Conservationists work to save the planet. But a new study of people’s environmental footprints suggests that even conservationists find it hard to consistently “walk the walk.”

The research, published in Biological Conservation, finds that conservationists’ have smaller eco-footprints than other professions, but the differences are surprisingly modest.

Researchers say their findings add to increasing evidence that education and knowledge has little impact on individual behavior when it comes to major issues such as the environment and personal health.

Conservation scientists at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Cambridge University gathered data on a range of lifestyle choices – including air travel, commuting, meat consumption, family size and bottled water use – for roughly 750 conservationists, economists and doctors across the UK and U.S.

Footprints by profession

Researchers found that conservationists recycled more and ate less meat than economists or doctors. They owned more cats and dogs and made similar commuter choices as the other groups.

The average conservationist in the study sample took nine flights a year (half for work, half personal), ate meat or fish five times a week, and purchased very few offsets for their personal carbon emissions.

The combined footprint for conservationists was roughly 16% less than that of economists and 7% lower than doctors. Overall footprint scores were higher for males, US nationals, economists, and people with higher degrees and larger incomes.

Researchers found that most pro-environmental behaviors did not predict similar behaviors. For example, recycling did not appear to act as a gateway to ‘greener’ choices.

Intervention needed?

The team suggests that overall improvements might be most effectively achieved through tailored interventions: targeting high-impact behaviors such as meat consumption and flying through government regulation and by incentivizing alternatives.  

“While it may be hard to accept, we have to start acknowledging that increased education alone is perhaps not the panacea we would hope,” said lead author Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University, who is a Global Affiliate of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment.

“Structural changes are key. For example, providing more affordable public transport, or removing subsidies for beef and lamb production. Just look at the effect of improved collection schemes on the uptake of recycling.”

“As conservationists, we must do a great deal more to lead by example,” added Balmford. “Obvious starting points include changing the ways we interact, so that attending frequent international meetings is no longer regarded as essential to making scientific progress. For many of us flying is probably the largest contributor to our personal emissions.”

The study’s four authors offer their own mea culpa: pointing out that, between them, they have seven children, they took 31 flights in 2016, and ate an average of two meat meals in the week before submitting their study.

“I don’t think conservationists are hypocrites, I think that we are human – meaning that some decisions are rational, and others, we rationalize,” said study co-author Brendan Fisher of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.   

“Our results show that conservationists pick and choose from a buffet of pro-environmental behaviors the same as everyone else. We might eat less meat and compost more, but we fly more – and many of us still commute significant distances in gas cars.”

For the study, researchers distributed surveys on environmental behavior through conservation, economics and biomedical organizations to targeted newsletters, mailing lists and social media groups. Of the self-selecting respondents, there were 300 conservationists, 207 economists and 227 doctors from the UK and US.

Importance of values

Participants were asked a series of factual questions on environmental issues – from atmospheric change to species extinction – and ways to most effectively lower carbon footprints. The study found little correlation between environmental knowledge and behavior.

“Interestingly, conservationists scored no better than economists on environmental knowledge and awareness of pro-environmental actions,” said Balmford.

Fisher says the study supports the idea that ‘values’ are a key driver of behavior. Across the professions, attaching a high value to the environment was consistently associated with a lower footprint: fewer personal flights and less food waste, for example.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a medic, economist, or conservationist, our study shows that one of the most significant drivers of your behavior is how much you value the environment,” Fisher said. 

“Economists who care about the environment behave as well as conservationists.”


Balmford, A, Fisher, B, et al. ‘The environmental footprints of conservationists, economists and medics compared’. Biological Conservation (Elsevier), Volume 214, October 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.07.035


Fred Lewsey and Basil D.N. Waugh
“Conservationists pick from a buffet of environmental behaviors the same as everyone else," says UVM's Brendan Fisher. “We are human – meaning that some decisions are rational, and others, we rationalize.”