Is Religion the Environment's Last Best Hope? Targeting Change in Individual Behavior through Personal Norm Activation

46 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2008

Date Written: August 7, 2008


Although individuals cumulatively contribute significantly to pollution problems, regulators have generally avoided targeting them. However, many of the most vexing environmental problems that remain cannot be resolved without limiting individuals' environmentally destructive choices, or at least spurring individuals to take actions that reduce the harm that they cause to the environment. For a variety of reasons, targeting individuals through command and control programs or market-based programs, such as pollution trading or taxes, may be difficult.

Consequently, building on Robert Ellickson's groundbreaking work in Order Without Law, in a series of recent articles, Professor Michael Vandenbergh has argued that activation of personal norms is the best approach for reducing environmentally harmful actions by individuals. Vandenbergh and others argue that information disclosure programs can be used by government to stress to individuals the important role that their actions play in contributing to climate change and other environmental problems. Disclosure of that information, they argue, will activate personal norms in individuals tied to environmental protection or personal responsibility and will motivate individuals to avoid taking actions that are environmentally harmful.

While Vandenbergh focused on government efforts to activate personal norms in favor of environmental protection or personal responsibility, the recent shift in public attitudes toward global warming and the increased willingness of individuals to act to reduce their impact on global warming demonstrate that another constituency can, and has, played an important role in norm activation and influencing environmentally conscious behavior. Over the past decade, churches and religious organizations have delivered strong messages through words and deeds about the role that individuals play in contributing to global warming and the harm that they can cause to the environment and the poor through their actions and daily choices regarding energy use and transportation. Through these efforts, religious groups have activated personal norms of stewardship and social justice that have spurred changes in individual attitudes and behavior even without the imposition of command and control or economic-based programs by government.

As regulators begin to target individual behavior to address global warming and a variety of other environmental problems caused to a significant degree by individual action, regulators should recognize the role that religious organizations play in influencing individual behavior. If the government relies on information disclosure laws and strategies to activate personal norms to influence individual behavior change, it should explore ways to involve religious organizations in the information disclosure and could even provide grants to facilitate those efforts. At a minimum, the government should ensure that it does not frustrate the efforts of churches and religious organizations.

This article explores the feasibility of using information disclosure to activate personal norms as a means of changing environmentally harmful individual behavior, and the role that churches and religious organizations have played and can play in influencing individual values and behavior regarding the environment.

Keywords: religion, environment, personal norms, norm activation, social justice, stewardship

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Stephen Martin, Is Religion the Environment's Last Best Hope? Targeting Change in Individual Behavior through Personal Norm Activation (August 7, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Stephen Martin Johnson (Contact Author)

Mercer University Law School ( email )

1021 Georgia Avenue
Macon, GA 31207-0001
United States
(478) 301-2192 (Phone)
(478) 301-2101 (Fax)


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