Mercury contamination and pro-environmental behavior


Promoting sustainable pollutant control policies through consideration of social and biological indicators: an application to mercury control in New England

Duration and funding source: 5 years (August 2007 – April 2012); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Personnel: M. Borsuk (PI), R. Howarth, A. King, D. Ranco, M. Turaga (Dartmouth)

Synopsis: Individual actions to protect the environment usually require a personal investment of time, effort, or money. This seems to imply that such actions are not in one's self-interest, yet people undertake them voluntarily all the time: we recycle, contribute to environmental organizations, refrain from littering, and pay premiums for eco-friendly products. In this project we seek to understand what motivates such voluntary pro-environmental behaviors in order to develop effective incentives for further promoting sustainable action.

The Sustainable Environmental Decisions Group (SEDG) at Dartmouth College has received a grant from the U.S. EPA to study how scientists can improve the way they communicate information about the environment to industry, the public, and government officials. The goal of the study is to enhance the effectiveness of one of the most common and direct methods for providing environmental information: environmental indicators. In particular, SEDG is focused on constructing and testing meaningful indicators of mercury pollution in New England.

We hypothesize that environmental indicator information that emphasize personal responsibility will increase the willingness of individuals to undertake pro-environmental behaviors by strengthening their sense of moral obligation. Correspondingly, we argue that conventional indicators that simply describe the state of the environment do not strongly influence these types of beliefs and are therefore relatively ineffective in influencing behavior.

To test our hypotheses, we have conducted a survey of a random sample of approximately 2000 households in New England. Half the respondents are receiving a conventional state indicator (“…40% of New England’s lakes have mercury fish tissue concentrations exceeding environmental guidelines…”) while the other half are receiving an indicator designed to induce beliefs about personal responsibility (“…30% of all mercury released to the environment in New England can be attributed to households such as yours…”). Respondents are then asked about their willingness to engage in certain mercury reducing behaviors, including: writing a letter to support mercury control policies, recycling products containing mercury, and signing up for renewable energy programs.

We are currently in the process of receiving competed surveys. However, preliminary results confirm that values play a strong role in determining a person’s willingness to engage in pro-environmental behavior. The perceived cost and effort of the behavior are also strong influence factors. The type of indicator received is clearly a secondary effect, and accurately estimating the strength of this effect will require us to wait until we receive the remainder of the surveys.

A particular focus of our project is on identifying concerns and indicator sets that are appropriate to traditionally under-represented fractions of the American population, including Native American communities. These groups have historically been alienated both legally and socially from the institutions that frame environmental policy in the US. They may also have unique livelihoods, cultural traditions, and exposure situations relating to mercury in the environment. We believe that only by explicitly involving such groups can the full implications of sustainability be properly addressed.