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Human Behavioural Ecology and Environmental Conservation

  • Joel T. Heinen (a1) and Roberta (‘Bobbi’) S. Low (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2009

We contend that humans, as living organisms, evolved to sequester resources to maximize reproductive success, and that many basic aspects of human behaviour reflect this evolutionary history. Much of the environment with which we currently deal is evolutionarily novel, and much behaviour which is ultimately not in our own interests, persists in this novel environment. Environmentalists frequently stress the need for ‘sustainable development’, however it is defined (see Redclift, 1987), and we contend that a knowledge of how humans are likely to behave with regard to resource use, and therefore a knowledge of what kinds of programmes are likely to work in any particular situation, is necessary to achieve sustainability. Specifically, we predict that issues which are short-term, local, and/or acute, such as an immediate health-risk, will be much easier to solve than issues which are broad, and which affect individuals other than ourselves, our relatives, and our friends. The bigger the issue is, the less effective is likely to be the response. Hence, the biggest and most troublesome ecological issues will be the most difficult to solve — inter alia because of our evolutionary history as outlined above.

This may not appear to bode well for the future of the world; for example, Molte (1988) contends that there are several hundred international environmental agreements in place, but Carroll (1988) contends that, in general, none of them is particularly effective if the criterion for effectiveness is a real solution to the problem. There are countless examples of ‘aggressors’ (those nations causing the problem) not complying with an agreement, slowing its ratification, or reducing its effectiveness (e.g. the US versus Canada, or Great Britain versus Sweden, with regard to acid rain legislation: Fig. 1, cf. Bjorkbom, 1988). The main problem in these cases is that the costs are externalized and hence discounted by those receiving the benefits of being able to pollute. Any proposed change is bound to conflict with existing social structures, and negotiations necessarily involve compromise in a quid pro quo fashion (Brewer, 1980). We contend, along with Caldwell (1988) and Putnam (1988), that nations are much too large to think of as individual actors in these spheres. Interest groups within nations can affect ratification of international environmental treaties; for example, automobile industry interests versus those of environmental NGOs in the USA on the acid rain issue. It may even be that our evolutionary history is inimical to the entire concept of the modern nation state.

Barring major, global, socio-political upheaval, we suggest that a knowledge of the evolution of resource use by humans can be used to solve at least some resource-related problems in modern industrial societies. In some cases, these can probably be solved with information alone, and in other cases, the problems can probably be solved by playing on our evolutionary history as social reciprocators; environmental problems which tend to be relatively local and short-term may be solvable in these ways. Economic incentives can provide solutions to many other types of problems by manipulating the cost and benefits to individuals. We suggest that broader, large-scale environmental problems are much more difficult to solve than narrower, small-scale ones, precisely because humans have evolved to discount such themes; stringent regulations and the formation of coalitions, combined with economic incentives to use alternatives and economic disincentives (fines) not to do so, may be the only potential solutions to some major, transboundary environmental issues.

In preparing this argument, we have reviewed literature from many scholarly fields well outside the narrow scope of our expertise in behavioural ecology and wildlife conservation. Our reading of many works from anthropology, economics, political science, public policy, and international development, will doubtless seem naïve and simplistic to practitioners of those fields, and solving all environmental problems will ultimately take expertise from all of these fields and more. In general, however, we have found agreement for many of our ideas from these disparate disciplines, but much of their literature does not allow for a rigorous, quantitative hypothesis-testing approach to analysing the main thesis presented here — an approach that we, as scientists, would encourage. We hope to challenge people interested in environmental issues from many perspectives, to consider our arguments and find evidence, pro or con, so that we (collectively) may come closer to a better analysis of, and ultimately to solutions for, our most pressing environmental problems.

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Environmental Conservation
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