Upcoming meeting

Reconsidering the good life: Environmental impact and social norms
January 20-22, 2009
Hyatt Regency, Newport Beach, CA


Reconsidering the good life: Environmental impact and social norms

Despite a continued need for ongoing scientific research into questions regarding environmental and climate changes, for many of the greatest problems facing humanity, there is significant scientific consensus around the looming consequences and the potential solutions. We know behavioral change is required and yet, for the most part we continue on with business as usual. Why, and what can be done about it?

This workshop focuses on three interrelated and inseparable factors: discounting, public goods, and social norms. Indeed, social norms provide the overarching and unifying theme, because norms provide the context in which discounting and public goods are addressed. Consumers with ready access to goods and services can have different norms and different expectations about what they consider “required” for everyday life, and consequently employ certain discount rates for the future. Individuals living in societies where acquiring tomorrow's meal is uncertain may have different views on how resources are valued. This disparity leads to variations both within and among societies in how the future is discounted. Executives at large companies, whose jobs depend upon showing profits each quarter, may discount the future at a higher rate than those not using short-term metrics; so too may politicians and other decision makers held responsible for the near- term.

The issue of public goods influences how we do or do not address environmental problems, so many of which involve potential Tragedies of the Commons. Too often, individual balance sheets are in conflict with societal ones, and individual nations must trade off selfish considerations against the global good. Social norms drive many of the problems, such as over-consumption, but hold the solutions as well.

Certain norms, and imitative practice more generally, and the stickiness of those norms and practices, indeed pose some of the greatest barriers to solving the array of environmental problems often described as "the human predicament." These include norms that encourage reproduction and large family size; that embrace perpetual growth in consumption and energy use and in the economy as a whole; and that lead to the view that economic growth trumps environmental protection, and that technological fixes to every problem will always be found. Changing such norms and encouraging norms that promote a sense of responsibility to society, the biosphere and future generations, are essential to addressing the challenges of a sustainable future. This meeting will attempt to identify and categorize the most important norms that affect the environment, both positively and negatively; ask how they arise, spread and are maintained; and discuss possible ways of improving the balance to the positive side.