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Empathy Conservation: What Motivates Conservation and Sustainability?

Updated: Aug 25, 2019

Over 4-decades of empirical research on what drives and otherwise motivates farmers to practice soil and water conservation points to the key role of empathy. That is, farmers who have a greater tendency to think about downstream effects of their farming operations have a greater tendency to adopt soil and water conservation practices.

The empirical testing going back to the late-1980s about which theory works best in helping explain conservation behavior, and, practically speaking, working to help improve Government efforts to induce more conservation has led to two major outcomes (also, see Lynne et al., 2016; Reimer et al., 2014):

1. The notion of “Empathy Conservation”, as part of Good Capitalism, has emerged, i.e., the empirical evidence on what drives conservation choices historically (prior to this research program) had missed the role of Empathy-Sympathy…in effect missed the role of the Moral Dimension… in producing a shared Other-interest in conserving resources. These empirical findings strongly support the need to reframe efforts to nudge conservation, shifting attention to first, nudging Empathy, and, second, to encourage joining in Sympathy with the cause of conservation, in effect, changing the underlying Moral Community at work which Tempers Self-interest. Empathy is a key feature, a key driving force, of the move to sustainability (also see Brown et al., 2019)

2. This empirical testing also provides substantial support for Metaeconomics Framing (MEF)and Dual Interest Theory (DIT) and little support for more traditional Microeconomics Framing (MF) and Single Interest Theory (SIT), except for a rather small proportion of the population. That is, MF and SIT represent only those individuals who operate on Self-interest only, which at most is likely about 15-20 percent of the population, or, overall, on average every farmer operating more strictly in the Self-interest frame only 15-20 percent of the time, albeit this question also needs more empirical assessment. The other 80-85 percent operate on a balanced, joint Self&Other-interest frame, as DIT suggests.

The Key is Empathy. Farmers who put more effort into thinking about downstream effects, e.g. effects on downstream water quality affected by the use of chemicals and fertilizers on the farm, are more likely to practice soil and water conservation within the boundaries of the farm.

Intriguingly, the US Natural Resource Conservation Service just announced (April, 2019) an "edge-of-field" soil and water monitoring system, which would help farmers in consideration of tempering self-interest, profit making choices on the farm with what could be happening downstream of the farm, i.e. tempering the way the farm manages soil (e.g. chemical and fertilizer application strategies) and water (e.g. keeping any water with higher concentrations of fertilizers on site). The Government is offering to help the Market (farmers have to compete in the Market for commodities) to address the downstream problem, which can be solved with an empathy based other(shared with downstream water users)-interest in more sustainable way of managing soil and water. The details of this plan to do Market&Government, balance Self&Other-interest can be found at:


Lynne, G.D., Czap, N.V., Czap, H.J., and Burback, M.E. "Theoretical Foundation for Empathy Conservation: Toward Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons." Review of Behavioral Economics 3 (2016):245-279.

Reimer, A., Thompson, A., Prokopy, L.S., Arbuckle, J.G., Genskow, K., Jackson-Smith, D.J., Lynne, G., McCann, L., Wright Morton, L., and Nowak, P. 2014. "People, Place, Behavior, and Context: A Research Agenda for Expanding Our Understanding of What Motivates Farmers Conservation Behaviors." Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 69, 2 (2014) :57A-61A.

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… as well as sacrificing a bit to help earthquake and flood victims, and, well, how about not sacrificing so many American lives by dropping the atom bomb in WWII, while sacrificing Japanese lives,

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