Block party like it’s time to save the planet

Researchers at the University of Vermont may have a bone to pick with their state’s former poet laureate. “Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost wrote in 1914, channeling the taciturn independence often seen as an essential part of the character of New Englanders and indeed of Americans as a whole. But according to more recent research, good neighbors break down barriers to environmentally friendly action.

The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, draws on data from 1,430 people who participated in the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS). This survey is conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and provides the raw material for tons of sociological analysis.

In this case, researchers looked for relationships between how people answered questions about the environment – such as whether they make an effort to buy organic produce or are willing to pay higher taxes to benefit the environment – and other variables including how much time they spend with relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Neighborly folks find it easy being green, the researchers found. The more time people spend socializing with neighbors, the more likely they are to take environmentally friendly actions like recycling and buying organic, and to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment. But the more time people spend with relatives, the less likely they are to have these habits and attitudes.

Since these survey data only provide a snapshot of actions and attitudes at one point in time, it’s difficult to unravel the cause and effect relationships between them. It could be for example that environmentally minded people are also more likely to seek out involvement with their local community.

But the researchers hypothesize that something else is going on: Getting together with neighbors may foster sharing of information and resources, for example helping people find out about the savings to be had from weatherizing their houses or connecting people with opportunities to carpool.

People whose lives are primarily oriented around kith and kin tend to only hear messages that reinforce their existing attitudes, the researchers say. But when people spend time with looser, more casual connections they are likely to be exposed to new information that challenges their attitudes and changes their behavior – perhaps in a pro-environment way.

The results, while preliminary, offer a hopeful counterpoint to the bleak findings published in Nature Climate Change a few weeks ago showing that people’s stances on certain controversial issues, like climate change, are more about group identity than facts or ideology. The findings from the Vermont study suggest that this group identity might be somewhat malleable, and interactions with neighbors could be one way to shift it.

This means that direct campaigns encouraging people to drive less or switch to energy efficient light bulbs might not be the only, or even the most efficient, ways to shape environmental behaviors. Instead, policymakers should keep in mind that efforts to foster neighborly sharing, such as by building playgrounds, park benches, and community gardens, could also have an environmental benefit.

And that bone to pick with the poet? If challenged on the point, Frost might point out that the line about good fences is dialogue spoken by a character in his poem “Mending Wall.” In fact, the speaker of that poem is skeptical of this attitude, and goes on to say that “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out” – making the poem’s real message closer to an endorsement of community ties. But see, this is exactly the sort of understanding you could imagine hashing out over a plate of food at a backyard potluck. – Sarah DeWeerdt | 10 March 2015

Source: Macias T. and K. Williams. 2014. Know your neighbors, save the planet: Social capital and the widening wedge of pro-environmental outcomes. Environment and Behavior DOI: 10.1177/0013916514540458

Header image: Neighborly connections foster green actions. Credit: Joshua Brown/UVM.