Environment: Individualism vs Collectivism

Source: Culture and the environment: How cultural values influence global ecologic practices – Chicago Policy Review

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.

The article is full of interesting information. The question is what, if anything, we can actually do with it.

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12 thoughts on “Environment: Individualism vs Collectivism

  1. 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.

    Would it be possible to run with something like “Ah, ah, ah! Those countries weren’t *REALLY* collectivist!”?

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  2. I can kind of see the individualistic thing as helping environmental causes. If you have a sense of self-empowerment and believe your individual actions can help or hurt, you might be more careful with actions that impact the environment. In a collective country, your more likely to believe what you do as an individual does not matter and feel free to do things that hurt the environment because of this.

    There are limits to this though. Environmental problems are still ultimately collective problems that demand collective action. Individualistic countries might produce more environmentalists but they also produce people who are anti-environmental. What seems to work best is a combination of communalism, these are problems that effect us all, and individualism, you can make a difference by your own actions.

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    • Agreed. We know full on collectivism doesn’t work worth a damn for these things. Look at your average bus shelter. If something belongs to everyone then everyone treats it like crap and assumes someone else is supposed to take care of it. Full on individualism just unleashes the tragedy of the commons. But you put some kind of liberal state on top of a more individualistic society and it can work pretty well. The individuals generally zealously defend their property and that allows the state to focus enforcement on protecting a much much smaller amount of true common area.

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  3. Multiple remarks after skimming the paper:

    1) The environmental piece of the efficiency calculation is based solely on CO2 and SO2 emissions. Dumping tons of goop — heavy metals, carcinogenic hydrocarbons — into the water supply doesn’t count.

    2) Large and small economies are mixed. Small economies are less likely to be diversified; countries that have, by good planning or good luck, heavy reliance on clean industries have effectively exported some amount of their pollution. Given #1, “clean” may simply be a matter of how electricity is generated.

    3) The methodology looks funky for countries at the high end of the per-capita GDP range. As I read the article, they repeatedly choose 10 countries (with replacement) with the same or higher GDP for the comparison. While “weighting” may change, the country with the third highest income is still being compared to only two other countries.

    4) I am automatically suspicious of a study where the raw environmental efficiency score has the US as most efficient by a wide margin, followed by Canada, Australia, Iran, and Bulgaria.

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    • Michael Cain: 4) I am automatically suspicious of a study where the raw environmental efficiency score has the US as most efficient by a wide margin, followed by Canada, Australia, Iran, and Bulgaria.

      I did not see any controls relating to outsourcing of pollution to other countries. This seems likely a hidden factor that may explain some of the correlation.

      I would also point out that even highly individualistic US, is super collectivist in its approach to SO2.

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  4. I was going to read the original article, but the paper is paywalled and linked website has a horrific light grey on white colour scheme for its text. Seriously, do people not understand that contrast is an important part of visibility? Black on white may be boring and traditional, but that’s because it works.

    Related tot he actual topic, I do recall reading a paper at university that noted that countries with government-owned energy industries tended to have significantly worse environmental records that those where resource extraction and energy production are owned by the private sector.

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