CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book from a team of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign legal scholars considers the unlikely intersection of environmental law and psychology, which can play a subtle-yet-important role in how laws shape people’s interactions with the natural world.
Arden Rowell and Kenworthey Bilz are co-authors of “The Psychology of Environmental Law,” which explores and analyzes the theoretical and practical payoffs of pollution control, ecosystem management and climate change law and policy when psychological insights are taken into account.
“The world faces many extraordinary environmental challenges, and we need all the tools we can muster to meet and tackle those challenges,” said Rowell, a law professor and University Scholar at the Urbana campus. “A critical part of our toolset for trying to solve some of the world’s most important environmental problems is going to involve psychology and the influence it can have on human behavior. Our book gives policymakers, lawyers and environmental activists ways to think about these problems, so that they can come up with solutions that they might not otherwise have thought about.”
“The goal of this book is not to just say ‘This is what you should do with the Endangered Species Act,’” Bilz said. “As lawyers, we deal in statutes and regulations, but to predict how those things are actually going to work in practice, our argument is you have to understand how human psychology works. There’s what the statute or regulation looks like on paper and even what the drafters intended it to do – and then there’s how people actually interpret and respond to it. So, if you want to understand the law in this area, you really need to understand the psychology behind how people think about it.”
Environmental law is distinct from other areas of law in that the injuries tend to be difficult to see because they are dispersed across time and space, the authors said.
“It’s difficult for people to make decisions about how they relate to the environment, because it’s hard for them to even know what the impacts of their own individual actions are going to be when the effects will be felt thousands of miles away, and perhaps decades in the future,” Rowell said. “Humans have very predictable biases that can distort their predictions about such things.”
Environmental impacts are “also deeply complex, which makes them hard to understand, and also tend to involve nonhuman entities – harm to plants, animals and ecosystems,” Bilz said. “And that makes them, in many cases, hard to care about. Psychology can tell us why that’s so and give some suggestions about how to cope with that.”
The injuries that occur from environmental issues are so complicated that causality can be difficult to pinpoint.
“Things like exposure to asbestos or lung injuries from coal mining – most of those problems emerge much later in life,” Bilz said. “In a similar vein, how do you account for Midwestern agricultural practices, where emissions flow south to the Gulf of Mexico and cause huge dead areas for fisheries and other economic activities far away from the origin of harm? Over time, the Gulf can absorb a certain amount of pollution. But what happens when you reach a tipping point and, suddenly, you have these massive die offs or algae blooms? Those kinds of complexities can be hard to predict. They’re not linear functions.”
The book also describes how various cognitive blind spots can predict whether people will engage in environmentally harmful behavior, Rowell said.
“Things like whether someone chooses to recycle,” she said. “There are various psychological mechanisms that make people reluctant to recycle that have nothing to do with the costs and benefits of recycling, but more to do with what kind of person they see themselves as, and what example they see other people setting in their behaviors.”
The book also suggests that there may be reason for optimism about international environmental agreements on climate change such as the 2015 Paris climate agreement – even when such agreements lack binding force or specific incentives for reducing carbon emissions.
“That’s an area in which looking at the psychological aspect of it can make us feel more optimistic about the seemingly intractable problem of climate change and what can we do about it,” Rowell said. “Sure, the Paris agreement isn’t enforceable. What difference does it make if the U.S. ratifies it? Well, something like the Paris agreement can still have profound psychological impact on people’s decisions and behavior by, for example, setting an expectation or benchmark to evaluate all their other behavior against. And so we see the Paris agreement, even after the U.S. pulled out of it under President Trump, as having important aspirational impact.”
“In the Paris agreement, they set a very lofty goal of trying to limit global warming overall to two degrees Celsius. That’s an aggressive goal, one that many scientists have questioned whether it’s even possible to reach,” Rowell said. “But by setting that as the baseline expectation, what it does is create a set of cognitive, mental and emotional incentives that drive people to try to reach that level, even in the absence of legal enforcement mechanisms.”
“In addition to having a kind of moral force, something like the Paris agreement also has a cognitive component to it,” Bilz said. “People think about the world in terms of anchor points, and something like the Paris agreement provides a psychological anchor point.”
The book was published by NYU Press.