Do Older Countries Care More About the Environment?

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Dec. 5 2013 3:32 PM

Do Older Countries Care More About the Environment?

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A photo taken on Oct. 21, 2013, shows smoke from an incinerator in Paris, well within "Old Europe."

Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

A recent paper for Psychological Science makes the case that older countries are more concerned about environmental sustainability, arguing that "citizens may use perceptions of their country’s age to predict its future continuation, with longer pasts predicting longer futures.” In other words, if your country has been around for a long time, you probably think it will continue to be around for a lot longer, and therefore care more about protecting its environment.

In the first of two studies, the authors, Hal E. Hershfeld of NYU, H. Min Bang of Duke, and Elke U. Weber of Columbia, compared countries’ age—the time since they became independent—with their performance on the Yale Environmental Performance Index. They “found a strong positive relationship between country age and environmental performance,” even after controlling for GDP and governance quality. (Yes, the normal caveats about “countries that do x also do y” studies should apply here.)

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Obviously, there are some issues here. First, “start dates” are a bit of a fluid concept for many countries. The People’s Republic of China, for instance, dates back to 1949—the date given in the study—but even in contemporary political disputes such as the feud with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Chinese leaders frequently refer to much older events. “China,” as opposed to its current political system, is a whole lot more than 64 years old. But in terms of its industrial and environmental policies, which had their starting point around the late ‘70s, it’s probably more useful to think of China an even younger country.

I can also think of some nonpsychological reasons why this would be the case. Even controlling for GDP, newly independent countries tend to be in a position of wanting to catch up with their more established peers, making them more likely to put economic development ahead of environmental concerns.

The second experiment addresses this somewhat by looking at peoples’ perceptions of the age of their country. “When the United States was framed as an old country ... participants were willing to donate more money to an environmental organization.”

I’m not sure how much we can really adduce this to explain countries’ environmental policies, but it may have implications for environmental messaging. If you want people to look far into the future, making them think far into the past. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog.