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Press Release 11-009
Scientists: Big City Life May Alter Green Attitudes

Study of Chinese citizens says jobs more important than salary when it comes to pro-environmental behavior

Photo of Shanghai waterside.

Employees, who work for large companies in China, engage in pro-environmental behavior.
Credit and Larger Version

January 13, 2011

View a video interview with sustainability scientist Jianguo "Jack" Liu of Michigan State University.

People with good jobs found in large cities are more likely to engage in pro-environmental activities. So says a new study of China's environmental behavior published this week in the British journal Environmental Conservation.

For the first time, scientists weighed employment and leadership when considering how people act regarding their natural surroundings. They found the status and political power of companies in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin strongly influence the conservation practices of their employees.

Moreover, the scientists found employees who work for these companies--especially the workplace leaders--are particularly likely to engage in environmentally friendly activities that signal a desire to be green by, for example, sorting trash and participating in environmental litigation.

Scientists at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) at Michigan State University led the study along with collaborators in the United States and China.

"Employment matters with regard to pro-environmental behavior due to many different reasons," said Xiaodong Chen, who conducted the study with colleagues while working on his doctorate in sustainability science at MSU. "First, people may be affected by peers in their workplace through the diffusion of environmental values.

"Second, some pro-environmental behaviors need facilitating support such as equipment for classifying garbage or social groups who can organize these activities. Employment settings sometimes provide such support," he said regarding specific findings in urban China.

Chen and colleagues analyzed data from China's General Social Survey of 2003. The survey questioned some 5,000 respondents from different-sized urban areas about their environmental behavior.

"It is essential to study human behavior because behavior directly affects the environment," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu, CSIS director and a co-author on the paper. "As China is the world's fastest growing economy and cities are the economic engines with severe environmental challenges, understanding environmental behavior of urban residents in China is particularly important."

Thomas Baerwald, a Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) agreed. "Because China's rapid economic growth is likely to continue, China will provide a setting where U.S. researchers and decision makers can learn much about the ways to sustain both environmental quality and economic prosperity," he said.

NSF's Program on Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems partially funded the study.

"By monitoring attitudes and behavior through the use of instruments like general social surveys, scientists and decision makers can better understand the ways people respond as economic and environmental conditions change," said Baerwald.

China's General Social Survey asked if people sorted their garbage to separate recyclables, recycled plastic bags, talked about environmental issues with family or friends, participated in environmental education programs, volunteered in environmental organizations or took part in environmental litigation. People who live in large cities showed significantly more green behavior than people in smaller cities.

"In our models, we included a variable for 'employment status' and 'employment rank,' in addition to a separate variable for 'income,'" said Chen.

Employment status indicated whether an individual had a job. Employment rank indicated whether the individual had a leadership position in his or her workplace. Income was a monetary representation of the person's salary regardless of his or her role in the workplace.

"We found that employment status and rank of respondents mattered for five out of the six pro-environmental behaviors we studied, while income only mattered for one pro-environmental behavior," Chen said. "People who were in a job and people who were in a leadership position in their workplace reported more pro-environmental behaviors than people not employed and people in non-leadership positions" regardless of salary.

"You don't have to be rich to consider environmental issues," said Chen. "Even if people are poor and their material needs are not as well met, they still consider the environmental quality because those people may be threatened more by environmental problems."

"The results of this project demonstrate the importance of examining the environmental attitudes and behavior of people over longer time periods," said Baerwald. "This study challenges widely held beliefs that maintaining environmental quality is a luxury that can be justified only in wealthier settings."

The researchers say companies in big cities likely have resources to promote environmental initiatives, such as education. These companies can organize or provide support for organizing pro-environmental behavior, and encourage--and under many circumstances require--employees to participate in environmental behavior. In addition, people who live in the largest cities are more widely exposed to media reports about the environment than people who live in smaller cities.

As its urban areas continue to grow, the findings will help China determine which audiences to target to encourage behaviors that can help counter the environmental costs associated with rapid economic growth. The researchers also say the study can benefit the United States.

"China's leadership increasingly pays more attention to China's environmental issues and also the employers increasingly encourage more participation of their employees in environment related issues," said Liu. "This top down approach has produced some good environmental results in China," he said.

Liu and Chen were joined in this research by Nils Peterson and Graise Lee of North Carolina State University, Vanessa Hull, a doctoral candidate in CSIS, Chuntian Lu, a doctoral student in MSU's sociology department and Dayong Hong of Renmin University in China.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8485, bmixon@nsf.gov
Sue Nichols, Michigan State University, (517) 432-0206, nichols@msu.edu

Program Contacts
Thomas J. Baerwald, NSF, (703) 292-7301, tbaerwal@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University, (517) 432-5025, liuji@msu.edu
Xiaodong Chen, Harvard University, (617) 496-0426, xiaodong_chen@hks.harvard.edu

Related Websites
40 Million Electric Bikes Spark Environmental Dilemma in China: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110714

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Image of Jianguo "Jack" Liu as he discusses green behavior in China's big cities.
View Video
Jianguo "Jack" Liu discusses green behavior in China's big cities.
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Photo showing large numbers of people and vehicles on Shanghai street and hazy, overcast sky.
China's rapid economic growth makes it a good place to learn and understand environmental behavior.
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Photo of Great Wall of China near Beijing obscured by air pollution, dust and sand.
Burning of fossil fuels, dust and sand obscure a section of the Great Wall of China near Beijing.
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Photo of a coal power plant in Xian, China releasing sulfur dioxide directly into the atmosphere.
A coal power plant in Xian, China releases sulfur dioxide directly into the atmosphere.
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