Individuals active in grassroots environmental movements are not only effective at making a dent in their carbon footprint, they’re also more content with their lives than their non-environmentally active peers, according to a small but intriguing European study.
Overall, the environmental activists in the study had a carbon footprint that was 16 percent lower, on average, than a comparable group of non-activists. Yet the steps they took to achieve that reduction — such as eating more plant-based foods, purchasing more secondhand goods, and lowering the temperatures in their homes — did not detract from their enjoyment of life.
On the contrary, the activists were more likely to be satisfied with their lives than the non-activists.
“Typically, as people grow wealthier, they tend to upscale their material living standards, thus consuming more and emitting more climate-damaging gases,” said Gibran Vita, one of the study’s authors and an industrial ecologist at the Open University in the Netherlands, in a released statement. “But members of climate initiatives keep their spending low key even if their incomes increase.”
“Consuming less didn’t seem to take a toll on their joy,” he added.
The findings from this study seem particularly relevant this week, as Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States, descends upon us.
For the study, published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, Vita and his colleagues analyzed survey information collected from 141 people participating in environmental grassroots initiatives in four European countries. The initiatives included three food and sustainable-consumption cooperatives in Spain, two eco-villages in Romania, five food cooperatives in Italy and members of a German social movement known as the “Transition Town Network,” which helps cities and towns build more sustainable communities.
The surveys enabled the researchers to look at both the carbon footprints and the psychological wellbeing of each of the study’s participants. They then compared those survey results with similar data collected from 1,476 non-environmental activists in the same four countries.
As already noted, the researchers found that the people involved in the grassroots initiatives had carbon footprints that were 16 percent lower, on average, than the non-activists. Much of that reduction was the result of changes the activists made in two specific areas of consumption.
“We found that initiative members [ate] more plant-based food and used more secondhand clothing,” said Diana Ivanova, one of the study’s co-authors and a research fellow at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, in a released statement.
“Members were able to cut their carbon footprints by 43 per cent for food-related emissions and 86 per cent for clothing-related emissions,” she pointed out.
Interestingly, although the activists rode their bicycles more and kept their home temperatures lower than the non-activists, both groups had similar carbon footprints for housing and transportation.
The likely reason for that finding, the researchers say, is that housing and transportation are strongly tied to existing — and usually unsustainable — infrastructures, such as unreliable or nonexistent public transport or inadequately insulated housing.
“While decisions around diets and clothing may reflect individual preferences, mobility and housing choices are often limited by long-lived infrastructure, urban design, public transport options and commuting distances,” the researchers write in their paper.
One final finding: The lifestyle changes the environmental activists made to lighten their carbon footprint did not hinder their happiness. When the survey questions that measured life satisfaction were analyzed, the researchers found that activists were 11 to 13 percent more likely than non-activists to evaluate their life positively and 7 to 9 percent less likely to evaluate their life negatively.
“In general, research shows that altruistic behavior, including volunteering, is positively associated with pro-environmental behavior, higher well-being and lower emissions,” said Vita.
“It’s also something to think about with the upcoming holiday season,” said Ivanova. “The holiday season often encourages overconsumption, materialism and a work-and-spend cycle with negative consequences for environmental and human well-being. Our study adds to the evidence on the high price of materialism — because even though we may believe otherwise, beyond a certain basic consumption level, filling our lives with stuff is generally corrosive for well-being.”
Still not enough
Yes, this is a small study, and, yes, it involved only Europeans. Still, as background information in the paper points out, this isn’t the first study to find that “a good life can be decoupled from environmental damage.”
These new findings are therefore heartening. They show we can lower our carbon footprint by taking individual action — and may even be happier as a result. But the findings are also disappointing. For although the activists were able to cut their carbon footprint by an average of 16 percent, that figure is only one-fifth of the per-person reduction needed to reach global targets for reducing greenhouse emissions.
That doesn’t mean, however, that grassroots environmental initiatives don’t have an important part to play in fighting climate change.
“Grassroots initiatives are an overlooked, yet essential part of the solution,” said Vita and Ivanova in a jointly released statement. “If we stunt their growth by limiting their access to resources or if they are hindered by bureaucracy, we will lose out on an important mechanism for social change — experimentation.”
“But all our hopes on people’s willingness to voluntarily change is unrealistic,” they added. “We also need societies, cities and communities that offer low-carbon choices as the default option.”
FMI: You can read the study in full on the Energy Research & Social Science website.