Good Behavior

Summer 2016

Paul Ferraro is looking to win-win incentives to save the Chesapeake Bay—and the planet.

By Mary Beth Regan  Photos by Chris Hartlove 

When Paul Ferraro was a young, idealistic biologist working to preserve the eastern forests of Madagascar, a chance encounter with an economist sparked the idea that, just perhaps, he should consider the behavior of people—not plants or animals—if he wanted to solve complex environmental problems.

The ensuing two decades took Ferraro on a tour of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, from the wilds of Africa and Australia to Costa Rica and the United States. Along the way, while earning a PhD in economics, he turned this idea over in his mind, allowing it to percolate. He is now a leading voice in the field of behavioral economics as it applies to conservation.

Behavioral “nudges” to achieve social policy objectives are all the rage in some circles, says Ferraro, but they haven’t been widely adopted to protect the environment. Example: The U.S. government successfully urges millions of people to save for retirement by offering employers a tax break for matching savings in tax-qualified 401(k) retirement plans. Yet U.S. conservation programs that aim to encourage farmers to “save” or set aside environmentally sensitive lands have met only a lukewarm reception.

According to Ferraro, when it comes to protecting resources, such as forests, waterways, or animals, policy often falls short because it fails to draw upon the insights offered by social sciences, like economics, sociology, and psychology. To make matters worse, he says, most environmental policy lacks the rigorous, evidence-based testing that’s been developed in fields like medicine and public health.

“Environmental problems are largely human behavior problems,” Ferraro says. “They aren’t biological or chemical problems. The key that’s often missing is an understanding of human behavior. Why is someone behaving in a way that damages the environment?”

Ferraro has been asking these big questions for a long time. In October, he joined Johns Hopkins University as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, centering his research in the Whiting School’s Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and the Carey Business School. With the Bloomberg professorships, Johns Hopkins is forming a cadre of 50 world-class leaders, like Ferraro, who are working across disciplines to answer complex societal questions. The program was made possible after a $350 million gift in 2013 from Whiting School alumnus, philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ’64.