of these sacrifices we start making today all of a sudden make more sense.

VEDANTAM: You know, David, I have to say that I think this is very interesting work. It probably needs replication. It's early research. But I think it's a very interesting idea at the core, which is that if you want to get people to think about causes like the environment, reminding them about a long and successful past might, in fact, be more effective than telling them about an uncertain and frightening future.

GREENE: Interesting stuff, as always. Shankar, thanks for coming in.

Thanks, David.

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GREENE: Our colleague Shankar Vedantam regularly comes on the program to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. Steve and I are also on Twitter. He's @NPRInskeep. I'm @NPRGreene, and our program is @MorningEdition.

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