Culture and the environment: How cultural values influence global ecologic practices

Cultural values influence a myriad of topics—education, wealth distribution, government oversight—but the extent to which these values influence environmental attitudes is not well documented. Data from a 2013 study by economists George Halkos and Nickolaos Tzeremes in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy Studies evaluates just such an influence in the relationship between major cultural dimensions and ecologic efficiency. During the last ten years, efforts to quantify a country’s environmental performance have been conducted through Environmental Performance Indexes (EPIs)—formally recognized “scorecards” developed in response to the Millennium Development Goals and used to rank a country’s environmental policies in different categories based on outcome-oriented indicators.

Though highly accessible to policymakers and scientists, EPIs are commonly criticized as only being of use with uniformly distributed data (i.e. data lacking observations on the extremes). Recognizing the limitations of these macro-level environmental indexes, this study uses “nonparametric frontiers” to analyze the influence of four cultural dimensions on the ecologic efficiency of 72 countries. These frontiers analyze broad relationships between given inputs and outputs that serve as proxies for some societal phenomenon: in this case, environmental performance based on pollution.

The authors examine the relationship between emissions of two major greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide) and four of the most widely recognized facets of culture: masculinity versus femininity, power distance, individualism versus collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance. In the study, a masculine society is defined as one that dominantly values material success and progress, while a feminine society prioritizes modesty and caring for others. Power distance represents views on inequality: high power distance translates to the belief that the powerful have privileges and may inherit their position by way of force; low power distance societies believe power should be distributed equally. Collectivist societies value group interests over individual interests and allow for the state to play a large role in the economic system, while individualist societies expect their members to look after themselves. Lastly, uncertainty avoidance signifies the degree of societal tolerance for unknown situations. High avoidance societies fight uncertainty with many precise laws and rules and generally repress citizen protest.

The study uses a performance measure framework in which countries’ per capita emissions are fed as inputs and in which GDP per capita data is used as outputs. The authors are then able to examine the ratio of economic value created to emissions created and define this as a country’s eco-efficiency. Once countries are given eco-efficiency scores, these scores are correlated to the four cultural factors. Countries’ efficiency scores are compared to ten other countries randomly selected from those with equal or greater emissions output. An additional variable is used to describe the effect of a country’s greenhouse gas production on environmental valuation, placing value on a pollutant-free environment. This allows the authors to confidently draw relationships between the input/output data and the four cultural dimensions. An increasing regression line is evidence of a favorable cultural effect on a country’s eco-efficiency levels, while a decreasing regression line is evidence of the opposite.

Countries are deemed “eco-efficient” if they use as much or fewer pollutants than countries with equal or higher GDP per capita levels. Thirteen countries meet this designation: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Iran, Ireland, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the United States. Noting that eco-efficient countries like Kuwait and Austria have the highest levels of fluctuation between cultural factors, it is apparent that not all cultural variables affect countries uniformly.

With the exception of masculinity/femininity, each factor has a statistically significant effect on environmental performance metrics. While it was hypothesized that feminine societies would display high eco-efficiency scores due to a strong community identity and attentiveness, masculinity and femininity actually were of least consequence in performance metrics. Power distance and individualism exert the strongest forces. While the authors had hypothesized that the groupthink mentality of collectivist countries would encourage eco-efficiency, it was found, rather, that individualistic countries prevailed, perhaps by imbuing in their citizens a greater sense of duty and self-empowerment. In these societies, there is a greater tendency toward environmentally conscious behavior, while most low eco-efficiency countries are characterized by collectivist notions and a dominant government role. Low eco-efficiency is also strongly correlated with high uncertainty avoidance. As the relationship between uncertainty avoidance and environmental attitudes has not been previously well understood, however, the authors avoid hypothesizing any strong causal connection between the observations. They do make it a point to note, however, that even between countries with similar levels of ecologic efficiency, one can see a great disparity in cultural attitudes and values.

Many metrics exist to measure and regulate behavior that negatively impacts the environment, but perhaps the most important factors of human behavior are our own cultural attitudes. This factor is difficult to quantify rigorously, but the authors have shown how cultural attitudes may be directly related to a country’s overall ecological efficiency. Understanding this relationship could be a very useful tool in the ongoing effort to curb practices that are unnecessarily damaging to the environment.

Article Source: National culture and eco-efficiency: an application of conditional partial nonparametric frontiers, Halkos et al, Environmental Economics and Policy Studies, 2014

Feature Photo: cc/(St Stev) 

waasmar@uchicago.edu'
Marianne Waas
Marianne Waas is a energy and environment writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in environmental law and food policy issues.

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