One Way or The Other: What impacts people’s choice between protecting the environment and economic growth?

One Way Or The Other:
What impacts people’s choice between protecting the environment and economic growth?

By Romaisa Baddar, Alexandra Gordon-Gibson, Wen Hsiao and Marie Stoever
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

How would you decide between protecting the environment or promoting economic growth? Did your educational endeavors prepare you to make the decision?

In order to make a choice between two, it poses a person in an ethical dilemma between a rock and a hard place. Within the United States, there is plentiful of political debate over the issue, whether or not we should focus on the longevity of things, and to protect the environment and preserve them for the future generation; or to focus on the short term economic benefits of economic growth and creating jobs and lower unemployment rate, even if it means causing further damages to the environment. In the United States, combatting the declining economic scene means bringing previously-outsourced jobs back to America, however, it also means bringing the pollution emitted from factories back into the United States. However, the two are mutually exclusive, and one has to take a toll in order for the other to thrive. As changes in the environment take longer to reflect, and economic growth can feel more apparent and personal.

Our chosen issue is to look at people’s choices between protecting the environment and economic growth, crossed by their highest educational level obtained with data provided by the World Values Survey (WVS, 2011). These levels are divided into no formal education, incomplete primary school, complete primary school, incomplete secondary school: university preparatory type, complete secondary school: university preparatory type, some university-level education (without degree), university-level education (with degree). The answer possibilities include: Either protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs; or that economic growth and creating jobs should be the top priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent, or abstaining from answering. Our sample size looks at the wave from 2010 to 2014, from the population in the United States.

We chose the United States specifically as a part of our investigation. Its government has made its stance on climate change denial official, caught using misleading language to manipulate the public reaction about climate change. Furthermore, the government officiates policies against climate change advocates and statements claiming that climate change is deemed beneficial to fit their personal agenda. With the uproar of commercialization and globalization causing a higher demand for products in recent years, we’ve succumbed to perceive economic growth as more important than the protection of the environment. In surveys, it goes even as far as showing that environmental protection takes a back seat to economic growth, and people would only grow to care about the environment if their economic worries are eased (Pew Research Center 2020).

By choosing the cross-reference this with the highest educational level attained, we hope to see a trend of whether or not someone who is more educated prefers one choice over the other. Without looking at educational levels, there seems to be a stark split between the two choices, with protecting the environment at 37.2% and economic growth at 60.2%. It is worth noting that one’s highest educational level attained does not show how objectively educated one is, but rather represents the degree of education they have received.

We found this worthy to be examined and studied because it may allow us to see a trend between the two and how the government can propagate a solution to satisfy both ends. The choice they have to make between protecting the environment and economic growth can also pose an ethical dilemma.

We plan to make use of the World Values Survey, interviews and articles that were written in our selected timeframe. As well as looking at statistics to substantiate our findings. There is a wide variety of sources we could use, so we will try to use as many diverse findings to provide a comprehensive report. World Values Survey’s data can contribute to investigating the belief and value patterns of people, the surveys study how certain patterns change over the years, which can be useful for us since we are focusing on a timeframe of 4 years. Furthermore, we would perform a close literature analysis on relevant articles that contextualize our findings and formulate an argument. Last but not least, we would interview Alexis Bonte, from FAO (Food and Agriculture) in the United Nations, he handles current earth and social problems regarding current world problems, we hope his contribution to getting an understanding of his perspectives and motives behind actions. Through the research process, we hope to see a correlation between the two variables and gain new perspectives through finding answers by linking two starkly different factors, as well as adding another two cross variables to see how it would change the overall outcome.

(Figure 1: Bar chart displaying the people’s choice between protecting the environment and economic growth across all educational level attained (WVS, 2011))

From closely examining Figure 1, it is evident that despite one’s educational level, it is likely that they could still have a similar stance on their choices between protecting the environment and economic growth. For example, people with no formal education, incomplete secondary school and some university-level education, all have particularly similar responses. For example, the answers show that people with no formal education care more about economic growth (63.2%) than protecting the environment (36.8%), in contrast, people with a completed primary school care more about protecting the environment (54.5%) than economic growth (45.5%).

Protecting the Environment

(Figure 2: Infographic displaying the percentage of the answer protecting the environment (WVS, 2011))

To make the data and our main point more clear, this infographic (Figure 2) depicts the percentage of the answer protecting the environment of people with various educational levels. The educational levels are illustrated by icons helping to understand that people with higher education prefer to protect the environment in comparison to people who did not receive higher education.

(Figure 3: Pie charts displaying the people’s choice between protecting the environment and economic growth across all educational level attained (WVS, 2011))

To further establish this, we chose to also represent the same data obtained through the World Values Survey in the form of pie charts (Figure 3). We chose to categorize the pie charts into the different educational levels to highlight the choices between protecting the environment and economic growth within the educational level attained.

(Figure 4: Bar chart showing total percentage of answers for protecting the environment vs. economic growth crossed by age (WVS, 2011))

Figure 4 illustrates the answers for protecting the environment vs economic growth crossed by age up to 20, age 30-49 and age 50 and more. By looking at differences in answers of people of different ages we hope to find a correlation with the idea that people that have a higher education have more willingness to protect the environment. This bar chart is ideal to highlight the differences between the answers.

(Figure 5: Bar chart showing the total percentage of answers for protecting the environment vs. economic growth crossed by gender (WVS, 2011))

By also having a closer look at the answers given by female and male participants for protecting the environment vs economic growth (Figure 5) it contributes to getting a broader understanding of this research. We chose to use this bar graph in order to compare the different answers

There’s an established amount of research on relationships between education levels and environmental sustainability that show many perspectives. Research collected from The Economic and Social Research Council of the Science Daily showed that amongst 22,000 individuals, that it is 25% more common for people who obtained degrees to adopt “pro-environmentally friendly behaviors”, compared to those with no degree (ESRC, 2011). These findings also showed that 59% of their willingness to act upon these pro-environment measures was only evident when the changes they made actually fit into their lifestyles (ESRC, 2011). This shows how people who have had the opportunity at higher education could be more open-minded to actions that benefit the environment such as recycling or limited use of plastic products. However, they are more reluctant to approach smaller actions that are disadvantageous to their personal lives, like switching off lights not being in use.

Furthermore, education is a double-edged sword, not only can it prompt environmentally conscious behaviors, but it can also elicit economic growth. As suggested by UNESCO, any progress towards sustainable development requires sufficient educational planning. It is even to be shown that “an increase in the average educational attainment of a country’s population by one year increases annual per capita GDP growth from 2 to 2.5 percent” (UNESCO 2014).  They further established and hypothesized that “the higher the level of education, the more likely it is that people express concern for the environment” (UNESCO 2014). Not only that, but the United Nations’ secretary-general also places a strong emphasis on how education is a fundamental human right and a ground stone for process in any country (UNESCO 2014). If countries make an attentive effort to improve their educational strategy and to be inclusive to more, they can create an overall more knowledgeable community that can look at the broader image, rather than focusing on the purely immediate effects.

(Figure 6: Infographic with data collected from the National Centre for Social Research (2013) and the International Social Survey Programme data (2010) and provided by GEM, 2015.)

According to GEM (Global Education Monitoring Report), “People with more education tend not only to be more concerned about the environment but also to engage in actions that promote and support political decisions that protect the environment (GEM, 2015).” Additionally, as displayed in the Global Education Citizen Survey in the United States, a higher educational level contributes to higher activism in terms of policy support, environmental political participation and environment-friendly behavior (GEM, 2015).  The info data below shows the concern about the environment in the United States is divided into people with primary education (20%), secondary education (40%), tertiary education (50%).

It has been proven that an increase in public awareness of the environment has demonstrated positive effects. For example, the Global Cities Research Institute in Melbourne Australia conducted research about Paradoxes of increased individuation and public awareness of environmental issues. According to this study, “increased public environmental awareness brings with it a requirement for efforts to clarify if such awareness is affecting sustainable practices and how” (Scerri 2009). This brings us to considering environmental management in order to determine the development needs and reflect on them, this extensively relates to involving people who are to a certain extent educated about this to develop environment-based education and critical thinking.

For our interview, we interviewed Alexis Marrito, from FAO (Food and Agriculture) in the United Nations. They work towards providing international public health and guiding collaborators in global health responses. We were able to gain some insight into the correlation between one’s educational level and their choice between environmental protection and economic growth. We were also able to hear his interpretation of whether or not one is more important than the other.

We asked Marrito three main questions to decipher our research, the first being how he would interpret the correlation that higher educated people are more likely to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth.

“This may also be related to the economic situation of higher educated people who are generally better at seizing opportunities related to jobs and incomes.” He responds, “They don’t have to face immediate challenging needs to be met and therefore can elaborate on longer-term perspectives. This is often a bit cynical because these ‘better off’ people with higher salaries are also using and consuming more fossil fuel. If they want the world to apply environment-friendly measures, they should be the first to apply them.” He goes on to add that “These ‘better off’ people consider environmental challenges, but they should be the first to take actions to revert environmental degradation. For example, Sweden or Germany are taking good measures for renewable energy production, however, they still emit more carbon dioxide than medium and low-income countries like Jordan and Chad. Let’s not forget that the higher level educated people are polluting much more than the lowest level educated people, again due to their fossil-consumption lifestyles.”

Furthermore, we sought out Marrito’s personal beliefs based on his expertise, asking him that if he believes protecting the environment and economic growth can only be mutually exclusive, and why?

In verbatim, he told us that “it depends on who and where, and when, there is no solution fitting it all, however, we all should tend to make peace with our environment instead of fighting it for our own apparent ‘wellbeing’. We have to move progressively from a profit-driven to a reason-driven society, these are all nice words to say but not easy to implement because politicians have short term vision because of short election terms. When we have corruption, we don’t have long term vision. To have economic growth while protecting the environment we’ll need this paradigm shift from profit and cost to reason and value. Without that, it will be difficult for people to change their habits unless there were laws to force them. One of the most important drivers of economic growth is the use of energy, which is now also the most polluting. This energy can be either reduced by increasing the use of alternative sources such as solar and wind and limiting global trade. For centuries, there were none of the extremely polluting exchanges, so we need to go back to being less global (in terms of physical exchanges but increasing intellectual exchanges to improve the situation).”

However, there is hope, with future generations already taking a stance on protecting the environment, “It is very likely that we have the technology to adapt and change our way of life, but we still have to change our habits, which will not be easy, and make sure international companies modify their commercial strategies. The only hope is for the next generation to be more reasonable than the past and current ones. Vive Greta!”.

We ended our interview with a broader question, as we wondered why should protect the environment be prioritized over economic growth or vice versa?

Of which Marrito explained that each country is under different circumstances when they make decisions between two, “There is no one solution fitting the global problems since countries are not in the same situation. Environmental problems or challenges are generally related to human activities. Two main options are to be envisaged.”

He further provided us two examples, on one hand, the first one is considered “bit radical but already used in China, is to sensitize or convince the population to undertake a demographic transition especially in emerging economic countries such as in Asia, where the majority of the population doesn’t benefit from a human-right-based life having access to basic services. The population growth overtakes economic growth, while the latter is also not sustainable”; on the other hand, the second one is used in industrial countries “such as northern America and Europe, where the population growth has been stabilized but the consumption-oriented market and use of fossil fuels make these countries amongst the most polluting of the planet and they have to find means to adapt their economies to environmental realities. In theory, protecting the environment is more important than economic growth because it’s a long term objective, but human rights obliged humanity to ensure a decent life for all, and for now, consumption and production is how we maintain this decent life”.

He then provided a solution on how countries can approach the subject matter, “we should have a two-fold approach depending on who and where. Industrialized countries should focus on protecting the environment, as they have the technology, economy, and knowledge to initiate these changes. In less industrialized countries, they first have to go through a demographic transition to stabilize population growth and work towards reasonable economic growth, taking advantage of past experiences from industrialized countries. They should reflect on the failures of these industrialized countries to avoid repetition. The best option would be to consider a green economy and promote research towards that direction. The answer is in nature, nature offers many solutions, and they are free. However, this is not attractive for multinational companies driven by profit. That’s why a paradigm shift in societal development is required”.

In this part of our research, we would like to delve into the meaning, importance, and relevance of our results. The results we found during our research have shown that it’s more common for people who obtained degrees to adopt “pro-environmental behaviors, compared to those with no degree” (ESRC, 2011).  People who receive higher education are therefore more likely to also be more open-minded when it comes to actions that benefit the environment such as recycling or limited use of plastic products (ESCR, 2011). The results of that research reflect in the data we collected from the World Value Survey. As shown in  Figure 1, people with a completed primary school (54,5%) and people with university-level education, with a degree (41,9%) showed more willingness to protect the environment than people with other educational levels.

Another research conducted by UNESCO suggests that any progress towards sustainable development requires sufficient planning (UNESCO, 2014), hence not only is engaging the people at higher education beneficial to contributing higher activism (GEM, 2015), but also to approach this kind of global matter strategically (UNESCO, 2014).

As Alex Marrito (FAO) claims in the interview we did with him, “better off” people do consider environmental challenges, but they should be the first to take action to revert environmental degradation. Therefore he suggests a paradigm shift in societal development. Moreover, industrialized countries have the opportunity to use technology, economy, and knowledge to initiate these changes (Marrito, FAO), and the United States is one of those countries. So far, as shown in Figure 6, people in the United States with tertiary education strongly disagree (50%) with the statement “We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about jobs and prices today.” (GEM, 2015) These results found by the survey from the Global Education Survey prove that higher education in the United States does contribute to a higher willingness to protect the environment as people in the United States with primary education only disagree to 20% with the above-mentioned statement.

To have a better insight into how the answers change within the variables age and sex we used these two cross variables to see how it impacts the willingness to protect the environment. Figure 4 depicts that people with the age up to 29 have the highest willingness to protect the environment (44%) in comparison to people aged 30-49 (38%) and people aged 50 and more (33,2%). Figure 5 outlines that female participants agreed to protect the environment with 35,8%, while male participants agreed to 38,8%. These results highlight that by adding further variables the answers can change the overall outcome of the investigation.

One of the insights to be taken away from this investigation is that although it is more likely for people with higher education to act on environmentally friendly measures, they will not do it at the cost of their convenience. So although there are a group of people who are more prone to adopting environmentally beneficial behaviors, it is still not in our best interest to do so completely willingly. This is why focusing on education is one of the most important parts of working towards sustainable development. Education would need a shift to be encouraged to work towards the longer-term perspectives rather than mostly praising the immediate ones. A universal understanding of these environmental needs would push society to share a collective interest in working towards environmental sustainability and the importance it has on the world, just as economic growth does in society.

It’s important to acknowledge that not every country is in a strong enough economic position to adopt such educational changes yet and that is why it’s easier to expect more of the industrialized countries in better circumstances than of the less industrialized who should first reach economic stability before prioritizing environmental sustainability.

As Maritto rightly stated in the interview, the best long term option would be to contemplate a ‘green economy’ and push research towards that. Marrito states that the answer is in nature; it offers many solutions and they are free.

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Posted in Data Journalism 2020