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Mining, Money, and Environmental Morals

Research suggests that moral concerns about mining's environmental impact have less sway when money's on the line.
Steel mine. (Photo: martin/Flickr)

Steel mine. (Photo: martin/Flickr)

For many of us, protecting the environment is a moral imperative, one that we wouldn't compromise for any amount of money. At least, that's what we like to think. According to a new study, moral convictions may go out the window more easily than we'd like to admit when money's on the line.

Take a look around, and it's not hard to see that both morals and money contribute to our decisions, including environmental ones. Though organized religion's relationship with the environment is complicated to say the least, religious figures throughout history have felt a moral calling to protect the natural world. More recently, Pope Francis cast environmental issues in a social—and therefore moral—light. Yet money is a strong pull, too, and we might not always feel like we have a choice between taking care of our planet and simply getting by. But when does one trump the other?

Moral qualms about mining simply didn't matter as much to people when there was money on the line.

Searching for an answer, Brock Bastian, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, and Airong Zhang and Kieran Moffit, researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, turned their attention to mining, a textbook case where environmental concerns come head to head with economic benefits.

The researchers contacted 7,463 people in mining and non-mining regions in Australia, Chile, and China, and inquired about their feelings on mining. To measure moral convictions, survey participants stated how strongly, on a scale of one to seven, they agreed with statements such as "Mining threatens values that are important to me," or "My attitude toward mining is a matter of principle." The researchers measured participants' beliefs about economic benefits similarly, using questions about personal benefits from mining as well as mining's contributions to the national economy. Finally, they asked participants to rate the degree to which they accepted mining in their countries, along with demographic information such as age, sex, and so forth.

As one would probably expect, both moral conviction and perceived economic benefits "had a direct effect on acceptance of mining," the team writes in the journal PLoS One. That is, such people who had stronger moral convictions or perceived fewer economic benefits were less likely to support mining. But, more importantly, the authors explain, moral convictions had about a third less impact on acceptance of mining when people perceived greater economic benefits from mining. In other words, it wasn't just a matter of weighing morals against economics—moral qualms about mining simply didn't matter as much to people when there was money on the line.

"This suggests that although people are motivated to act in accordance with their moral convictions, the salience of economic rewards can motivate them to consider their own and others resources needs," Bastian, Zhang, and Moffit write, "thereby, reducing the influence of their moral convictions in resource decision making."

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