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How Environmentalists Can Respond to Americans’ Need for Personal Space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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While reading about social science and environmental communication, I’ve noticed a gap between how environmentalists in the United States view personal space and how their audiences perceive it. If environmentalists tell audiences not to "say ‘eww’ to thrift stores," avoid public transit, or live in suburbs, they may encounter resistance—not because their audiences are opposed to sustainable choices, but because they value personal space.

Instead of overlooking personal space issues, environmentalists should address them constructively. Understanding the way United States audiences respond to these questions could transform the way we design eco-friendly housing, products and communities.

If environmentalists fail to respond to these issues, apathy is one likely outcome. Suzanne Shelton, the CEO of an environmental marketing organization, writes  that "gas may hit $10/gallon and folks may still want to live in the suburbs… because it’s more serene/away from the hustle and bustle."

Although market research participants may see environmental actions as morally positive , they may or may not integrate these actions into their lives—especially if other issues, like the economy, are on their minds.

In personal conversations, I often see the value of developing answers to these questions. Some of my friends and family drive frequently despite my attempts to persuade them to use public transit.

When Concordia marketing professor Zeynep Arsel  interviewed me about thrift shops and clothing exchanges, she acknowledged that another personal space issue—hygiene concerns—can interfere with sustainable behavior.

Although social distance has some undesirable effects  on communities, it also gives people the space they may expect or require. If someone is allergic to perfume, is it reasonable to ask her to take public transit daily? Expecting people who have spent their lives surrounded by lawns and picket fences to adapt to life in Manhattan may be somewhat naive.

Fortunately, environmentalists can respond to this problem upfront by altering their approaches to marketing and design. Recognizing personal space as a valid concern is an essential step toward developing solutions.

1. If you are promoting clothing reuse, look into the reasons people may object to buying products secondhand. Washing clothing and testing electronics are two pragmatic responses. Transaction ratings could improve the reliability of sites such as Craigslist.  

2. If you are encouraging people to move from single-family homes to apartments, how can you take personal space into account? Soundproofing and visual privacy could make apartment living easier for people who have lived in larger homes.

3. If people are avoiding public transit or bicycle use, cities can improve safety in stations and parking lots, reduce the rate of bicycle accidents, and take other steps to make public spaces more welcoming.

One clear message which emerges from social marketing is that environmentalists can’t expect the people we are trying to reach to share our views. What is a fun thrift shopping outing for me may be an awkward or even unpleasant experience for someone who buys everything new.

Washing secondhand clothes doesn’t dilute environmental messages about reuse and recycling. Giving people privacy in their homes and a sense of safety in public spaces could make it much easier to promote high-density, sustainable urban living.

Image credits: Street photo by mrjamin


About the Author: Katherine Friedrich has a graduate degree from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Half of her coursework was in journalism. She has done research on energy-efficient behavior and diversity-conscious science communication. Currently, she lives in Boston, uses Twitter  regularly, and blogs at Science Is Everyone’s Story . She has written about diversity-related environmental issues for newspapers, magazines and other publications. 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. KattM 11:36 am 07/10/2011

    As someone who has lived in various areas with equally varying public transit options, I think Ms Friedrich brings up a vital point. In one town in San Diego county, there is a fairly good bus line with a train line that runs east-ish-west-ish. The train is very comfortable, punctual and nice. The bus lines have been being down-scaled (routes cut, runs cut), so that if I wanted to get to certain locations, I could only get there if I caught one of maybe three buses running that day. Getting across town takes an hour by bus vs. 5-10 minutes by car. I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing along my schoolwork (which requires my MacBook Pro) because I’m not sure the response of the other bus riders. There were many days the bus was nearly empty, but when I did have company, it seemed to be mostly those who could not drive: the handicapped (mentally & physically) or those who could not afford a personal vehicle. Having to devote 2-3 hours to an errand means that I can’t get as many errands done & I sacrifice much more of my day.
    I’ve lived in apartments and homes in small city/rural areas. I’ve had both disturbed by loud neighbors with car sound systems that seem specially designed to invade the privacy of others with low frequency sound waves. In apartments, while I have spent some nights wishing my upstairs neighbor(s) would be quiet, I’ve spent more time fantasizing ripping the speakers out of supped up cars. Earplugs don’t work if the noise is in your BONES.
    If you are home during the day (because you work at home/work night shift), living in apartments can be a real headache because every other day during the day, there’s leaf blowers, lawnmowers, hammering, etc. going on because they are tending the lawns or prepping an apartment for move-in.
    If you really want to know the concerns of apartment dwellers, you can look at any site with apartment reviews.

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  2. 2. JuliaM 1:09 pm 07/10/2011

    I feel I must address the simplicity of an environmentalist view of "everyone should live in cities" and "everyone should buy at thrift stores". In my opinion, changing the environment on a wholistic level requires involvement from everyone. To think that you can convince everyone to move into apartment in the city is completely non-sustainable. Plus, the majority of families are not going to want to give up the quality of life of fresh air for their children, low crime rates and the ability for their children to play outside.

    My husband and I consider ourselves environmentalists so we moved FROM the city to the suburbs. Many of our friends who consider themselves environmentalists but hadn’t really thought that through played up the party line of "You’re doing terrible things for the environment by doing that!" But we moved so my daughter could have wild areas to play in, we had room to have an organic garden, and we could get away from the pollution. Out here we drive much less because the public transportation is so good that my husband enjoys taking it into the city for work. When we lived in the city public transportation was so awful my husband drove into work every day (about 40 minutes to go five miles because of bad traffic).

    For us, living outside the city, we are living a better quality of life, we are driving less and we are have a great organic garden, clean air, and a beautiful wooded park backing to an environmentally protected wetland. Plus, the school here is so much better than our inner-city school and has a really good environmentlism curriculum.

    In my opinion environmentalists need to let go of their rigid cliches that everyone needs to live in cities and buy second hand in order to protect the environment. Telling families they need to live a lifestyle that makes them miserable is unrealistic and just turns most people away. We need to open our minds and find ways that ALL people – living wherever they want, can live a more enviornmentally sustainable lifestyle.

    Sure, buying second-hand is good. I do it a lot myself for financial and sustainability reasons. But ONLY buying second-hand is an unrealistic goal for everyone. It’s not sustainable.

    Teaching people that they don’t NEED new stuff all the time is more realistic. Providing public transportation that works in urban AND rural areas is more realistic.

    Living in nature does not make someone a bad environmentalist. That concept is just bizarre to me.

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  3. 3. priddseren 5:39 pm 07/10/2011

    I think the author misses some important issues with people that are more likely the reason people do not adopt "eco friendly" lifestyles. The first is most of it is pseudo science. Not to imply all science involving pollution is false but most of it is. Computer models and statistical measures are not proof though and as a result most of the eco friendly solutions have no actual effect. People in general are intelligent enough to realize when snake oil is heading their way.
    Then there is the practicality of these solutions. Public transportation is not actually proven to be useful for anyone. Also, with the exception of people going to a business center with a brief case or a student heading to college, public transport has no real benefit. I would think a mother trying to get 4 little kids to school and 100 lbs of groceries home to feed them is more of a deterrent to alternative modes of transport. Perhaps the author should try hauling 100 lbs of feed for a family of 6, the 6 to 12 miles it would take to get from the store to home in LA or most cities.
    I would think folks want to live in suburbs because it is practical. Who would want to live in a city packed with 20 million people in 6 square miles. That density alone would cause more environmental damage than suburban sprawl. Would you want to live in a half mile high skyscraper, surrounded by similar buildings where you and your kids might live decades and never leave the building? What kind of life would that be.

    The bottom line is environmentalism is based on too much pseudo science and as a result too many pseudo solutions are out there being peddled. Most of these solutions are expensive, highly impractical, invasive and ineffective. The facts are people can’t live 1 mile from work, 1 mile from all necessary shopping, 1 Mile from medical services and 1 mile from entertainment. Nor can all of these people live off the land.
    I would suggest the eco-industry instead focus on real pollution problems, backed by actual science and promote useful solutions to solve these real problems. CO2 is not a pollutant for example, it is part of the biosphere, so perhaps focusing on some pollutant that is an actual issue. Oil and Coal are here for the foreseeable future. No alternative exists, so promoting more efficient cars works, not electric, where the pollution moves from oil to coal. We would be better off eating meat, than chemically created eco food. Cows don’t pollute, chemicals to make pseudo food does. How about end all pollution in rivers? There is plenty to do.

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  4. 4. toddnks 7:23 am 07/11/2011

    It is naive to think that sound proofing will make an apartment livable to people used to single family homes, it is also naive to think that cramming everyone into ghettos and making them sell their cars has any positive impact on the environment.

    We all want a clean environment, thats one of the great appeals of the suburbs. They are cleaner, end of argument. They have less impact than crammed cities on the environment, and at a certain point they produce well with families having gardens, chickens, dogs, cats and business interest in the local bedroom community. All these things help both the environment and business. The fact that this places them out of the reach of public transportation is just too bad. Its a better life for the people, the environment and everything. To think that cramming people into ghettos is a good idea needs to re-examine their history and they will see that ghettos have never been good for those living there.

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  5. 5. KattM 9:21 am 07/11/2011

    Carbon dioxide is quite natural. So is nitrogen. But do you want to have only carbon dioxide in your house? When there is an over abundance of CO2 or nitrogen in a body of water, the fish die, from hypoxia.
    Sure, neither of these things hurts the earth itself, but with 6+ billion people on earth, how many fish do we need to feed people in conjunction with land livestock?
    A shirt is nice and comfy, but would you wear 3 of them? That’s what Co2 and methane are like: adding another layer of clothing. If you don’t think so, wear a sweater on top of whatever you would have worn for the rest of this week.
    Sure, we can deal with it. We have air conditioning. But that’s expensive and if our crops can’t handle shifts in temperatures, can we afford to move them into controlled environments as well?
    Ultimately, the earth could care less. But if we talk about economics and humanity, then we need to realize that humanity and humanity’s support systems have certain environmental conditions that need meeting. We could say the species could use some culling, but do we want that to include our children & spouses or some faceless people in Africa or SE Asia?

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  6. 6. sault 12:14 pm 07/11/2011

    What a bunch of strawman arguments, conflation, and general laziness on your part. You throw around the term pseudoscience without ever offering your vision of what "real" science should be. You say "Not to imply all science involving pollution is false but most of it is." without providing any proof. Why don’t you look up the MSDSs on Carbon Monoxide, DDT, particulate matter or mercury and THEN decide whether most of the science on pollution is false? If you still think it’s a bunch of "pseudoscience", why don’t you stick your mouth on the exhaust of an idling bus and take in a few deep breaths? Would that be a good enough experiment to convince you of the science?

    Then, you say, "Public transportation is not actually proven to be useful for anyone." Are you KIDDING me? Just TRY and get everyone in Manhattan to where they need to go every day without public transportation! And what part of saddling every household in the U.S. with the HUGE financial liability that owning a car entails sounds like a good idea? Making most people (and all of the non-wealthy in this country) go into debt for a quickly-depreciating piece of equipment that also needs fuel, maintenance and insurance sounds like economic slavery to me.

    Your strawman argument about the lady with 4 kids and 100lbs of groceries is just silly. People that live in areas with good public transportation usually get a couple bags of groceries several times a week. Personally, I do this because I don’t want to drive to the store and I like having fresh food available. This is how people in Europe buy food too. It’s only in the land of Sam’s Club that people feel the need to fill their Suburban with 30 cases of soda and an entire cow carcass every other week.

    You say, "The facts are people can’t live 1 mile from work, 1 mile from all necessary shopping, 1 Mile from medical services and 1 mile from entertainment."

    Again, go tell that to the 3 million people living on Manhattan or the 20 million living in Tokyo. And again, please present some of those "facts" you seem to conveniently leave out of your rants.

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  7. 7. sault 12:36 pm 07/11/2011

    You say, "They are cleaner, end of argument.", which is pretty much a childish way of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling to end an argument.

    "They have less impact than crammed cities on the environment…"

    How so? If we’re just generalizing here, I’d say that the average "suburb" has WAY more impact than you so-called "crammed" cities. The people are more spread out, meaning more pristine land needs to be cleared for all the larger houses, strip malls and megaplexes that are in the suburbs. Since everyone needs a car, you have to pave over more land for all those parking lots and roads for all those cars to drive on. All those nice lawns in the suburbs need to be mowed, fertilized, and have pesticides and weed killers applied. All those McMansions that suburbs are famous for require much more heating and cooling than the average urban apartment that can house the same number of people comfortably. Also, those hulking McMansions make people feel the urge to fill it up with stuff, so they buy a HUGE SUV so they can go down to Wal Mart and buy a bunch of cheap crap shipped in from foreign countries to decorate the unreal amount of square footage in their massive house.

    Take a look at this study of you don’t believe me:

    The fact that many younger people are flocking to the cities willingly totally destroys your assertion that we are "cramming people into ghettos". A lot of people have had it with the traffic, expense and the hollow "benefits" of living in the suburbs and are flocking back to the cities where more of their time and money can be spent on things they want to do instead of things they HAVE to do because they live in a suburb.

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  8. 8. KattM 4:16 pm 07/11/2011

    I would feel a lot more comfortable with that argument if any of the apartments I have rented over the past decade offered solar power & better insulation. Our current apartment is the first one we’ve had that had a programmable thermostat. Only one complex we’ve lived at offered easy access to recycling bins. I see no incentive for apartments to provide energy efficient appliances.
    Condo owners, on the other hand, can do these things, so perhaps the real discussion here is not rural/suburbs vs. apartments but houses vs. condos.
    Owning my own home is attractive to me because it’s the only way we see being able to take advantage of green technology and better efficiency, trading off space by building a smaller, thick-walled home (think Earthship) so that we can save money and have more independence/peace/control. That, and I want shelves.
    Another downside to owning a condo would be lack of financial security: if you own your house and land, you own it. You can borrow against it or bequeath it to your offspring. It’s real, solid. Can I get that with a condo?
    I do agree that suburbs/rural areas use land/water less efficiently. Spreading out, building roads disrupts animal migration. Cats and dogs have a very real impact on local wildlife populations.

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  9. 9. sault 6:08 pm 07/11/2011

    You highlight a very big problem for tenants in rental properties. The overwhelming majority of rental property owners do not pay the energy bills, while the tenants that do are unable to accomplish energy efficiency and / or generation retrofits on the property because they don’t own it. There’s ZERO incentive for a landlord to invest in energy retrofitting because they don’t see any of the payout. That’s why we need to provide real tax incentives for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties so that their tenants don’t have to suffer high energy costs. It improves the renter’s financial situation and their landlord would probably appreciate the fact that renters with more money in their pockets are more likely to pay their rent on time. It would REALLY be cool if landlords eventually start to compete with each other to offer the lowest energy costs to their tenants, but we’re not there yet. Federal energy efficiency and green energy standards would go a long way in bringing this about.

    I owned my last house, but got burned in the real estate collapse a few years ago, so my idea of financial security might be a bit different than yours. I think you have the terms apartment and condo confused. You still own a condo while you rent an apartment. Condos are a different story as many of them have restrictive covenants or owner’s associations that limit many forms of efficiency retrofits and renewable energy instillations.

    All this red tape undermines the argument "if efficiency and renewables are so great, why haven’t we implemented / built it everywhere yet?" There are still many barriers, a lot of them NOT related to price or economics, that hinder the achievement of a clean, sustainable economy.

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  10. 10. HubertB 8:53 am 07/12/2011

    I want a room where I can write in private and not be disturbed. I do not want to hear the neighbors. I want a place that is as soundproof as possible so I will not hear the neighbor up above me tramping around. I do not want to smell the cigarette smoke from the neighbor down the hall. I do not want to hear the loud neighbors below me. I want to practice my piano piece in peace.
    When I go from point a to point b I do not want to have to wait on the corner at point c, transfer at point d, get off at point e, and then walk to point b. I want to get in my car and go. Then when I want to go from point b to point f, I do not want to go to a whole lot of other places. In fact, I want to go to a whole lot of different places rather than the few that using public transportation allows.
    For most places where I want to go, public transportation means waiting for the bus, it means not going the most direct route, it means frequent stops, and it means transfers. My car is much faster.
    Of course if good public transportation existed in all places it might be a different story. When I am near Manhattan and can get to a particular place faster using public transportation, I take it. Unless I have specific materials that I must carry in a vehicle, I consider my time more valuable than the type of transportation unless the mode is extremely unsafe or uncomfortable.

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