Being green has nothing to do with wealth

Environmentalism is about values, not income, new research shows

Personal income makes no difference to how much people care about the natural environment, new research from the University of Bristol shows.

Published in the European Sociological Review, the paper reveals that poor people and poor countries prioritise protecting the environment just as much as richer people and richer countries.

Previous research has suggested that richer people are usually ‘greener’, but the new study is the most comprehensive analysis of the relationship between income and environmental attitudes yet.

Dr Malcolm Fairbrother of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences compared surveys from 78 nations and analysed data collected over more than a decade by the World Values Survey programme, which started measuring public opinion about the environment in the late 1980s.

Respondents were asked a series of questions about their willingness to pay money to prevent pollution, and about how serious they perceived different kinds of problems to be in their communities.

Dr Fairbrother said: “The analysis looked at differences not just across countries at a given time, but also patterns in how environmental concern has changed as national economies have developed. Sometimes people talk about environmentalism like it’s a kind of luxury good, which you can only really afford once you have enough income. But it turns out that’s not true: as countries get richer, they don’t get any more green than before. Even in quite poor countries, most people say the environment is important to them.”

Dr Fairbrother added that there are many reasons why poorer people would be so concerned about the environment: “Think about the pollutants in the air around power plants and incinerators, for example, or about how climate change is leading to higher sea levels off the coast of Bangladesh.

“We all suffer the costs of other people’s pollution, but the poor probably get the worst deal in terms of costs relative to benefits.”

The study did find that within countries at a given level of development, people earning higher incomes said they were more willing to pay more to protect the environment, but only slightly – on other questions there was no significant difference. Overall it was found that people’s environmental attitudes were less tied to income than to their basic values.