Featured piece by Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy in “2016’s Most Sinful Cities in America”

Emily Huddart Kennedy

To what extent is sinful behavior innate versus influenced by your surroundings?

My research has shown that environmental impact (e.g., carbon footprint, engagement in household “green” practices like recycling and buying organic products) is shaped more by context than it is by anything innate. For example, a study I conducted compared “green behaviors” of suburban residents to urban residents. Suburban residents scored lower, even though their levels of concern for the environment were the same. But living in a suburb makes it harder to buy green products if they aren’t available in the local store, commute by bike or transit, and live with fewer than two vehicles. That’s why it’s so important that cities take on initiatives to make sustainable living the “default option” if we really want to get serious about using fewer resources (e.g., water, energy).

What makes some cities more sinful than others? Laws? Culture?

Both, likely. Policies to discourage the construction of extremely large homes (“McMansion ordinances”) and encourage, or incentivize, energy efficiency upgrades likely reduce the energy footprint of the residential sector. Likewise, a culture that encourages cycling and walking will make it feel more normal for people to leave their car at home to get to work.

Should government play a role in trying to reduce greed and consumerism?

Yes, my research suggests so. Data on household environmental impact show that people impact the environment much more by going about their daily lives (working, taking kids to school, taking a vacation to relax, or traveling for work) than they do through senseless consumerism. So if local and state governments can ease the financial burden of making the “greener” choice when it comes to travel and housing, the impact of the residential sector would be much lower.

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