What Motivates People To Do Good For The Environment?


I recently watched the 2007 documentary, Trashed directed by Bill Kirkos. The film is a provocative exploration of America’s throwaway culture. Trashed shows us who’s winning and who’s losing in the game of “waste management,” and the kicker is that the environment almost never wins. The film exposes landfills as being highly profitable over the short-term and highly problematic over the long-term. Although the film is over 10 years old at this point, it shocked me how little has changed since it was made. This got me thinking. 


Why is climate action so slow moving? There is no absence of evidence suggesting that climate change is real and human caused. “Thousands of studies conducted by researchers around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor” (Executive summary in: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I). Yet, despite many environmental scientists and activists best efforts, CO2 levels have only continued to rise over the past 50 years. So what does it really take to motivate people to do good for the environment?


In the film Trashed, Dan Knapp, the founder of Urban Ore salvage yard in Berkley, CA discusses what he believes drives people the most. He argues that guilt is not the best motivator when it comes to individual environmental responsibility. Instead, he says, that financial reward is the most powerful incentive. In order to influence people’s purchase decisions on a large scale, Knapp says, it will take a lot of entrepreneurs who are willing to change the way the waste management system functions.


But my question is, what drives those entrepreneurs to make that personal investment in such a cause? Does financial reward truly carry enough weight to motivate someone to challenge bureaucrats and industry leaders?


Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says that financial rewards only work for “simple and short-term work.” When it comes to more complex, creative, and long-term work, motivators can take a much different shape. According to Pink, an employer should pay their employees just enough so that money is no longer an issue. Then, their employees can make a stable living with their salaries without having to worry about getting their basic needs met, therefore relieving pressure to seek out financial rewards. But Pink wants to know, what motivates those employees to do not just good work, but great work once the issue of money is off of the table. 


Through research, he came up with three main motivators people require to do great work: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Autonomy, according to Pink, refers to having sovereignty or ownership over one’s own work, and mastery refers to feeling like one is making progress in said work. Let’s take Pink’s three key motivators and place them outside of the business productivity realm and think of them from a more philosophical perspective. 


“Interpretation of Daniel Pink’s Concepts of ‘Autonomy & Mastery’”

From here, we can group together autonomy and mastery as they tend to be more tangible constructs due to their skill-based nature, in contrast to purpose which tends to be more intangible. When thinking about one’s own autonomy and mastery at work, one may ask themselves logistical questions of “how” or simple “yes/no” questions.


Do I feel like I have ownership of my own work? Yes. Do I feel like I am making progress towards my goal? No, how do I improve my strategy to be more efficient? 


One does not need to reflect too deeply to realize if they have autonomy or mastery in their work. These motivators are inherently apparent since they relate to the day-to-day processes at work rather than the bigger picture. Answering questions regarding autonomy and mastery often require logistical strategies and do not take into account feelings.


“Interpretation of Daniel Pink’s Concept of ‘Purpose’”

Purpose on the other hand, may throw logic to the wind and be driven solely by feelings. At times, a personal sense of purpose may be entirely unapparent. Though it may be easier for some, for the most part uncovering purpose can be incredibly difficult and can require a large amount of abstract thinking to reveal. It asks the more complex and philosophical questions of “what” and more importantly, “why?”


What in my work makes me feel fulfilled? Why do I want to spend my time working on this project? 


Ray Anderson, Founder of Interface Inc. a commercial carpeting and flooring company dedicated to the Zero Waste movement, talks to the director of Trashed about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. 


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs refers to the needs of all people starting with basic physiological needs, then psychological needs, then finally self-fulfillment needs. Anderson argues that people may want to do good for the environment because it can satisfy self-fulfillment needs. Doing good for the environment therefore provides people with a grander sense of purpose


Doing good for the environment may not be your life’s purpose but it still adds purpose to your life. 


However, it is nearly impossible for one to make decisions based on the highest tier in the Hierarchy of Needs if the other tiers are not being met. Like Daniel Pink said, an employer must first pay their employees just enough so that money is no longer an issue. People will always seek out the needs in their life that are not being met. Therefore, any individual who is struggling financially is going to care more about a financial reward than the fulfillment gained from helping the environment. Even though helping the environment may be the right thing to do, the individual is placed in a stronghold of meeting their own needs before helping others. 

It’s just like taking an airplane. In the case of an emergency, aviation protocol says to always apply your own oxygen mask before helping others. If you help others before protecting yourself, your put yourself at risk of harm. 


This is the reason I believe the environmental movement has struggled to unite the masses after the first unifying Earth Day in 1970. It is more important than ever to recognize the interconnectedness of many major global issues. Research shows that we simply can not motivate people to do good for the environment without helping to solve their basic needs first. At times it can feel overwhelming, hopeless, and like it’s just us against the world. But we all have a responsibility to treat the Earth with respect, and in order to accomplish that we must also treat each other with respect or we will never see progress. 


As Joseph Minott, Executive Director and Chief Counsel at the Clean Air Council put it, “I am an optimist, I believe in the goodness of people, I really do. I think generally people want to do the right thing... When it comes to climate change, which I think is the biggest existential threat to all of us, people will see the need to move forward, and aggressively at this point.”





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