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Do people care for a sustainable future? Evidence from happiness data.

Bartolini, Stefano and Sarracino, Francesco and Theis, Laurent (2014): Do people care for a sustainable future? Evidence from happiness data.

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While the various streams of environmentalism agree in claiming that the current patterns of economic activity are unsustainable for natural resources, they disagree in answering the following question: who is the responsible? Two different answers have been provided: the people or the socio-economic system. The first answer claims that people are inter-temporally greedy. Unsustainable economic patterns simply reflect the little importance that current generations attribute to the living standard of future generations. According to the second answer instead, people would prefer a more sustainable path of the economy but some failure of the socio-economic system prevent this outcome. We provide a test of the basic hypothesis on which these two views diverge: the degree of people’s concern for the conditions of life of future generations. We derive this information by estimating the relationship between people’s current subjective well-being and their expectations about the living standard of future generations, i.e. a future far enough to concern only future generations. According to the first view, people’s expectations about the future should have weak or null influence on people’s current well-being. On the contrary, the second view implies that such influence should be positive and remarkable. We use various international and national survey data to estimate a standard happiness regression augmented with people’s expectation about the future. Results suggest that current well-being is sharply and negatively associated to a negative expectation of the future. Where possible, we use 2SLS to account for possible endogeneity between the expectations about the future and current well-being. We find that expecting the worst (the best) for future generations has a very large negative (positive) impact on subjective well-being. This conclusion supports the view that current problems of sustainability are due to some failure of the socio-economic organization and not to the inter-temporal greed of human beings.

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