Valuing power is bad news for bioenergy

Psychologists have proved that, those people who value success, social power and superiority, wealth, esteem and self-centred satisfaction are only concerned about the environment when it affects them personally. Their behaviours don’t benefit the environment either.

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Egocentrism doesn’t benefit the environment like it creates wealth. (This image may be subject to copyright. Source)

New Research

A new psychological survey plans to identify the values of those people directly and indirectly involved with bioenergy production. If certain stakeholders have the above self-enhancement values, will that explain why economic returns are prioritised over environmental degradation?

This is new territory for the bioenergy industry globally. In 2016, the International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy  set up a team of academics and industry experts to understand the perceptions and underlying motivations of stakeholder groups so that there sustainability misconceptions can be avoided. My aim is to encourage a social science framework, or ‘lens’, for the research.

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There are many varied perceptions of ‘sustainability’. (This image may be subject to copyright. Source: Computing for Sustainability.)

Different perceptions of sustainability problems

Bioenergy production cannot proceed sustainably until there is an acceptance of the varied understanding of what sustainability actually means. Many studies show a significant contrast in perceptions, attitudes & concerns  of stakeholders concerning the sustainability of bioenergy. These frictions are a result of differences in values.

That means making sure we don’t just turn to science for answers to environmental problems. Instead, we need to acknowledge that economics, technology, finance, politics, law, history, ethics, and psychology all influence how we define the problem and then what we do about it.

Individuals who are motivated by self-centred achievement, power, and social superiority:

  • Are concerned about the environment only when problems affect themselves
  • value nature only to the extent that it effects themselves
  • don’t have behaviours that benefit the environment

Science can help us to understand ‘actual’ impacts of harvesting biomass from forests or agricultural land. But more importantly, psychology and social science can help us understand people’s perceptions of the impacts. Depending on a person’s values or experiences, they will ‘frame’, or define, the problem differently.

In the context of creating energy from forest biomass, for example, an ecologist may frame the sustainability problem as “using native forests for bioenergy, timber or woodchips, increases deforestation and decreases biodiversity over the long-term”. A company that harvests wood from native forests may frame the sustainability problem as “it is not economically viable for me to make energy from native forest waste”. A contrast between actual and perceived impacts exists with social effects too.

Sustainability governance only addresses the proximate causes

Introducing environmental protections could be one policy option to address the ecologist’s problem. Introducing economic incentives for the harvester could be another policy option (which will also contribute to decreased greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels).

Although both these policies simply address the proximate cause of the sustainability problems.

Underlying, indirect causes

Instead, attention must be drawn to the underlying, indirect causes of the sustainability problems. This may be that a person values nature only when it is a natural resource that can be consumed for human benefit. This can be at conflict with a person who believes that nature has an innate or existence value independent of any use to humans.

History, policy and economics are also underlying causes.

In Australia, it is clear that politics influences the sustainability of bioenergy. There is no policy-free pathway to replacing Australia’s established and highly polluting coal- and gas-fired power stations. And the Renewable Energy Target (RET) is providing insufficient incentive in a market of oversupply. Forestry governance and legislations were created when there were less-apparent environmental problems.

Historically, Australia has inherited common law which protects the interests of private property rather than public property like forests and environmentally or culturally significant land.

Perhaps specialised labour skills in agriculture and forestry are perceived as not-transferable to other industries.

Geographically, foreign states are leaders in creating legislation to increase the sustainability of bioenergy production. Should the IEA Bioenergy and Australia follow suit and reactively address the perceived proximate causes of sustainability problems? Or should we analyse the underlying values of Australian stakeholders and other social factors to adopt multiple and varied governance measures that will address the underlying causes?

Cover image sourced from Cartoon Stock and may be subject to copyright.

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