The Need to Make a Better World Easier

Behaviour Inertia & the Rebound Effect
Here’s a few questions for baby boomer readers: Was there a seismic shift in thinking in the 1960s and early 1970s? If not, how do you account for the political forces that brought about the end of the Vietnam War, and important legislation like the Clean Air Act? And if so, what happened to that shift?

I remember those years well, and fondly, but in retrospect I’m not sure if I understood them well enough to answer the questions above. I am inclined answer ‘yes’ to the first question, and to attribute the loss of momentum to two paradoxes that George Monbiot calls The Rebound Effect and the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate. Taken together, these paradoxes describe human behaviour that abhors change and seeks equilibrium. If a lot of people buy fuel-efficient vehicles, pretty soon demand for gas goes down, price drops and gas-gulpers become economical again. And with the savings from their fuel-efficient vehicles, people can afford to drive further and more often, and make other changes that negate the benefits their change in thinking might have brought about.

In Canada recently we’ve had two seismic changes in thinking that are about as paradoxical as they come: Global warming soared to the top of the polls as the most important issue facing us today (and the black market is getting $150 a ticket for tonight’s speech in Toronto by Al Gore), yet, at the same time, right-wing conservative, Kyoto reneger and global warming denier Stephen Harper has soared in popularity and put his party back ahead in the opinion polls.

How does one account for this? Well, as I explained in an earlier post, the media have been hyping the subject of global warming to the point it’s now top-of-mind to most of us. But Canadians don’t like the new Liberal leader, StÈphane Dion, who, despite being an environmentalist, is a long-time party stalwart (of a party still stinging from recent scandal) and a Francophone who’s rather clumsy in English. There is clearly resentment that the Liberals missed the chance to pick a ‘new blood’ leader, and instead picked another leader from QuÈbec. So the surge in popularity for Harper is really more a drop in popularity for Dion. Nevertheless, this should give environmentalists pause — the battle to get Canada to live up to its Kyoto commitments is clearly far from over.

The situation in the US is not all that different. Despite Americans having the worst, and most ideologically extreme conservative, president in decades, the 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be one among four moderate conservatives (Clinton or Edwards versus Giuliani or McCain), none of whom has a environmental or peace agenda. Canada has Elizabeth May (Green) and the US has Dennis Kucinich, both of whom have both environmental and peace credentials, but neither is given any chance of becoming their country’s leader. And even when Al Gore was VP and environmental laws were actually being enforced, megapolluters like ExxonMobil and Koch Industries flaunted the law more than they did under previous anti-environment regimes.

What’s going on is illustrated in the graphic above:

  • Case 1a: Remember ‘acid rain’? Public pressure over this scourge led to Clean Air laws that improved things for awhile, but this very success led to public and political apathy, and more recently a backsliding, with an upsurge in new coal plants and failure to act on set objectives. The situation is rapidly worsening and we’re still a long way from even starting to address it seriously again.
  • Case 1b: Through much of the 1970s and 1980s, there was a big push to use environmentally friendly products. Detergents with phosphates were justifiably demonized, and the chemical industry lobbied furiously, succeeding in getting Nixon to obfuscate labeling requirements, deny the dangers of phosphates to aquatic life, and to refuse to enact a phosphate ban, instead devolving regulatory authority to state and local governments. With the chemical industry and government in collusion, environmental shoppers finally concluded that our paltry efforts to make a difference by buying no-name brands were futile, and we gave up. In most of the world, your box of Tide still contains 10% phosphates.
  • Case 2: The issue of global warming is the best example of most people thinking that something should be done, but not considering the issue urgent enough to actually do anything about it. Sales of hybrids vs. SUVs vary with gasoline price, not level of concern about global warming.
  • Case 3: A few decades ago it became clear that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) posed a severe and immediate threat to the atmosphere. There were alternatives available at the same cost, governments took the necessary action to get these alternatives in the market and withdraw CFC-containing appliances, and quickly the amount of CFCs was dramatically and sustainably reduced.

The lesson is clear. Shall I say it again? We do what we must (what’s urgent), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Even when there is a sense of urgency, the rebound effect, or ignorance over what to do, or lack of political or social will, will usually preclude any sustainable change in results. And if there’s a sense of importance but not urgency, we’ll be content to talk about it but not act. If we really want to bring about sustainable change, we need to make it (i) easy and (ii) either inexpensive or perceived to be important.

If hybrids and other energy-efficient vehicles were heavily subsidized and available in every size and shape, they would quickly take over the market. To prevent drivers from driving them more with their savings, this subsidy would need to be financed by a large tax on gasoline. Similarly, European-style bicycle-only lanes and other facilities to make it easier to use zero-emission transportation could lead to permanent environmentally friendly behaviour changes, even among those who don’t care about the environment. The same easy + (inexpensive or important) approach applies to achieving enduring social and environmental change in every area where it is needed.

Can we bring about necessary seismic shifts in human thinking, and commensurate changes in behaviour? My answer?: It doesn’t matter. Those shifts won’t be enough to make a sustainable difference. Making it easier (and cheaper) to do the right thing will. Innovators, this isthe challenge we need you to take up: Help make a better world easier.

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4 Responses to The Need to Make a Better World Easier

  1. MLU says:

    Hmm. Isn’t this Bush’s position? That the solution is to innovate?I think most people sense that war, pestilence, and famine will get us before global warming, so the topic isn’t particularly compelling except to those who stand to gain from the rush to solve the problem. But there’s enough money to be made to ensure that the move to “solve” the problem will go forward. There will be huge grants for research and huge loopholes for corporations to innovate precisely as you suggest. Happy days.Where I live, the push for clean air in the 1970s was bipartisan. That was before environmentalism became something of an alternative religion, full of hostility toward Christianity, mixing its environmental goals with all sorts of pantheistic thinking that is off-putting to the majority.As for Bush’s conservativism, most “movement conservatives” don’t consider him conservative in most ways–certainly not in the vein of Reagan or even Gingrich.

  2. sageservice@gmail.com says:

    What do you think of this: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,72752-0.html?tw=rss.indexSolar for the masses? Maybe its a step towards what you are hoping for…

  3. Candy Minx says:

    I hear Justin Trudea is going to enter politics officially right now? We need someone sympathetic to protecting womens rights, gay marriage and the environment…who works well with social community oriented NDPs…he might be the missing link we haven’t seen since universal health care was put in place a dominat liberal gvernemnt supported and contested by working class NDPs?

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