In 2022, a four-year assessment convened by the United Nations came to a straightforward conclusion: society’s market-based focus on short-term profits and economic growth has contributed greatly to the crises we are facing within the natural environment, notably climate change, species extinction, ocean plastic waste, and other systemic problems.
On the face of it, this conclusion might come as little surprise. Of course valuing profit over environmental preservation is contributing to a series of ecological challenges that mark what scientists are calling the Anthropocene, an era in which of Earth’s systems are profoundly influenced by humans. But the U.N.’s conclusion is more profound than it seems. Even if we understand why we are facing these environmental crises, changing this reality is not a small affair.
To help us understand why this insight is so important, we turned, in a recent paper published in Behavioral Science and Policy, to institutional theory, a branch of research that studies the rules, norms, and ultimately beliefs and values of our culture, all of which guide our behavior and actions. It is at this deepest level—what we value and what we believe—that must be at the root of any effort to address the challenge that the U.N. report calls out.
Two sets of value systems that underlie Western society trigger environmental problems. The first is a faith in market capitalism. The second is a faith in technological optimism.
In particular, two sets of value systems that underlie Western society trigger environmental problems. The first is a faith in market capitalism. This faith embraces a free market, property ownership, shareholder rights, limited regulation, and unlimited economic growth to produce socially optimal outcomes such as economic prosperity or a clean environment. This value set leads us to believe in the “win-win” solution to all our problems; that we can, for example, correct climate change by pursuing solutions that also make us money.
The second is a faith in technological optimism. This optimism embraces human ingenuity and industrial innovation. This leads us to seek a new gadget that will make our problems go away; windmills, solar cells, or electric cars.
Both value systems trivialize our present environmental challenges, leading us to believe that we can find solutions that will allow us to continue our lifestyles unchanged. In short, we look for Band-Aid solutions that do not address the root problems within our culture. While important in the short term, the power of the market and technology alone will not save us in the long term. In the long term, we will have to change the way we think.
This value set leads us to believe in the “win-win” solution to all our problems; that we can, for example, correct climate change by pursuing solutions that also make us money.
Unfortunately, these institutions are enduring and stable, and often impede change—even positive and necessary change. But by applying research on social change in institutions, we can identify policies that could shift the disastrous trajectory we are currently on.
How societies get unstuck
So we turn again to institutional theory. Researchers have identified three approaches for catalyzing societal change. The first does not challenge existing institutions but instead offers new solutions that fit within the dominant value systems. For example, electric cars or vegetable-based meats, which do not change values of driving freedom or eating pleasure but offer ways to reduce the impact of the way those values are enacted.
The second approach is to challenge individual institutions that support the existing value systems and undermine one or more of the mechanisms that are leading to our environmental challenges. For example, new forms of urban design and policy—such as reduced parking, congestion pricing, and bike lanes—shift how people think about urban life and mobility.
The third approach is more dramatic and involves seizing the day following major crises and disruptions that make systems amenable to rapid social change. In this mode, completely new institutions and value systems can be developed. As Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Consider the rapid social change that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With the passage of the Patriot Act and new travel restrictions set by the Transportation Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security (two agencies that did not exist before 9/11), social norms and values around privacy, freedom, and government control changed in ways that people would never have considered possible on September 10. Social scientists call this process of rapid social change “punctuated equilibrium,” and we have seen similar such jumps after the Love Canal, Chernobyl, Bhopal, or Exxon Valdez disasters.
By applying research on social change in institutions, we can identify policies that could shift the disastrous trajectory we are currently on.
The first two approaches allow for careful policy prescriptions that don’t rock the boat too much. Leveraging crises, in contrast, is potentially transformational, but it relies on unpredictable events and is less controllable. Crucially, all three are valuable routes to address our environmental challenges.
New policies for Anthropocene society
We offer a typology of five categories of public and private policy mechanisms that can shift institutions and the values around the market and technology.
1. Policies for eco-sensitive governance
Institutional structures must move away from a single-minded focus on monetary measures of value and purpose. In private policies, the World Economic Forum, Business Roundtable, and others have begun to redefine corporate purpose as less about simply maximizing shareholder profits and more about considering other social and environmental objectives. There is also growing interest in “steady-state growth” or “degrowth,” to recognize limits to perpetual economic growth.
Within the public sector, policies are beginning to grant nature legally enforceable rights, as Ecuador did in 2008 by amending its constitution, or granting specific ecosystems the legal status of personhood, as has been done in New Zealand, Canada, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Going further, an effort is underway to draft laws for the legally enforceable crime of “ecocide” and criminalizing the destruction of the world’s ecosystems. Each of these policies help us to think of value in terms other than strictly economic; terms that allow us to recognize that nature has value that goes beyond narrow human self-interest and we must, at times, restrain our interests to protect it.
2. Policies that reduce consumption
Efforts are underway to reduce consumption of goods and resources and strive towards new models of “sustainable consumption.” This is visible with policies that promote circular economy, decoupling and the right to repair. Urban design is slashing the use of materials by shifting from “car habitats,” to planning, zoning, and development policies that prioritize livability and new urbanism. Meanwhile, corporations (notably Patagonia) have begun striving to eliminate planned obsolescence and place less emphasis on the satisfaction of immediate desires. These kinds of policies compel us to rethink our needs versus our wants, and decrease the desire for more material and energy use to satisfy them.
3. Policies to elevate the role of science in business and society
Public trust in academic institutions, scientific agencies, and other sources of scientific information is both critically important and rapidly eroding. To reverse this erosion, companies are speaking out publicly in support of scientific conclusions on issues such as climate change and COVID, and changing how they use science to pursuing social and environmental goals. Within research communities, scientists and scholars are being trained and incentivized to become more engaged in public and political discourse, bringing their work to the communities that most need it. These policies re-elevate the role of and our trust in science and the scientific method for informing our worldviews, policy outcomes, and public debate.
4. Policies that extend corporate time horizons
Business leaders tend to focus on quarterly or annual time frames. Policymakers think in terms of business and election cycles. Everyday citizens struggle to sacrifice now for the sake of future generations. But such short-term thinking leads us to delay responding to critical issues, allowing tipping points to be passed that limit future responses to these problems. To shift time scales, questions are arising over metrics like discounted cash flows that “favor short term gains at the expense of future generations” and Gross Domestic Product that neglects many measures of social value. Within public policies, energy policies (i.e., in Europe) are shifting to make long term planning easier, with 40- to 60-year time horizons. These policies help us to see that solutions to the challenges we face must be considered in the long arc of time and for future generations—where planetary heating, sea level rise, and carbon cycles occur over decades, centuries, and millennia—and that our incessant focus on the short-term blinds us to addressing them.
5. Policies that make society more adaptable and resilient
The environment has entered the “new normal,” which is less stable and prone to more sudden shifts; a reality that is at odds with the dominant view of the world as relatively continuous and on an upward path of progress. But insurance companies are monetizing that uncertainty by changing underwriting policies to reflect climate and weather instability. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is revising flood coverage and response away from rebuilding to relocation. And planning, zoning, and building standards are being redeveloped to plan for more frequent storm disasters. These policies force is to recognize the “new normal,” that the past is not always prologue for the future and that the environment that our children and grandchildren will grow up in is far different that the environment we grew up in. And it is the product of our actions, guided by our values and beliefs, that changed it.
Overcoming the resistance ahead
By changing values systems, these policies will threaten closely held cultural, ideological, and religious beliefs that many people hold or benefit from. These policies will challenge the belief that market forces or technological innovation inevitably lead to positive ends. They will stir fears of centrally planned economies that challenges a free market economy. They will raise fears that people will lose freedom and stop taking personal responsibility. And they will compel resistance from those that simply distrust the scientists promoting them.
But by building on research into mechanisms that alter our cultural institutions, incremental and transitional change can help keep the Earth within safe planetary boundaries. And given the new normal caused by the Anthropocene, COVID-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more, policymakers will have opportunities to push for more rapid and profound change when sudden, disruptive events compel a reexamination of the institutional structures of society. Only by shifting the dominant values around market capitalism and technological optimism will society be able to keep the planet within its livable boundaries and avoid the environmental calamities that we now face.