Anton Rusetsky/Unsplash
Source: Anton Rusetsky/Unsplash

“Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural 'poverty pockets,' or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” Dr. Robert Bullard

In 2015, Pennsylvania and Ohio’s coal and gas fired power plants cut nearly 4,400 lives short.  More than half of these plants are located near low income and minority communities. The proximity leaves these residents vulnerable to toxic smoke associated with acute bronchitis, asthma, and heart attacks, as well as the hazards of climate change.

Fair treatment, a foundation of environmental justice, means that poor people living in these perilous zones should be free to make decisions that affect their well-being.  However, Jenny Olson, Brent McFerran, Andrea Morales, and Darren Dahl found that the participants in their study were not so sure. When it comes to spending money on climate friendly options, those who earned their income, as opposed to receiving welfare, were deemed more deserving of the right to spend extra cash to cool the planet.

Olson and her colleagues examined reactions to the ethical choices of fictitious characters.  In one of five experiments, 181 adults (54% female, 46% male, mean age 35.8 years) were recruited online and divided into three groups based on the annual income of a man named John ($12,000 in welfare benefits, $12,000 earned, or $85,000 earned).  Using just his age and income level, the participants judged John’s morality.  Then they were told that he rented either a Corolla or a more expensive, but environmentally friendly, Prius hybrid.  The participants then rated John’s morality again along with their agreement with three more statements:

  • John deserves to spend his money as he chooses.
  • John has the right to make his own spending choices.
  • How John spends his money is up to him.

To earn or not to earn – this was the pivotal issue for participants.  When John earned his income he was deemed more deserving of discretion and worthy of moral praise. In contrast, when John was a welfare recipient, he was morally denigrated when he chose the Prius. Being underprivileged and on government assistance negated the privilege of choice.

The participants in this study who were told that John earned his money were not told how John earned his money.  It could have been a salary or interest accrued on inherited wealth. John, who earned $85,000, may have never worked a day in his life; John, the welfare recipient, may have toiled for decades at minimum wage before losing his job.  Nevertheless, the participants seemed to regard the acceptance of welfare as a personal failing.

These results highlight how bias can obstruct environmental justice – a burden for those who already live on the front lines of climate change.

Olson, J., McFerran, B., Morales, A., & Dahl, D. (2016). Wealth and Welfare: Divergent Moral Reactions to Ethical Consumer Choices, Journal of Consumer Research, 42.

About the Author

Michele Wick Ph.D.

Michele Wick, Ph.D., is a writer, licensed psychologist, and research associate in the Psychology Department at Smith College.

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