When Keeping Up With the Joneses Is Good for the Planet

A new study shows that your neighbors are far more influential in promoting environmentally responsible behavior than your family and friends.

(Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images)

Feb 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Not so long ago, keeping up with the neighbors meant buying a fancy car, undertaking an expensive home remodel, or going on exotic vacations. These days you may want to outdo the Joneses by saving water, switching to organic produce, or driving less.

A study by University of Vermont sociologist Thomas Macias found that people who socialize with their neighbors would switch to more planet-saving measures than people who kept to themselves or associated mainly with family and friends.

“You may watch the same programs or read the same books, even if you have bitter arguments,” Macias said of relatives. “So they may not have the same influence on you. But neighbors are different, so they may bring more interesting information.”

Macias lives in an area where people take the time to get to know their neighbors and stay connected via online communities like FrontPorchForum.com. When his neighbor began talking up the idea of installing a raised bed garden, he wasn’t too enamored by the idea at first.

“It was something he was more into than I was, but he eventually convinced me, and we did put in a vegetable garden,” Macias said.

He decided to analyze how neighbors influence our choices after he got frustrated observing how popular media drove decision-making processes. When it came to climate change and reducing people’s carbon footprint, news coverage often seemed to focus on buying greener products rather than adopting greener behavior.

“I wanted to find a connection between social capital and reducing our carbon footprint,” Macias said.

Social capital refers to the collective value of our social networks and how that influences what we do for one another.

Macias analyzed the results of a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and found that key factors in influencing behavior were trust and interacting with the people living close to us.

“When you meet neighbors, you talk about things you have in common—such as putting up a stop sign because cars are driving by too fast, or how long your commute is,” he said.

Such conversations could lead to efforts to carpool, and they may also help people make an informed choice about supporting a green tax, installing a rainwater catchment system, or finding ways to reduce heating bills.

“It’s not about social pressure or guilt—it’s more about sharing,” Macias said. “And I’m not suggesting you cut off your relatives.”

As for the raised bed garden he put in, Macias said that at the moment it’s covered with snow.

“But I grew potatoes, red bell peppers, and cucumbers last year,” he added. “I’m very satisfied with it.”