Monday, June 11, 2012

Conservatives and Conservation

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a seminar at Stanford Econ where I focused on my recent research on the role of environmental ideology as a key determinant of behavior in a variety of different private consumer choices ranging from;  using public transit, annual miles driving, probability of owning a Prius, probability of installing solar panels, living in the center city versus the suburbs, electricity consumption, and how a household changes its electricity consumption after receiving a Home Energy Report that benchmarks your household's consumption relative to peers.  In all of these cases,  liberals "walk the walk".   They have a small carbon footprint in their day to day life and there is a logical consistency between how they act in private and how they vote on public legislation.   In a society where we do not introduce Piguouvian taxes, we need such folks to step up.  After all, volunteers are crucial when we have no formal markets to recruit firemen!

My friends at Stanford argued that I was implicitly assuming that political liberals are environmentalists while political conservatives are not.  This "left/right" partition does a good job today but of course it doesn't lead to a perfect partition of people.  I use political party of registration because it is often observable in standard data sets while "environmental ideology" is not easy to observe.

Today's WSJ reviews a book focused on Prince Charles style conservation.

How to Think Seriously About the Planet

By Roger Scruton
(Oxford, 457 pages, $29.95)

Mr. Scruton appears to believe in Downton Abbey style conservation where the Lord (of the Estate not of the Universe) has a desire to conserve nature and to preserve a past lifestyle.  Such a hounds and shooting birds life certainly exists in most quarters but 99.7% of the world's people and activity is focused far from this estate. Instead, the bulk of activity occurs in dense cities far from where the Lord lives.  He has literally built a spatial moat to keep away the common folk.  The real environmental challenges and in a democracy the median voter politics are taking place in the cities and suburbs where people actually live.  
Now, I have been interested in some of Mr. Scruton's themes. I have wanted to work with the National Parks Service to see if visiting a national park helps to shape preferences for preservation of such parks. Is nature an "experience good"?  The Fresh Air Fund is implicitly based on this view.